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Thailand's red shirts rally in Bangkok in support of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Picture: AP

Middle class and frustrated in Asia? Populist politicians are seeking you out in 2019

  • Thailand, Indonesia, India and Australia go to the polls in 2019 amid a democratic recession and the lure of populist promises
  • But harnessing people power to sweep aside democratic checks and balances is not without its consequences

When he opened his hawker stall 15 years ago, Singaporean Jaesen Ng hoped the man he named it after would drop by some day.

Three weeks ago, Thaksin Beef Noodle stall finally entertained its namesake, Thailand’s former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He came for lunch with his sister, Yingluck, also a former premier, and his daughter Ing, and tucked into the signature dish at the shop in a southern part of the Lion City.

“I told him, ‘What took you so long?’,” recalls Ng, 64, who worked in Bangkok for a spell in the late 1980s – and believes Thaksin was Thailand’s best prime minister. “He did everything for the people. He modelled so many things after Singapore, but did it even better in some cases.”

A policeman turned multibillionaire businessman, Thaksin challenged the Bangkok political elite with his brash style and his direct appeals to the rural poor. He won a sweeping victory in 2001 on a platform to alleviate poverty, including a debt moratorium for farmers and special help for Thai villagers. He promised universal health care with his famous 30 baht fee (92 US cents) for all health care needs – even a heart bypass operation.

Thaksin was ousted in 2006 and has been living in exile in Dubai. He unleashed a popular movement, the so-called red shirts, whose confrontations with the opposing camp, the yellow shirts, spilled over into protracted violence.

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Yingluck fled her country last year to escape jail time for criminal charges she said were trumped up. Thaksin’s name will not be on the ballot when Thailand holds elections, supposedly on March 24, but for which no formal announcement has been made. Still, whatever the date, Thaksin will be there in spirit.

Ng proudly showed Thaksin a party button he had brought back as a souvenir after attending the launch of the pro-Thaksin Thai Raksa Chart Party in December. Raksa Chart is one of three new backup parties, in case the authorities succeed in dissolving the popular Puea Thai party, with antecedents in Thaksin’s own party and run by his allies and relatives.

Thailand's exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Photo: AP

Thaksin is an embodiment of forces that have come to dominate politics in Asia and around the world in recent years. He was an early master of the new populist style of politics, and an effective user of media to reach the people directly. He is one of the wealthiest people in the world, but he wore the mantle of a political outsider, disassociating himself from the failures of the system.

He cultivated a businesslike strongman image, including cracking down on crime without much regard to due process. Thaksin’s war on drugs, preceding Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s notorious campaign by more than a decade, claimed more than 2,500 lives.

Thaksin’s enduring iconic influence may have less to do with his personal charisma than with the fact that the social fissures he exposed have never been resolved. Large segments of the population feel the benefits of economic growth have not reached them, and that this is due to entrenched political and economic interests that have captured the system for their own benefit.

It is this deep sense of insecurity and disillusionment that has transformed politics across Asia.

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Political competition is no longer just about choosing among parties with different policy proposals. It has become far more disruptive, threatening to upend institutions and unwind constitutions. Although democracies are designed to respond to the popular will, they can be undermined by extreme forms of populism.

Populist politicians actively cultivate distrust of facts and expertise – including science, universities and the press – to make the public more susceptible to their own messaging. They also emphasise majoritarianism over minority rights, with devastating consequences for vulnerable groups. Thus, populist leaders harness people power to sweep aside democratic checks and balances.

These forces will be on full display across Asia in 2019.

Populism’s pull across the region

Thailand’s election has special significance as the first since the military coup of 2014. In addition to Thailand, India and Indonesia will vote to decide who will lead their populations, totalling 1.6 billion people – or 20 per cent of humanity. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo are both aiming for second terms. Religious nationalism holds sway over both contests, further eroding the multi-religious social compacts undergirding the two republics.

