Asian elections, democracy in 2024

Asian elections, democracy in 2024

ABROAD AT HOME

Billed as the biggest election year ever as more than half of the global population goes to the polls, 2024 will be critical to the debate about democratisation and autocratisation. Asia will lead the way with elections in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Indonesia, while the most recent polls in Myanmar and Thailand offer long-term lessons about democracy and dictatorship. The salient themes next year will be about the self-perpetuating tendencies of incumbent regimes and the resilience of democratic rule when authoritarianism seemed to have the upper hand.

It is difficult to deny that a kind of democratic malaise, characterised by popular frustration and cynicism, has gripped societies where going to the polls is regularly practised. Broken societies and dysfunctional political systems have undermined the appeal of democracy and led to structural polarisation and visceral social divisions. No country illustrates such malaise more acutely than the United States, the supposed bastion of democracy, where reactionary populism under former president Donald Trump appears to be making a comeback at the expense of President Joe Biden's domestic openness and international engagements. In the US, incumbency in office provides no obvious advantage. The incumbent and the challenger are still going at it in a fight for the nation's soul and political future.

But in India, the incumbent has all the advantages. With 1.4 billion as the world's most populous country, India's poll prospects in April and May are virtually a foregone conclusion. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is headed for a third straight win. At 73, Mr Modi remains remarkably popular after 10 years in office. Another five-year term for his brand of Hindu nationalism will likely result in India's greater power projection abroad and tighter rule with autocratic characteristics at home. But with such a weak opposition led by the former longstanding incumbent, the Indian National Congress, Mr Modi's path ahead is clear. The world's largest democracy may not be pro-democracy abroad but it is geared up to play a larger geopolitical role.

As with India, Bangladesh is likely to return the incumbent Sheikh Hasina to power. However, the big difference is electoral integrity. India's elections have been considered free and fair but Bangladesh's have been fraught with irregularities. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party has faced an uneven playing field as its politicians and activists have been persecuted. Bangladesh's vote results are likely to be contested and may incur international pressure and sanctions if Sheikh Hasina bulldozes her way to power again.

Pakistan is a case where the challenger has a good shot at winning but is systematically denied. Imran Khan, the cricket icon who entered politics and became prime minister, was removed from office in a no-confidence vote in April last year. While he and his Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) remain popular with voters, Mr Khan has been jailed while the pro-military establishment backs its ally, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. With echoes of electoral politics in Myanmar and Thailand, when the main opposition leader is sidelined while elections take place, the results in Pakistan cannot be counted as internationally credible and legitimate.

Closer to home, Indonesians will vote on Feb 14 as President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo reaches a two-term limit over the past decade as president. In a mix of compromise and opportunism, Mr Widodo has backed Prabowo Subianto, his former presidential competitor who was co-opted to be defence minister, on the same ticket with his 36-year-old eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming, as vice presidential running mate, partly thanks to a court ruling presided over by Mr Widodo's brother-in-law, to do away with the 40-year-old age requirement. With the incumbent president's blessing, the Prabowo-Gibran candidacy outshines that of former Central Java governor Ganjar Panowo and former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan.

One major outcome of incumbencies perpetuating themselves and their successors through polls over time is dynastic rule. Same names keep coming back to power poll after poll through generational power-sharing, continuous as with the Hun family in Cambodia, resurgent as with the Marcos clan in the Philippines, or durable as the Shinawatra brand in Thailand. Dynastic rule can further erode people's perceptions of democracy if economic performance becomes problematic.

What democracies need is self-renewal and self-correcting mechanisms. Fresh perspectives and younger leaders must be able to emerge now and then to modernise and keep up with the times that demand change and reform. In the United Kingdom, such a movement came forth in the late 1990s under former prime minister Tony Blair. In Myanmar, the 2011-21 period, including thumping anti-military election results in November 2020, represented such change and renewal after decades of military dictatorship. In Thailand, the emergence of the Future Forward Party and its successor Move Forward are the agents of change and modernisation.

When the times are unmistakably changing while the incumbent forces of power are in reaction and denial, inexorable trouble lies ahead. Myanmar, for example, is locked in a bloody civil war where the military, after seizing power in February 2021, is losing ground to a motley coalition of anti-coup forces. Thailand, after a clear election verdict last May that favoured a progressive and modernising agenda, is still trying to come up with a constitutional order that prioritises the popular will as paramount with the preferences of the military and monarchy within it.

With very few exceptions, when all is said and done, there is no exit from elections and democracy. The trick is to strengthen and continually renew rules and institutions that make up a kind of democracy that the vast majority of electorates can benefit from and put up with.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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