Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte salutes during a wreath-laying ceremony at the 71st Founding Anniversary of the Philippine Air Force at Villamor Air Base in suburban Pasay city south of Manila, Philippines Tuesday, July 3, 2018.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte salutes during a wreath-laying ceremony at the 71st Founding Anniversary of the Philippine Air Force at Villamor Air Base in suburban Pasay city south of Manila, Philippines Tuesday, July 3, 2018. AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

A New Kind of Populism is Threatening Southeast Asia

The region’s fast-growing but fragile democracies have been susceptible to strongmen and autocratic-leaning populists in recent years, propelled by concerns over inequality, crime, and dysfunctional governments.

While populism is sweeping through Europe, North America, and now Brazil, it is also making gains in Southeast Asia. The region’s autocratic-leaning populists—those who have already ruled and those who are attempting to win power—use similar strategies: positioning themselves as outsiders who can solve problems where elites have failed, offering brutal approaches to crime, and targeting vulnerable groups within societies. Ultimately, these actions undermine democracy.

The Philippines and Thailand, two of the region’s six biggest economies, already have autocratic-leaning populist leaders, and a third, Indonesia, could be run by one after a presidential election next year. The emergence of such populism could further erode democracy and stability in a region that had, until the past decade, been growing freer.

Southeast Asia’s populists differ in many ways from counterparts in Europe and North America. They focus less on immigration, economic decline, and trade. In Southeast Asia, economic growth rates remain relatively strong; most countries are highly dependent on trade; and immigration is not a leading political issue. The Philippines is a main source of migrants, with one of the highest percentages of citizens working abroad of any country.

Instead, Southeast Asian populists focus on spurring religious and ethnic divides, countering drug trafficking, particularly of methamphetamines, and appealing to the working and lower-middle classes. The lower-middle classes, in particular, have become frustrated with democracy because they believe democratic politicians have not tackled inequality, addressed crime, or delivered effective state services. 

After gaining power, Southeast Asian populists oftentimes have moved to undermine democratic institutions and norms, in countries where traditional political parties have not been paragons of democratic rule. Though democracy had been advancing steadily through the region, it was weaker than in Europe or North America, even before the emergence of populist forces. Southeast Asian political parties were often dominated by clientelism and neopatrimonialism, in which parties are controlled by a single figure or family.

The weaknesses of established political parties in the region make it even easier for populists there to thrive—to dominate traditional parties, win control of state institutions, and then abuse them. Most notably, since his election in 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has destroyed checks on power and authorized violence on a greater scale than populist leaders in countries such as Hungary or Poland. He has overseen a brutal drug war that has killed at least twelve thousand people to date, often through extrajudicial murders, according to Human Rights Watch.

Appealing to the Middle Classes

Although the middle classes in emerging markets were once thought of as pillars of democracy, in Southeast Asia, both the lower- and upper-middle classes have increasingly supported strongmen. As Richard Javad Heydarian, an expert on Duterte, notes, “The appeal of populists and strongmen in these countries lies in their uncanny ability to tap into collective frustrations—most especially among aspirational middle classes—over the inefficacy of state institutions to accommodate new voices and provide basic goods and services.” In Southeast Asia, the middle classes in many states have soured on democracy for nearly a decade, as I noted in a book in 2013.

The upper and upper-middle classes in Southeast Asia, too, have become disenchanted with democracy, but there are tensions within some of these classes over the path to power. When the richer classes are looking for leadership change, they often support strongmen, such as military rulers, dedicated to preserving inequality and established elites. When autocratic-leaning populists win elections in Southeast Asia, the upper and upper-middle classes have often fought back by ousting populists via coups or de facto coups, in countries such as Thailand and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, freer politics and media have exposed interethnic and inter-religious fault lines in Southeast Asia. These are often inflamed by social media in a region with increasingly conspiratorial discourse online. Indeed, populist leaders have proven particularly skillful at using new media, which allows them to reach populations directly. For instance, Duterte has created an “army of Facebook bloggers and personalities,” according to a report by Bloomberg Businessweek.

In addition to the Philippines, there are three other Southeast Asian countries to watch for a rise in autocratic-leaning populism. Thailand and Myanmar have long histories of autocratic rule, as well as regional and ethnic divisions, and growing public perceptions that democracy has not delivered progress. Indonesia, one of the most prominent examples of democratization over the past two decades, holds presidential elections in April 2019, in which the incumbent is set to face a major populist challenge. The following assesses the threats and challenges in each country:

Thailand. Autocratic-leaning populist Thaksin Shinawatra ruled from 2001 to 2006, filling a void left after the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the failure of established parties to tackle inequality. He delivered massive social welfare programs but also oversaw his own brutal drug war and Duterte-style attacks on institutions. After a 2006 coup—an example of the upper middle class and elites responding to populists with strategies that further damaged democracy—pro-Thaksin parties again won elections, although they were less autocratic than Thaksin himself.

After years of pro-Thaksin governments, a coup in 2014 put the military in charge and made the political environment even more repressive. If elections planned for 2019 are actually free and fair—an open question, given the military’s power and its desire to see its favored party win—Thaksin’s party, still popular, could triumph, putting Thailand back in populist hands.

Myanmar. The civilian government under Aung San Suu Kyi has not followed through on promises to change the political environment. The military remains the most powerful actor, and Suu Kyi has done virtually nothing to stop what UN investigators have called a genocide in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Ethnic minorities may defect from Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) in the next national election, which is expected in 2020.

Rising intolerance, years of violence against Rohingya and other minorities, and the NLD’s failure to bolster democracy or seriously tackle inequality could pave the way for a military leader to step down from the army and launch a rightist and autocratic-leaning populist campaign. Such a campaign could be backed by some in the military or retired military officers—similar to that of Brazil’s newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro—and foment further anger against minorities.

Indonesia. The recent earthquake and tsunami in Sulawesi exposed the lack of preparation for major natural disasters, despite previous experiences with devastating quakes and tsunamis.

In addition, Indonesians have become increasingly worried about the decline in their currency; a further sell-off could raise questions about the economic credentials of President Joko Widodo’s administration and amplify fears of an economic meltdown. Although the president, known as Jokowi, has an experienced group of economic advisors and Indonesia is in better economic shape than some other developing nations, the currency slide has depressed levels of foreign investment in Indonesian bonds this year and shaken investors’ confidence in the economy.

The political beneficiary would be Jokowi’s opponent, former Lieutenant General Prabowo Subianto, whom he defeated in the last presidential election. In the past, Prabowo has rhetorically attacked minorities, such as Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese, and has seemed uninterested in preserving democratic fundamentals.

Fears for Democracy

In a region where democracy has regressed in recent years—with the exception of Malaysia—the rise of an autocratic-leaning populist in Indonesia would be the biggest setback of all. Once such populists take over, as the Philippines and Thailand have shown, their opponents tend to respond with their own repressive actions, such as coup attempts. This creates a vicious cycle that can permanently bury democracy.

This piece, first published by the Council on Foreign Relations, is used with permission.