Southeast Asia’s strongmen are looking forward to elections in 2018

“It’s time.”
“It’s time.”
Image: EPA/Rungroj Yongrit
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Update: Thailand’s general election, scheduled for November this year, is postponed to 2019 after the parliament passed an election law delaying the vote by three months.

Voters in Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia are all expected to go to the polls this year. But against a backdrop of increasingly authoritarianism in the region, one thing is likely to unite the upcoming elections: the political opposition has already been beaten.

Leaders looking to further strengthen their positions in these countries “increasingly believe they can do that without actually holding free and fair elections,” said Aaron Connelly, a researcher on Southeast Asia at Sydney-based think tank Lowy Institute. What connects these countries is the effective neutering of political opposition, he says. In some cases, that’s due to targeted orders against specific opposition leaders, while in other cases political rules are being altered to weaken the sway of parties. What that means for voters, though, is they may be stuck with their current strongmen leaders.

Authoritarianism in the region has also benefited from growing popular discontent with democratic processes, according to Thomas Pepinsky, a Southeast Asia expert at Cornell University’s government department. Pepinksky writes that “illiberal policies are popular among many citizens… a consequence of the perceived weaknesses of democratic politics, which has proven unable to eliminate poverty, crime, identity-based conflict or political instability.”

It also doesn’t hurt that the US, under Donald Trump, has considerably softened its criticism of Southeast Asian governments on issues such as democracy and human rights. Though Trump has shown himself to be welcoming of strongmen leaders like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, dialing back criticism of Southeast Asian governments could also be seen as an attempt to avoid pushing countries further into China’s orbit at a time when Beijing is providing generous amounts of economic help—with no democratic conditions attached.

Cambodia: China’s best friend

First up is Cambodia, which is slated to hold general elections on July 29, and which has seen a complete decimation of the political opposition in the last year. In November, the country’s top court dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. The party’s leader, Kem Sokha, was arrested in September on charges of treason, accused of working in collusion with the US to topple the government of prime minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for over three decades. He remains in detention. Other senior leaders from the party have fled the country.

Hun Sen’s government has also worked to dismantle what remains of Cambodia’s free press. The English-language Cambodia Daily was forced to close down after the government in August slapped millions in back taxes on it, which the newspaper has called “politically motivated.” Foreign-linked media like Voice of America have been ordered to stop broadcasting, as have a slew of other radio stations. Meanwhile Chinese media is making inroads in the country, and Cambodians have been made eligible for scholarships to study journalism in China.

At a speech on Jan. 8 on the anniversary of the fall of the murderous Maoist Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, Hun Sen defended his crackdown on Cambodia’s opposition as a move that “evaded a new disaster for the nation, and will ensure the growth of democracy, human rights and rule of law in Cambodia.”

As Western governments criticized Cambodia’s crackdown on democracy and civil society and pulled their support for the upcoming election, China, Cambodia’s biggest economic backer, voiced support for Hun Sen’s government and said that the election will be a fair one. Chinese premier Li Keqiang visited Cambodia last week—ahead of the trip, China’s deputy foreign minister called China-Cambodia ties a “model of country-to-country relations.”

Malaysia: Strongman vs. Strongman

The acronym “1MDB” has come to define the reign of Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, but the long-running scandal hasn’t sunk his political career.

1Malaysia Development Berhad is the state investment fund that was once the signature project of Najib. The fund been under investigation for fraud in multiple jurisdictions around the world including the US, after the Wall Street Journal and other media outlets reported in 2015 (paywall) that $700 million had been siphoned from the fund into the prime minister’s personal accounts. The US Justice Department last year said an estimated $4.5 billion was misappropriated over seven years by “high-level officials.” Najib and 1MDB have denied any wrongdoing.

Najib has faced strong opposition in Malaysia particularly from the country’s ethnic Chinese minority, who have taken to the streets in a series of rallies known as Bersih, which means “clean” in Malay. By law, Malaysia must call a general election by Aug. 24 this year. Ahead of that contest, Najib has been playing to the country’s Malay majority and boosting his Islamic credentials to shore up support for his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, which has held power in Malaysia since the country won independence in 1957. He has also sidelined those (paywall) from his own party who have criticized Najib’s involvement with 1MDB.

It’s going to take another strongman to challenge Najib’s position—his mentor and former prime minister, 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, who built a reputation as an authoritarian leader during his reign from 1981 to 2003. Mahathir, who has been outspoken in his criticism of Najib, said last weekend (Jan. 7) that he would run as the opposition’s candidate in the upcoming election. Even though the opposition coalition won the popular vote (paywall) in the last elections in 2013, divisions in the opposition camp and gerrymandering of electoral lines to UMNO’s advantage means it will be extremely tough to take down Najib.

Thailand: Good time for an election

Thailand’s ruling military junta has said that elections will finally be held in November this year after repeated delays.

They’ll be the first elections in the country since the military seized power in a coup in 2014. It suggests that the military finally feels confident enough in its grip on power to hold an election, with Thailand’s biggest political party, the Pheu Thai party, “defanged,” according to Joshua Kurlantzick of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations. One reason for that may be a new junta-drafted constitution, adopted last year, that is expected to undermine the power of elected parties and ensure that the military will continue to retain its influence on politics.

Thailand has long been polarized between the “yellow shirts”—associated with the country’s royalist, middle-class, urban elite and represented mainly by the Democrat Party—and the “red shirts” who support the Pheu Thai party and are mostly rural or working class Thais loyal to telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra. He was ousted as prime minister in an earlier 2006 military coup and has been living in self-imposed exile in Dubai. Discord between the two camps has been the biggest source of political instability in Thailand in the past decade, with protesters even shutting down Bangkok’s main airport (paywall) in 2008.

Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who herself was elected as prime minister in 2011, is also now out of the picture—she was ordered to step down by a constitutional court just days before the 2014 coup and now faces jail time on charges related to an expensive and failed rice-subsidy scheme. After fleeing Thailand in August, she is also now in Dubai.

Since the most recent coup, the military has sought to portray itself as a safe pair of hands, with the interim period of military rule a necessary precondition in order to establish a more stable form of democracy that will revive Thailand’s economy. It guided the country through the uncertainty and anxiety following the death of the beloved king Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016.

Despite the plan to hold elections, a junta ban on political activity remains in place. The country’s military chief has said he will create an exemption to allow parties to prep for the polls.