SEVERAL SOUTHEAST Asian nations will call elections this year to legitimise the consolidation of authoritarian power as the regional and international environment is backsliding in terms of democratisation. The mandate of the Malaysian government under the leadership of Prime Minister Najib Razak will expire by the middle of the year, but he might call an election before that scheduled in August if he believe he has the upper hand over the opposition.
Cambodia’s strongman Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will “contest” a general election in July in the absence of a strong challenger after the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), was dissolved in November. In Thailand, the junta chief and head of the military government General Prayut Chan-o-cha has promised to call an election in November, although he has repeatedly found excuses to delay previously promised polls.
Prayut and Hun Sen have conducted similar games using constitutional and legal re-engineering to bolster their power, said Naresuan University lecturer Paul Chambers. “Their elections would lead to the enshrinement of authoritarian power,” he added, referring to scenarios in which the authoritarian incumbents would be returned to power.
Ironically, the term “democracy” is indispensable to coup-installed governments. Since it took power almost four years ago, Thailand’s authoritarian regime, directed by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has thrived upon the promise that it will establish a foundation for genuine democracy and hold truly fair elections.
In the not-so-distant future, the junta’s critics believe it will have to give in to mounting pressure and allow an election. But a ballot does not necessarily mean the realisation of democracy and the departure of the military from politics. After the election, Thailand will have a weak elected government with a strong military behind the scenes, Chambers said.
“The role of the Thai military would be to make sure the elected government adheres to the 20-year strategy. Otherwise, another coup could occur,” he said, referring to the junta’s strategy that is intended to constrict the behaviour of future governments for two decades.
An election is needed for the Thai military to transform its ruling power into a regime that at least resem?bles a democracy, although pressure from western coun?tries such as the United States and members of the European Union have softened over the past year after President Donald Trump’s victory in the US and Brexit in the United Kingdom.
International sentiment remained one factor deter?mining the junta’s decision regarding holding an election, Ubon Ratchathani University political scientist Titipol Phakdeewanich said. The EU decision in December to resume political contact with Thailand after Prayut’s promise of an election reflected the importance of such a democratic mechanism, he said.
Any big decisions involving free trade agreements, such as the EU-Thailand Free Trade Agreement, would need to officially be made by an elected government, the political critic said. This made it impossible for the NCPO to indefinitely postpone the election, he said.
Other political scientists, such as Chamnan Chanruang and Stithorn Thananithichot, also agreed that the coup-backed government needed to transform and legitimise itself using the election mechanism because of pressure from within and outside the country.
“We’re not alone in this world. Every eye is on [the NCPO]. Investors, the EU and others are watching,” Chamnan said. “And if we want trade to continue, an election must be held.” Stithorn added that it would be difficult to remain in the same “hard” form of authoritarianism. Unlike a world superpower such as China, for a coun?try like Thailand, democracy was the key to trust and trade, he said.
“The NCPO will have been around for more than four years [by the time of the promise election]. That should be the farthest it can go because pres?sure is coming from all directions,” Stithorn said. “Only the election can help relieve the tension and also legit?imise [the military’s] way to power.”
However, Chambers interpreted the global trend differently, arguing that while western countries might continue to talk about democracy and political rights, pressure would in prac?tice be less intense than before. Soft authoritarian regimes such as Cambodia, and as Thailand’s current junta aspired to be, would be much more comfortable, Chambers said. Other countries would seek to appease Thailand, which at most would receive a slap on the wrist from most of them, Chambers said.
Meanwhile, the US and EU’s new approach had already provided Cambodia’s Hun Sen with conducive conditions to consolidate his grip on power, allowing him to get rid of opponents in preparing for the July election, a Phnom Penh-based diplomat said, on condition of anonymity. Hun Sen has taken many actions over the past year to make sure that his position will be secure after the election, although he has already been in the power for more than 30 years.
The CPP’s slim margin of victory in the 2013 poll apparently taught Hun Sen not to underestimate the opposition, the diplomat said. The strongman has purged his major rival and former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, who is in self-exile in France, arrested the subsequent CNRP leader Kem Sokha, and then finally backed the dissolution of the CNRP to ensure the removal of any potential strong challenger.
While key members of the CNRP and Sokha’s loyalists have fled the country, remaining politicians, including those allied with former prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s Funcinpec Party, are too weak to challenge Hun Sen and the CPP, the diplomat said. Critical media outlets that have challenged Hun Sen’s power had also seen their organisations dissolved and journalists arrested for the same reasons, he said.
With China’s political and financial backing, the regime in Phnom Penh had not had to listen to the so-called democratic voice coming from the US, said the diplomat, although that pressure had altered significantly in the past year. “What Trump has done with the media and his political opponents is no different from Hun Sen’s acts,” he said.
Looking back at Cambodia’s recent political history, which has commonly seen violence, contemporary politics was relatively “civilised” as the strongman referred to laws and regulations rather than just exerted raw power, he said. “The rule of law has not yet been established in Cambodia, while what has happened in Thailand is no different,” said the veteran Southeast Asia diplomat.
Elected authoritarian and single-party regimes have existed in Southeast Asia for a long time, he said, referring to the People’s Action Party in Singapore and United Malays National Organisation (Umno) in Malaysia, both of which have ruled without interruptions since each country’s independence.
In Malaysia, Najib had consolidated his power within Umno and probably would win the country’s 14th general election, which is referred to domestically as GE14, regardless of when it is called, said Wong Chin Huat, a Penang Institute analyst. The opposition’s chance of defeating Najib is slim – but not impossible, he said.
“First past the post [election systems] are highly volatile, where last-minute swings may cause upset. Partisan delineation is a double-edged sword – it would allow Najib to win big if the tide is with him, but if the wind changes, he may also lose big,” he said. The return of heavyweight politician and former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is now the chairman of the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance, would also be a key factor in GE14, he said.
The four parties grouped under the PH alliance have named Mahathir’s former political opponent, the jailed politician Anwar Ibrahim, as their de-facto leader. Mahathir is chairman of the alliance and Wan Azizah Ismail, Anwar’s wife and president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, is the current PH president.
Mahathir could deliver a sizeable share of Umno supporters for the opposition to compensate for Islamist votes that would be lost because of the exit of Parti Islam Se Malaysia (PAS) from the opposition coalition, Wong said. Mahathir represented a “constant” for the more conservative segment of the electorate which may fear too much change if the opposition comes into power, Wong said. If there is a change, Mahathir would be more acceptable to Malay nationalists in the “deep state”, he added.
Race and religion are always issues in Malaysia’s election, with PAS consistently advocating for governance based on Islamic precepts. Party president Abdul Hadi Awang recently made a statement at Christmas that if his party comes to power, his cabinet would only include Muslims, and non-Muslims would only be allowed in administerial roles, not as decision-makers.
Hadi is clearly attempting to define GE14 as a referendum on Muslim dominance, echoing Umno’s warning that its own exit would mean the marginalisation of the Malay majority. “If Umno and the ruling Barisan Nasional [BN] coalition survives on an even narrower base than 2013, it will likely whip up communal anxiety to stay afloat,” Wong said. In 2013, the coalition retained power with only 47 per cent of the vote.
“Whether the opposition and Mahathir can deliver a real reconciliation to unite voters is the most important X-factor to watch.” Chinese voters are also significant in Malaysia’s election, with most forsaking BN member Malaysian Chinese Association to support opposition Democratic Action Party. Umno has recently launched a campaign to bring them back into the fold.
Outsiders might have expected that the scandal involving 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which implicated Najib in 2015, would have been a big blow, but he has apparently survived. He also received a warm welcome at the Obama White House in September last year while the US Justice Department was investigating the case.
Wong said the 1MDB scandal was only a symptom of Najib’s kleptocracy. After three years, it could hardly do more damage, although China’s bailout of the 1MDB fund had touched upon a raw nerve for many Malays, he added.
Even more hurtful is an embezzlement case involving Felda, a state agency designed to support Malay peasants. Felda programmes, which are active in one-quarter of constituencies, are a traditional vote bank for Umno. If that issue, which involves the “dubious” transfer of land deeds, becomes incendiary ahead of the election, Najib would be in trouble, Wong said.
Political struggles in Southeast Asia are based on realism rather than idealism, according to the Phnom Penh-based diplomatic source. Politicians are struggling for power and will employ any means to survive. Regimes in the region were focused on their own stability, which, “sad but true”, was at the expense of people’s freedom, he said.