The Philippines will have congressional polls, which could help determine which bloc could throw up the next president in 2022. The Philippine political establishment has been dumbfounded by Duterte’s high approval ratings, despite his blatant disregard for the rule of law. Singapore’s People’s Action Party government may also call elections, and it is likely to take advantage of patriotic fervour to give it an extra edge. The 200th anniversary of British colonisation, together with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s irrepressible needling of its neighbour, offer plenty of grist for the populist mill.

In Australia, which goes to the polls by May, faith in democracy is at record lows, despite the country being one of the few in the developed world to escape the global financial crisis largely unscathed. Although the country’s electoral system and compulsory voting has kept a full-blown populist revolution at bay, a decade of revolving leadership and policy inaction has fuelled disillusionment and discontent.

Graphic: SCMP

“We can expect populism to remain a powerful political force across the region,” says Ankit Panda, an international affairs analyst.

In the United States, Donald Trump’s populism has rattled the country’s democratic foundations. In Asia, of course, strongman leaders are nothing new. The 1970s and 1980s were the era of Suharto in Indonesia, Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Indira Gandhi in India, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. In that earlier period, though, leaders kept a tight lid on on-the-ground sentiments and social movements, ostensibly in the name of nation building and economic development.

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Since then, public opinion has become a more potent force in national affairs. A more urbanised and connected population has grown less willing to accept the frustrations and indignities that come with globalisation and economic competition. Income stagnation and widening inequality have undermined people’s trust in business as usual.

Political scientist Richard Heydarian, who wrote a book about Duterte’s rise, notes that countries such as the Philippines have been making clear economic progress at the national level, but have not distributed its fruits equitably. In the resulting “emerging market populism”, populist leaders surface to promise quick solutions to seemingly intractable problems, such as access to health care or education or the quashing of corruption and crime.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte faces congressional elections this year. Photo: AFP

Such leaders, even if they emerge from within the ranks of the established elite, distance themselves from the status quo and brand themselves as outsiders. “In the Philippines and I believe in some parts of Asia, such populists will appeal to the rising aspirational middle classes,” Heydarian said.

This disgruntled constituency includes people who went to second-tier universities, have stable jobs, and drive SUVs – but still feel their social mobility has been hampered by a lack of access and connections that the elite possess. “They have achieved some measure of success but are not there yet.”

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The 1980s and 1990s saw several authoritarian Asian countries democratise. But the past decade has witnessed a democratic recession, with significant backsliding around the world.

A Pew poll of 38 countries conducted in early 2017 found that about 47 per cent of those surveyed deemed to be less committed to democracy. The tendency – as measured by their willingness to support representative democracy or the alternatives of military or one-man rule or rule by experts – is more pronounced in Asia. In the Philippines, 67 per cent said they were willing to consider alternatives to representative democracy; in Indonesia it was 75 per cent.

Upping the populism ante

Little wonder, then, if politicians in Asia promise to get the job done by any means necessary. That seems to be the message many people want to hear.

In Indonesia, for example, President Widodo’s main challenger Prabowo Subianto has been tainted by human rights violations from his days as a military commander, but most voters do not appear to care. Yami, a former canteen manager in Surabaya now working in Singapore as a domestic helper says she will vote for Prabowo because it is time for a change. The 30-something mother of two has no recollection of the accusations against Prabowo: “I just want to try something else.”

In several countries, authoritarian leaders rode on their societies’ rising religiosity, allowing religious movements more room to organise and express themselves in return for political support against their liberal opponents. Today, religion – together with race, language, and other tribal identities – is the genie that won’t go back into the bottle.

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In India, Modi and his Hindu nationalist movement have been trying to dismantle the secular model installed by the Congress-led independence movement, which placed a high premium on accommodating India’s minority faiths. In Indonesia, the multi-religious Pancasila national ideology is being challenged by Islamist parties and movements that want a more exclusive hold on the country. Some groups recently proposed that presidential candidates undergo a Koran-reading test, even though in theory – by the constitution at least – candidates need not be Muslim.

