Major Asian democracies will undergo crucial elections in the coming months, which will test the mettle of a new brand of populism that has gripped the region. From Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to Narendra Modi in India and Joko Widodo in Indonesia, recent years have seen political outsiders capture power through the promise of wholesale transformation of their societies.
Whatever the election results, which will probably favour the incumbents, their brand of populism will be here to stay unless their liberal counterparts provide a more palatable alternative that addresses the needs of the aspirational middle classes. Though their backgrounds and operations are diverse, these political figures have in common four basic characteristics.
First, railing against bureaucratic red tape and corruption, they promised decisive and effective leadership. In particular, they drew heavily on their executive background in local governance and their folksy, if not pedestrian, demeanour. Second, they ran on an anti-establishment platform, which promised political transformation at the expense of a discredited ruling elite. Third, they emphasised the importance of societal order, even if this came at the expense of rule of law and basic civil liberties.
And, crucially, they enjoyed huge appeal among the emerging middle classes and the youth, who seek a greater voice and new opportunities amid years of rapid yet uneven economic growth. Their rallying cry is not so much freedom and democracy as effective governance and equitable delivery of public services.
Now, all these leaders are either seeking re-election or facing midterm re-elections, which will serve as referendums on their brand of leadership. Though they have fallen short of fulfilling many of their original promises, thanks to bureaucratic inertia and the complexity of challenges in an era of globalisation, upcoming elections are unlikely to derail their brand of populism or dislodge them from power.
In the Philippines, one of Asia’s oldest democracies, Duterte has maintained sky-high approval ratings (74 per cent in December). This is even more astonishing in light of his anti-Catholic tirades in a deeply conservative society, rising inflation, slowing growth, and widespread extrajudicial killings, which have perturbed investors and the international community.
Based on the most recent polls, Duterte’s chief allies are expected to perform well in the crucial nationwide Senatorial race. His years-long assistant, Bong Go, a relatively unknown figure with no major political background, has leapfrogged rivals in the latest surveys, thanks to the president’s all-out endorsement and well-oiled nationwide campaign.
In Indonesia, Widodo has also maintained high approval ratings (close to 68 per cent) heading into his re-election bid, despite a slowing economy, tumbling currency, terror attacks in major cities, and a rise in communal tensions. Strictly speaking, Widodo isn’t a consummate populist, presenting himself as the sole representative of the people against the elite, but instead a reformist leader with populist appeal.
Yet, he has increasingly lurched to the right, embracing Duterte-style rhetoric against criminality and illegal drugs as well as choosing a religious figure as his vice-presidential mate (Ma’ruf Amin) to the consternation of his more liberal supporters.
Meanwhile, he is facing a more strident type of right-wing populism from his former rival, Prabowo Subianto, who has adopted an apocalyptic language that hails absolute authority and taps into widespread nostalgia for the authoritarian past. Even if Widodo wins, he will probably continue to move to the right to keep Prabowo and his supporters at bay, especially on law and order issues, if not socio-religious matters.
India’s Modi is in a tougher spot, with falling approval ratings (which in mid-2018 dipped below 50 per cent for the first time) and his party, the BJP, suffering a string of local election defeats last month. This is probably due to growing discontent over Modi’s inability to translate his ambitious economic promises into reality. Yet, the chest-thumping leader is still expected to secure re-election this year, though with a smaller mandate and a more determined Congress-led opposition.
What we are facing is what I call “emerging-market populism”, which is affecting rapidly growing nations with a relatively strong tradition of democratic politics. It’s a brand of politics that will probably stay with us in the foreseeable future amid growing discontent with democratic institutions’ ability to accommodate the needs of rising middle classes.
Economic growth inspired an exponential increase in societal expectations, but state institutions have been too slow to respond. This is distinct from populism in the West, where economic stagnation and distress as well as large-scale migration have reinforced the lingering impulse for protectionism and tighter borders. Populism, particularly in its right-wing variety, is likely to be a major feature of regional politics for years to come. In many ways, it reflects profound disenchantment with democracy.
According to the Pew Survey, only a small plurality of citizens in the Philippines (15 per cent), Indonesia (12 per cent) and India (8 per cent) express categorical commitment to representative politics. This means that populism is likely to outlast the reign of leaders such as Duterte and Modi. In the future, their children, allies or sympathisers could pick up where they left off, opportunistically employing similar populist tactics with new twists whenever the liberal opposition fails to deliver on its promises.
This is exactly what happened in post-Thaksin Thailand, which is still divided between populist and anti-populist forces. The lesson is clear: the best way to defeat populists is not by appealing to values alone, since democratic faith has dramatically dipped among the broader society. It is only by exposing their incompetence and mismanagement, while providing an alternative political agenda combining human rights with effective governance, that the disgruntled middle classes can be empowered. ■
Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific