What Do the Recent Elections in Indonesia and Thailand Mean for Democracy in Southeast Asia?

Voters went to the polls to cast ballots in two major elections held in recent weeks—elections that will not only determine who rules the next government in Indonesia and Thailand but may shape the future democratic trajectories of each country and portend broader democratic trends in the region.

Indonesia and Thailand, the two largest economies in Southeast Asia and two pillars of regional diplomacy and cooperation, have moved in opposite directions in recent decades on the democratic spectrum. Thailand was one of the earliest democracies in Southeast Asia, after large protests in the streets of Bangkok in 1992 ended nearly six decades of military rule and ushered in a period of stable democratic rule, culminating in a widely heralded 1997 constitution that appeared to solidify Thailand’s democratic transition. Democracy in Indonesia emerged later in the decade after the decades-long authoritarian ruler Suharto stepped down in the wake of the economic turbulence caused by the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997-1998. However unlike Thailand in 1992, which had a large middle class, a vibrant civil society, and an economy flourishing under large inflows of manufacturing foreign direct investment (FDI), the foundations for a successful democratic transition in Indonesia, one of the most populous nations in the world with much higher rates of poverty and corruption, appeared less secure. While Thailand was hailed as a model for democracy in the region, Reformasi—the term used for democratization in Indonesia (and Malaysia)—appeared to be on shakier ground in Indonesia.

Twenty years after Reformasi, however, Indonesia stands as one of the pillars of democracy in the region and has had five peaceful transitions of power. Last week on April 17, Indonesia held the world’s largest ever single-day direct election, with over 80 percent of 193 million eligible voters turning out to vote in presidential, parliamentary, and local elections in more than 800,000 polling stations spread across the island archipelago—a massive logistical feat that was carried out smoothly and peacefully. The “quick count,” unofficial results show that incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo won reelection by a comfortable margin of about 10 percentage points over his rival Prabowo Subianto, a larger margin than their previous electoral match-up in 2014 (although smaller than his lead in public opinion polls). The race was largely a referendum on President Jokowi’s five-year term, and a majority of Indonesian voters appear to prefer continuity and Jokowi’s policy focus on infrastructure, social welfare, and economic growth, rather than the appeal made by Prabowo and his coalition of hardline Islamists for a more piously religious Indonesian government that is less tolerant of religious minorities and civil liberties.

Although the electoral outcome signals more continuity than change in Indonesia, the election and events leading up to it nevertheless underscore concerning trends in Indonesian democracy. The election revealed growing divisions within Indonesia about the proper role of religion in politics and the public sphere. The large Islamist protests in late 2016 that led to the electoral unseating and subsequent jailing of the popular Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, was a wake-up call on the rise of conservative religious intolerance and identity politics in Indonesia. By 2018, a majority (55 percent) of Indonesian Muslims polled objected to non-Muslims holding office, compared to 42 percent in 2016. Jokowi, who has long been known as a moderate Muslim and was a close political ally of Ahok, sought to burnish his Islamic credentials by selecting as his running mate the conservative Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin, who had testified against Ahok at his trial and advocates banning homosexuality and a number of religious sects he finds objectionable. Jokowi further tarnished his liberal reformist image by using the strong arm of the state to suppress political opponents and anti-Jokowi demonstrations.

And yet, despite these concerning trends, Indonesia’s democratic future looks brighter than present-day Thailand. Although the Thai military pledged in the 1990s that they would “return to the barracks” and never again intervene in politics, the military resumed its habit of instigating coups in 2006, overthrowing the billionaire telecom tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, who was elected as a populist and ruled with autocratic tendencies, and again in 2014 when the military overthrew the elected government of Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra. The 2014 coup was led by General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who unlike previous military coup leaders made himself prime minister rather than appointing a civilian caretaker government. Prayuth put in place a military regime that suppressed civil liberties and repeatedly postponed elections while promulgating a new constitution designed to ensure the military retains a heavy hand in the future Thai government.

