See More on Facebook

Opinion, Politics

OPINION: What Asia’s election season tells us

Elections have wrapped up from Pakistan to the Philippines.

Written by

Updated: June 19, 2019

In the first half of this year, four Asian giants went to the polls. Up to one billion voters were involved, all within a few weeks of one another.

Team Ceritalah was on the ground in Thailand, Philippines, India and Indonesia.

In Eluru in April, some two hours northeast of Amravati, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, we discovered a city pulsating with people. It was also mind-blowingly hot: some 42 degrees with music blaring out of loudspeakers as crowds waited for a candidate’s arrival.

By contrast, when Team Ceritalah were in the Thai city of Phitsanulok in February, the mood was subdued and calm. Most people knew who they’d be voting for. Besides, everyone understood that the polls were a farce

Back in April and just a handful of days before voting, Team Ceritalah also joined the hordes at Jakarta’s main stadium – Gelora Bung Karno (or GBK).

Amid a sea of red and white, the crowds erupted as the incumbent presidential candidate Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) stepped onto the specially built red-carpeted stage like a rockstar.Now that the dust has settled, what have we learned from the experience?

Five points arguably stand out. First, incumbency, it turns out, matters.

There may have been rumblings in all four nations, but their elections all more or less confirm the long-standing theory that it’s hard to unseat a sitting leader.This may not be very surprising when it comes to a popular incumbent like Jokowi, but how do we account for how parties like Thailand’s pro-military Palang Pracharath (PP) doing much better than expected, or India’s Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning 303 Lok Sabha seats, 21 more than in 2014?

This leads me to my second point: it may not necessarily be about the economy.

Most of the countries that went to the polls are experiencing economic headwinds: including concerns over cost of living, job creation, slumping commodity prices and agrarian distress.India, for instance, has seen its consumption slump.

A report in early May 2019 from the Economic Times Intelligence Group found that the growth in sales of passenger cars was at the lowest in five years. Volume growth for fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies – who rely on rural areas for more than a third of their sales – have dropped to a 6-7 quarter low.

This has been attributed, in part, to weak farm income growth. And, yet, the shopkeepers in Mumbai Team Ceritalah spoke to still felt optimistic – and almost all of them were Modi supporters.

In the bustling Colaba Causeway Market in Mumbai’s south, shopkeepers like 29-year old Chetan Parmar – originally from Rajasthan – ought to be the first to feel the pinch of a slowing economy.

Still, he told our team: “People are buying less now, but that’s okay because it’s that time of the year. Wait for a few months: they will (eventually) come and buy a lot.

“It’s just the normal pattern – we’ll see.”

But why did voters give their leaders a “free pass” on their economy this time around?

My third and fourth points: charisma matters and so does identity politics.

Leaders like India’s Modi and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte are larger-than-life figures. Metropolitan elites may find their antics repugnant, but it’s precisely the fact that the two are so unlike that draws voters to the latter.

In contrast, Indonesian voters clearly preferred the humble, practical Jokowi to his more strident and erratic opponent, the ex-Special Forces General Prabowo Subianto.

And like it or not, it would appear that a majority of Indian voters have decided to get behind the Hindutva Hindu majoritarian politics of Modi and the BJP.

The demonisation of the Muslim Indian minority and Pakistan, as well as wedge issues like cow protection outweighed Modi’s failures in managing the economy.

In fact, 19.7% of the Indian voters who supported the BJP in 2019 were reportedly from Other Backward Classes (OBCs), which is ironic given that the party is traditionally a bastion of their upper-caste tormentors.

And notwithstanding credible concerns about the election’s legitimacy, the Prayuth Chan-o-Cha-backing PP’s winning 116 lower house seats and 23.74% of the popular vote (a plurality) can likely be ascribed to the conservatism of the 19.5% of Thai voters aged 61 years or older, as well as fears to a return to the turmoil of the Thaksin Shinwatra era.

Even Jokowi, to an extent, had to play the numbers game.

His endorsement by the moderate Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) organization boosted his vote bank in East and Central Java, more than making up for losses in other, heavily-Muslim regions like West Java and much of Sumatra, the latter having been hit by a severe drop in palm oil and rubber prices.

Still, his people-centric policies such as the Dana Desa (“Village Fund”) scheme also blunted much of the economic edge of the populist attacks against him.

Finally; and this applies to oppositions everywhere: there are no short-cuts to power.

This mistake was arguably replicated across the countries we surveyed.

In India, Rahul Gandhi seemed to offer nothing but his name; failing to forge stronger alliances with regional counterparts, like the Aam Admi Party in Delhi or the BSP-SP in Uttar Pradesh.

This arguably cost the anti-Modi camp thanks to split votes due to multiple-cornered fights.

In the Philippines, the Liberal Party-backed “Otso Diretso” (“Straight Eight”) slate of senatorial candidates offered voters little beyond their not being Duterte.

In Thailand, another Thaksin-backed party, the Thai Raksa Chart (TRC) badly miscalculated in their attempt to nominate Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi as their Prime Minister candidate.

This led to the TRC being banned and robbed the Thaksin camp of an outright majority in the lower house, as it was supposed to win the party-list seats while the Pheu Thai (PT) focused on single-member constituencies.

So, there you have it.

