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

Modi defends citizenship decision

PM Modi says it has nothing to do with Indian Muslims. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, that unity in diversity is integral to India while addressing ‘Aabhar Rally’ at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan today to kick start Bharatiya Janata Party’s Delhi Assembly Elections campaign slated for early next year, amid protests in Delhi and all over the country against the contentious Citizenship Act and the National Register of Citizenship(NRC). Modi raised slogan of ‘vividhta me ekta, Bharat ki visheshta’ (Unity in diversity is India’s speciality). PM Modi while giving his party and government’s view on CAA and NRC said, “Muslims being misled, I have always ensured that documents will never come in way of development schemes and their beneficiaries.” Citizenship law and NRC have nothing to do with Indian Muslims or with Indian citizens, he clarified. “We have never asked


By The Statesman
December 23, 2019

Opinion, Politics

Rallies rage on in India over citizenship law

Thousands of students flood streets of Delhi; Assam state sees five protesters shot dead. Thousands of university students flooded the streets of India’s capital yesterday, while a southern state government led a march and demonstrators held a silent protest in the north-east, to protest against a new law giving citizenship to non-Muslims who entered India illegally to flee religious persecution in several neighbouring countries. The protests in New Delhi followed a night of violent clashes between the police and demonstrators at Jamia Millia Islamia University. People who student organisers said were not students set three buses on fire and the police stormed the university library, firing tear gas at students crouched under desks. Members of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party said opposition parties were using th


By The Straits Times
December 17, 2019

Opinion, Politics

The Chinese version

Muhammad Amir Rana asks what is the Chinese version of Islam.  TENSIONS between China and the US have escalated after the House of Representative’s Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, 2019. The move is of a piece with the allegations of many international media and human rights organisations that China is persecuting the Uighur community and violating their rights — allegations that Beijing has denied. Calling the US action a political move aimed at damaging its international image, China says it is running a deradicalisation programme to mainstream its communities. Read: Amid global outcry, China defends internment camps of minorities in Xinjiang The Chinese claim has not been verified by independent sources and mystery shrouds its deradicalisation or re-education programme. China needs to demonstra


By Asia News Network
December 16, 2019

Opinion, Politics

Japan: Koizumi offers no concrete plan on coal

The new environment minister needs to offer better ways to tackle climate change.  During a ministerial meeting of the U.N. climate summit in Madrid on Wednesday, Shinjiro Koizumi, the Environment Minister did not express concrete steps for reducing coal-fired thermal power generation. Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi did not express concrete steps for reducing coal-fired thermal power generation, for which construction of new plants is currently underway in Japan, during a ministerial meeting of the U.N. climate summit in Madrid on Wednesday. “I am afraid I cannot share new development on our coal policy today,” Koizumi said at the ongoing 25th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate


By The Japan News
December 13, 2019

Opinion, Politics

Power transition after Apec summit

Mahathir open to stepping down after APEC summit. Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the world’s oldest prime minister, has promised to hand over power to anointed successor Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in spite of new sexual assault allegations against him. Dr Mahathir, 94, said he would not hand over before a summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) countries that Malaysia is to host in November 2020, but could be ready after that. “I made a promise to hand over and I will, accepting that I thought that a change immediately before the Apec summit would be disruptive. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m stepping down and I’m handing the baton to him (Anwar). If people don’t want him, that is their business, but I will do my part of the promise… irrespective of whatever allegation. I made my promise, I keep my promise, ” he said in an interview w


By The Star
December 11, 2019

Opinion, Politics

Communist Party of China calls for efforts to deepen reform and expand opening-up

Political Bureau stresses importance of winning three critical battles in 2020. The Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee called on Friday for solid efforts to deepen reform and expand opening-up, amid tensions in the external environment, to ensure that the goal of building a moderately prosperous society in all respects will be attained next year. The general trend of China’s economy in maintaining stable and long-term positive operation remains unchanged, according to a statement released after the bureau’s meeting, presided over by Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee. China will keep its economic growth within a reasonable range in 2020, with more “forwarding-looking, targeted and effective” policies, the statement said. The nation will pursue a policy framework that allows macro policies to be stable, micro policies


By Esther Ng
December 9, 2019