Asian democracies could be next in line to face the onslaught of a global wave of disenchantment with ruling elites, observers and lawmakers say, as the stunning White House triumph of self-styled “ultimate outsider” Donald Trump – a real estate mogul with zero government experience – signalled the trend is firmly entrenched in the West.
En route to his watershed election to the leadership of the world’s sole superpower, Trump, 70, staged crushing victories against a field of the great and the good in the Republican Party, before roundly beating Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state whose public service record spans four decades.
The voter revolt across the US echoed the shock Brexit vote in Britain just months earlier – where the underdog campaign to leave the European Union triumphed at the ballot box despite staring down a unified government and opposition machinery lobbying for the opposite result.
In both cases, the winning side campaigned on a platform of criticising the economic effects of globalisation, and portrayed the political class as being in the pockets of plutocrats.
“The parallels may not be exact, but Trump’s election certainly feels like America’s Brexit,” said Prashanth Parameswaran, a politics and diplomacy researcher at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
“The anti-establishment sentiment is similar, as is the isolationist, protectionist, and xenophobic streak among those who feel like globalisation is not working for them as it is for others,” Prashanth said.
“In Asia, it’s more anti-establishment than anti-globalisation. We’re seeing the election of outsiders, populists or reformers who can shake the country up, not necessarily wall it off.”
Liberal lawmakers in Asia said they are witnessing a rise in disenchantment with moderate politics and an uptick in support for populists with little prior government experience, mirroring the rise of the likes of Trump, Nigel Farage, Britain’s most prominent anti-immigration politician, and French far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, mayor of a small city before he swept to power in May, has been compared to Trump because of his populist and anti-establishment stance as well as a penchant for foul-mouthed tirades.
In Malaysia, where Prime Minister Najib Razak has been criticised over the widely publicised 1MDB scandal and for scaling back civil liberties, opposition parties face difficulty in making electoral inroads because voters are sceptical that they can make a change when in power, their leaders say.
The country’s long-established race-based policies favouring the majority Malay people is also a major cause of political division.
“The 1MDB financial scandal has left many with a sinking feeling that corruption is the name of the game for Malaysia’s powerful elite,” said Nurul Izzah Anwar, a legislator with the opposition People’s Justice Party.
“The opposition then has to be representing not merely the progressives but must also engage the larger demographic consisting those who remain marginalised economically and continue to identify with race in pursuing their survival,” said Nurul Izzah, the daughter of the jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Charles Santiago, another Malaysian lawmaker, said parts of Asia ruled by strongmen are unlikely to witness the seismic rise of anti-establishment political figures.
“You may have elections, but you fear what happens after the election. There is a fear of violence if you don’t preserve the status quo with your vote. So in a way some of these countries are insulated from that global wave,” said Santiago, the chairperson of the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights group.
US voters who spoke to This Week in Asia said the election outcome reflected a growing sense of despair over the American political establishment.
“Trump’s victory is an outcome of the failure of the out-of-touch Washington elite including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton... we’ve had enough of their lies, their undelivered promises, and the years of rot,” said Richard Nyberg, 29, a Wisconsin-based social worker who cast a ‘write-in’ vote for the presidential contest instead of picking one of the two major party candidates. He declined to say who he wrote in.
And Maria Shall, a supporter of Bernie Sanders, the Vermont-based independent senator who lost out to Clinton in the Democratic primaries, said: “Most Americans feel that democracy in the US is a façade, that government, led by a two-party duopoly is not on their side and serves [the] corporate and financial establishment”.
Shall said there was a silver lining in Trump’s election.
“He did not create problems, he just highlighted them. Now we can see it all clearly so we can change it,” said the cultural anthropologist.
“He is going to shake the system from inside. So it will be easy for us to change it from the outside.”
In Asia, observers say there is still time to rein in cynicism about establishment politics.
“The hard part for leaders is crafting an inclusive message that addresses mass concerns but is also true to themselves and good for the country,” said Prashanth, the US-based commentator.
“It’s easy to demonise the masses who don’t agree with you as a basket of deplorables or portray the country as a basket case to win an election, but neither of those are sustainable solutions.
“Established leaders need to make a genuine effort to reconcile elite perceptions with public perceptions in a unifying way, because if not, outsiders will exploit that growing gap in a divisive way,” he added.