OPINION: What Asia’s election season tells us

Elections have wrapped up from Pakistan to the Philippines. 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 […]


Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva (C) talks to a boy during final campaigning in Bangkok on March 23, one day before the general election. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

June 19, 2019

Elections have wrapped up from Pakistan to the Philippines.

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.

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