It would appear—with notable exceptions—that the strongmen have prevailed in Asia.

One can only hope that the democracy as well as pluralism of these nations are stronger than their electoral cycles and that, more importantly, the lot of all their people can be improved somehow.

Enjoyed this story? Share it.

The Star
About the Author: The Star is an English-language newspaper based in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia.

Eastern Briefings

All you need to know about Asia

Our Eastern Briefings Newsletter presents curated stories from 22 Asian newspapers from South, Southeast and Northeast Asia.

Sign up and stay updated with the latest news.

By providing us with your email address, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

View Today's Newsletter Here

Opinion, Politics

Hong Kong government blasts riots

Hong Kong police chief blasts Sha Tin violence which leaves six people seriously injured. Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam broke her silence on Monday afternoon (July 15)  to condemn “rioters” and praise police after violent clashes on Sunday night that left two people in critical condition and four in a serious state. Mrs Lam said the police had acted “professionally” and practised “restrain” in dealing with the group of protesters who hung around New Town Plaza shopping mall in Sha Tin, hours after a rally had ended. Speaking to the media at a Tai Po hospital, where six officers are still being treated, she said the police’s duty is to uphold the law and those who broke the law have to be taken to task. “Hong Kong society will not condone such violence,” she added. Secretary for Security John Lee, who also visited the hospital, told reporters

By The Straits Times
July 16, 2019

Opinion, Politics

The counter-terrorism challenge in West Asia

A action plan must be hatched and implemented in Pakistan and its surrounding countries. Pakistan has stepped up its anti-militant campaign, apparently to steer clear of being blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force. Pakistan had already narrowly escaped that listing, with the support of China, Malaysia and Turkey, during the last FATF review meeting held in Orlando, Florida. Read: FATF compliance will require all-out effort Yet the country remains under immense pressure to take action against all militant groups that are proscribed by the UN Security Council. Pakistan has also been viewed as employing a selective approach towards different militant groups. The FATF meeting held in Paris last February had rejected Pakistan’s assessment based on a classification of militant groups into diff

By Dawn
July 15, 2019

Opinion, Politics

Hong Kong protests: Chaos speads to Sha Tin mall after rally ends

Protests continue, this time against Chinese vendors. Violent clashes between law enforcers and some protesters erupted yet again on Sunday (July 14) following a largely peaceful march hours earlier in the New Territories town of Sha Tin. About three hours after the rally ended at 5pm, police in riot gear began clearing the streets, setting off a game of cat and mouse with them and protesters trying to corner one another. Tensions peaked at about 9.30pm when officers armed with shields and batons entered New Town Plaza mall in Sha Tin and tried to disperse the crowd that was hiding there, resulting in chaos. Police officers were seen chasing after a protester, hitting him with batons and ripping his clothes off as they tried to pin him down before he managed to flee to safety with help from fellow protesters, who were trying to dodge pepper spray. Elsewhere in the mall, protesters surround

By The Straits Times
July 15, 2019

Opinion, Politics

India asks Commonwealth to readmit Maldives

Maldives pulled out of commonwealth under previous administration over human rights concerns. India has called upon for fast-tracking the process of readmission of the Maldives to the Commonwealth. This was conveyed by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar at the 19th Commonwealth Foreign Affairs Ministers’ Meeting (CFAMM) in London on Wednesday. “The External Affairs Minister, in his remarks, congratulated the member countries on the 70th anniversary of Commonwealth. He also noted that India is well on the path of fulfilling all the commitments made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at CHOGM 2018. The EAM called for fast-tracking of the process of re-admission of Maldives to the Commonwealth,” the External Affairs Ministry said in a statement. New Delhi’s support for the Indian Ocean archipelago came weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Male on his first overseas trip after being re-

By The Statesman
July 12, 2019

Opinion, Politics

Arms sales to Taiwan a blow to Sino-US ties

An editorial from Chinese state media about the arms sale to Taiwan. By approving the potential sale of arms worth $2.2 billion to Taiwan, the US State Department has not only further strained cross-Straits relations, it is also trying Beijing’s patience. And by passing a series of acts and resolutions related to Taiwan this year, the US Congress has dealt a serious blow to Sino-US relations, as well as undermined peace and stability across the Straits. The US House of Representatives enacted the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019 and passed a resolution reaffirming the US’ commitment to Taiwan on May 7, which essentially means the US would sell arms to the island regularly and back its participation in international organizations. That the US has continued to meddle in Taiwan affairs shows it is desperate to use the “Taiwan card” to contain the Chinese mainland. The US believes

By China Daily
July 12, 2019

Opinion, Politics

Japan’s export curbs fuel political feud in S. Korea

Seoul is in political turmoil as politicians tackle the best course of action to pursue with Japan. Japan’s decision to impose export restrictions on key hi-tech semiconductor and electronics materials to South Korea is having a political fallout here. President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday reiterated Seoul’s position that the measures are politically motivated, while criticizing Japan’s attempt to justify its actions by linking them to sanctions on North Korea. “The Japanese government is taking measures that impact our economy for political goals, and making comments that link (the measures) to North Korean sanctions without any basis. It is not beneficial for bilateral relations and security cooperation,” Moon said at a meeting with leaders of South Korea’s largest corporations on Wednesday.

By The Korea Herald
July 11, 2019