The results of last month’s elections on March 24 show that the junta’s efforts to corral majoritarian democracy appear to have worked. Although Thaksin-linked party Pheu Thai appears to have gained the largest number of elected seats and the anti-junta and pro-junta coalitions are about evenly divided in the 500 seat Lower House, the pro-junta Palang Pracharath party is in a comfortable position to form a majority coalition and reinstall Prayuth as prime minister. This is because the unelected 250-member Upper House will be appointed by the junta government, which assures them a numerical majority. Even with these built-in advantages, the Prayuth government appeared unnerved at the possibility of popular rejection in the polls, leading to a large number of polling and vote counting irregularities—a first for Thailand since its democratic transition. And the Electoral Commission appears to be willing to go even further to meddle in the poll results, bringing a series of trumped-up charges against Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the charismatic leader of the progressive Future Forward Party, which came in a strong third at the polls and appeals in particular to young urban voters, who seem less interested in the pro-Thaksin red shirt/ anti-Thaksin yellow shirt political divides that have dominated Thai politics for two decades.

Several other milestones and markers next month will offer further signs of the health of democracy in Southeast Asia. On May 9, Thailand’s Electoral Commission will announce the full official results of the election, following the early May coronation of King Vajiralongkorn. If Future Forward leader Thanathorn is disqualified and his party dissolved, as looks increasingly likely. If Thanathorn disqualified or his party is dissolved, the obscure algorithm that apportions 150 party seats under proportional representation could skew the results more heavily in favor of pro-junta parties. But this move would also deepen discontent among many voters in Thailand, especially younger voters who will have been denied a chance to cast a vote that is counted and raise questions about Thailand’s political stability and democratic future.

May 9 is also the one-year anniversary of the stunning electoral landslide victory in Malaysia of the Pakatan Harapan coalition that ousted Prime Minister Najib and returned Mahathir bin Mohamad as the prime minister, marking the first peaceful transfer of power in Malaysia’s 61-year history. Mahathir pledged a reform agenda focusing on tackling corruption and promoting more transparency and solvency in government finances—including reviewing and renegotiating large infrastructure deals with China. Mahathir also pledged to restore press freedoms that were severely restricted under Najib’s government, leading the Guardian to call Malaysia a “beacon of hope” for press Southeast Asia at a time when the region is facing severe crackdowns in freedom of the press, with reporters being jailed in Myanmar, Thailand, and the Philippines, independent media entirely shuttered in Cambodia, and bloggers arrested in higher numbers in Vietnam. Many questions remain however about how far Mahathir will go in dismantling repressive media laws and successfully tackling corruption. Even larger questions linger over Mahathir’s willingness to pass the torch to his designated successor and former protégé-turned-rival Anwar Ibrahim by the middle of next year. Despite these and other potential obstacles, Malaysia’s surprising democratic turn has been one of the very few bright spots in a region that has seen so much backsliding on democracy and democratic norms.

Next month, we will also see Philippine voters go to the polls for midterm elections on May 13, halfway through President Duterte’s six-year term. To some extent the midterms will serve as a referendum on Duterte, particularly on the economy, but also his policies on brutally prosecuting the drug war, fighting terrorism in Marawi, and seeking rapprochement with China over maritime disputes in the South China Sea while distancing the Philippines from the U­­nited States. With 79 percent of the population satisfied with his performance in March, despite his illiberal policies and his weakening of democratic institutions, the trends for democracy in the Philippines is not encouraging.

Taken together, the succession of major elections in key countries over the course of a year show a mixed picture for democratic trends in Southeast Asia. Record numbers of votes are being cast, and civilians are returning to govern in places like Thailand and, several years ago, in Myanmar; cracks are appearing in the region’s most robust democratic systems Indonesia and the Philippines, and Thailand, previously a standard-bearer, is trending backward. Myanmar, once a source of hope and inspiration as it began to transition to democracy with its historic election in 2015, now stands as a cautionary tale of how democracy can unleash intolerance and violent repression against an oppressed minority. Only in Malaysia are green shoots appearing as we approach the one-year anniversary of the landslide election that brought democracy and hopes for reform and enduring democratic norms to Malaysia.

Amy Searight is a senior adviser and director with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Amy Searight