India’s general election, beginning in April, will be a major test of whether the country agrees with Modi’s combination of right-wing economics and Hindu nationalism, or if it wants a return of Congress government under the party’s new leader, Rahul Gandhi.

“Among the urban middle classes, 2019 will end up a referendum on some of Modi’s most controversial economic policies, including demonetisation and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax,” says Panda, the analyst.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking re-election in 2019. Picture: EPA

There is a strong chance that, without more tangible solutions to offer, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allied right-wing movements will once again count on whipping up Hindu religious fervour, preying on people’s insecurities by scapegoating Muslims and other vulnerable groups.

Prabhash Ranjan, an academic at South Asian University in New Delhi, notes that despite suffering setbacks in three key state assembly elections, the BJP has not toned down its inflammatory rhetoric. “It looks like that it might not happen and there may not be a let down in religious populism,” he says.

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In Indonesia, the presidential election is a rematch between incumbent Widodo and challenger Prabowo. Widodo won in a tight race in 2014, but Prabowo has managed to ally himself with Islamist forces that are questioning Widodo’s commitment to the religion.

While the election is widely expected to focus on the Widodo government’s economic achievements – or lack thereof – the proliferation of Islamic rallies in several Indonesian cities over November and December indicate religious rhetoric will dominate the polls. The rallies were organised by the National Movement to Safeguard Fatwas, which has signed a pact to support Prabowo and running mate Sandiaga Uno.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo hopes to retain power in elections later this year. Picture: Handout

In both India and Indonesia, there are signs that the political parties that were counted on to push back against religious nationalism are under severe electoral pressure to board the populist bandwagon.

“In Indonesia, we’ve seen Jokowi respond to shifts in the nature of Indonesian political Islam as the 2019 elections approach,” says Panda, who is an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. “In India, meanwhile, the opposition Congress Party appears to be converging with the dominant BJP’s brand of majoritarian populist politics.”

Ranjan says this trend was already observable in recent state assembly election in India. Parties promised all kinds of freebies, such as waiving loans to farmers. Congress also went out of its way to show that it was as Hindu as the BJP. “Rahul Gandhi’s visits to temples and proudly sharing his caste credentials are a pointer to that direction,” he adds.

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Quinton Temby, a visiting fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS, notes that Indonesia has seen populist surges of identity politics in elections since 2014. “If the election in April draws close, given the recent decline of Indonesia’s democratic institutions, some form of populism will likely be the winner,” he says.

“There is a middle-class-led revival of Islamic piety that populists and nationalists are figuring out how to channel into political power. In contrast to this emerging Islamist populism, the Jokowi government offers a kind of technocratic populism but is vulnerable to the temptation to take a punitive, whack-a-mole approach to its critics, providing ammunition for the other side.”

Jokowi was already seen to be conceding to rising Islamist sentiment in his choice of running mate, when he picked the older conservative religious leader Ma’ruf Amin. Ma’ruf, chair of the clerical body, the Indonesian Ulema Council was a key figure behind the downfall of Ahok, the former governor of Jakarta and Jokowi’s one-time ally who is currently in prison for blasphemy.

Populism wins, institutions lose

Regardless of the outcomes of these elections, populist forces may do lasting damage to institutions and norms. In Indonesia, for example, the Pancasila vision of unity in diversity is giving way to the notion that it is a Muslim country, and policy debates are drowned by holier-than-thou protestation.

Widodo, who had built his reputation as a practical problem solver, said last week that he would agree to take part in the proposed Koran-reading test.

In Thailand, the military government has no immediate answer to heal the country’s divisions. It is obliged to give voting power back to the people, but there are some results it cannot tolerate. So the new constitution ensures that military appointees will retain enough power to thwart pro-Thaksin candidates, should they win at the ballot box. Such an outcome, though, is only likely to deepen Thailand’s political polarisation.

Neither boarding nor blocking the populist bandwagon seems to work. The pull and lure of the populist game however can be intense. Even with no skin in the game, beef noodle hawker Jaesen Ng declares: “Thaksin, he’s my hero.”