The Latest on Southeast Asia: February 2, 2023

Electoral politics are heating up across much of Southeast Asia, with several countries gearing up for polls of one kind or another. Below are some key races and issues to watch for in the months ahead.

Malaysia: The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), a key part of the coalition government formed by newly elected prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in November, is holding party elections from February 1 to March 18.  In late January, UMNO’s general assembly passed a motion declaring that no members will be allowed to challenge party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi or his deputy in those elections. More than 40 members who opposed the motion were ejected from the party, including former health minister Khairy Jamaluddin, for “violating party discipline.” Others, including former defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein, were suspended for six years. Zahid seems intent on protecting his position and preventing any challenge to the party’s controversial participation in Anwar’s government. But UMNO’s purge could backfire in the long run by driving detractors to join competing parties.

Thailand: The ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) has officially nominated Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan as its sole prime ministerial candidate in elections that must be held by May 7. While the move comes as no surprise, it formally sets up a contest between Prawit and current prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who earlier this year joined the newly formed United Thai Nation Party (UTN) to run for reelection. There has been a spate of parliamentarians defecting from PPRP to UTN and Bhumjaithai, another conservative party. Lawmakers have until February 7 to switch parties, after which campaigning will begin in earnest. The opposition Pheu Thai is widely expected to announce Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the daughter and niece of former prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, respectively, as one of its prime ministerial candidates (parties may nominate up to three). Pheu Thai currently leads in the polls and is expected to win the most seats in the election, as it did in 2019. But under the current constitution, a party or coalition without military support would need 75 percent of lower house seats to name a prime minister—a potentially insurmountable hurdle.

Cambodia: Cambodia will hold general elections on July 23. Prime Minister Hun Sen has recently targeted opposition figures, saying his opponents were lucky he has not sent thugs to their headquarters. Authorities on January 17 arrested the vice president of the newly-formed opposition Candlelight Party, which performed surprisingly well in local polls last year, on charges of writing false checks. He joins two senior party figures charged for crimes in recent weeks. The ruling Cambodia People’s Party has denied accusations that the charges are politically motivated. Hun Sen also offered to allow a former opposition lawmaker to return from exile in the United States, but only if he renounced allegiance to Sam Rainsy, the former opposition leader who himself lives in exile in France.  

Myanmar: Myanmar’s junta marked the two-year anniversary of its coup on February 1 by extending the country’s state of emergency for six more months. This will likely delay polls it had planned to hold in August, suggesting the military might recognize that it would not be able to organize an election that would garner any legitimacy given the current state of the civil war. Just a few days prior, the junta had issued strict new rules for the mooted elections, requiring parties to have at least 100,000 members, deposit 100 million kyat (about $47,600) in the state-owned Myanma Economic Bank, and open offices across at least half of the country within six months of registering. That law also automatically dissolves parties that fail to re-register at the Union Election Commission within two months. The National League for Democracy—the party of former civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi—has already announced that it will not re-register with the UEC. A World Bank report released on January 30 predicts Myanmar’s economy to grow 3 percent this fiscal year, below its pre-pandemic level, and cited conflict leading up to the elections as a downside risk.

Indonesia: Indonesia will not hold presidential elections until 2024 but there is a growing focus on prospective candidates and their platforms. A January poll showed Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo leading the field with 29.2 percent support, followed by Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto with 19.4 percent and former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan with 16.5 percent. The same poll showed that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s approval rating hit an all-time high of 76.2 percent in January, likely due to the government’s easing of pandemic restrictions in December and a decrease in fuel prices. Jokowi is rumored to favor Ganjar, a fellow member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), as his successor. But PDI-P, chaired by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, has not committed to endorsing Ganjar. Prabowo, by contrast, already has the endorsement of his Gerindra Party, which formally launched his campaign and electoral committee in early January. Anies has been endorsed by the National Democratic  Party, or NasDem, but will need the support of at least one more large party to meet the legal threshold to stand as a candidate.

Karen Lee is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow and director for the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS.

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Karen Lee
Research Associate, Southeast Asia Program
Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative