Basically, ordinary people might love to have the right to choose their own representatives to sit in the top jobs in the country. Therefore, elections matter. It is strange to see a certain group of people in Thailand has come out to show their resolve against elections, on the ground that the poll might not bring ‘good’ people into governance.
While an election would not bring good people or even democracy to the politics, authoritarians in Southeast Asia indeed need elections to justify their governance. Many members of ASEAN will hold elections this year and next with a common theme of incumbent rulers trying to retain power.
Cambodia will hold a general election in July and Malaysia will have one soon before the current mandate of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition expires in August. Thailand’s junta announced a long delayed poll would be held no late than February next year.
The incumbent leaders have taken and are taking all measures to have elections to legitimize their power.
Both Hun Sen of Cambodia and Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha of Thailand have used the same tactic of designing and enforcing constitutions and laws to secure their return to power after the election, in other words to perpetuate their rule.
Strongman Hun Sen, who is the longest served premier in Asia, has exercised all available legal means to eliminate the rival Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The political party law was amended to authorize the government to dissolve any party whose executives met with former leader in exile Sam Rainsy. CNRP leader Kem Sokha was arrested in September last year on a charge of treason. As his party was dissolved, many members fled the country for their safety.
At present, it is no exaggeration to say that Hun Sen and the CPP party are running virtually unopposed. Former rival FUNCINPEC, run by Norodom Ranariddh, is relatively weak in organisation, management, and its political platform. There is no way that the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia Party (FUNCINPEC) could soon grow and regain the power it had in the historic 1993 elections.
In Thailand, Prime Minister Prayut has said elections may be delayed to February 2019 or even later since that’s the year when Thailand is scheduled to host the ASEAN summit. That could be an excuse for the junta to stay in power for another year.
Meanwhile, in Malaysia, Najib Razak’s mandate will run out around mid-year. Elections are scheduled for August, but there is a possibility that the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and Barisan Nasional coalition could push for earlier elections to gain an advantage.
UMNO has ruled Malaysia for over half a century since the country’s independence from the British in 1957. Political change has been at the individual level and among factions within UMNO. Najib, the current Prime Minister, has been plagued with scandals such as 1Malaysia Development Berhad. But most Malaysian political experts say Najib has not been affected very much by it.
Politics in Malaysia is deeply tied to ethnicity and religion. UMNO focuses on winning over both moderate and more devout Muslims as well as non-Malays. While it’s true PAS remains outside the BN, the party shares cordial ties at federal level. BN and PAS apparently complete in the latter’s base in Kelantan, where analysts say BN has the upper hand.
With rifts between Malaysian Chinese Association and other BN members and former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad creating another opposition party, UMNO will have to work harder to gain more ethnic Chinese support and votes from Malays who favor Mahathir and his protégé Anwar Ibrahim, who had their battles at the end of the 90s after the Tom Yum Kung crisis. All these factors significantly strengthen the opposition.
Still, political experts largely agree that the chance that an opposition party will win the election in Malaysia is quite low, although the chance isn’t zero like in Cambodia.
It is possible after elections in Southeast Asia, for authoritarianism often to come to the fore. There is no need to mention states that are fundamentally authoritarian to begin with, such as Laos or Vietnam, which increasingly gain more and more power over their people each day.
Even in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi has proved herself to be weaker than the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military), no matter how much popular support she has. Aung San Suu Kyi fell prey to other traps, too; she never addressed the Rohingya crisis for fear of losing votes from Burmese Buddhists. Under her nose, violations of political rights, freedom of expression and freedom of the press run rampant in Myanmar. In many cases, she turns a blind eye to, winks at, or even supports such transgressions.
Political changes in the US and Europe have allowed authoritarian governments in Southeast Asia to easily poke fun at the actions of the former champions of democracy and human rights. Both Najib and Prayut were warmly welcomed by Trump at the White House in late 2017. Not long after Prayut’s US visit, the European Union resumed contacts with Thailand at every level.
Hun Sen relentlessly mocks the US and EU for criticising the tactics and measures he has used to defeat his political opponents — since he has China backing him. EU aid to his country means little when China, a country that supported an armed invasion of the country for a decade, pours in resources and political investment. China collaborated with Thailand to support the Khmer Rouge to overthrow the Phnom Penh government before the historic 1993 elections. We haven’t even factored in Japan’s efforts at political power-grabbing with China in the country. A friendly dictatorship, it turned out, was what everyone wanted.
Elections in many countries in the region, in the current political situation, are unlikely to lead to democracy.
In the region, international democratic forces in are quite weak, with only NGOs and citizen movements in each country holding the fort. In Thailand, the front line of democracy is held down by Rangsiman Rome, Sirawith “Ja New” Seritiwat, Nuttaa "Bow" Mahattana and their activist groups.
Thai political parties and the ruling class cavort around a realpolitik realm free of ideology where there are no permanent friends or enemies. For them, the elections people keep calling for become a disgusting, distasteful idea since their roadmap to revert power back to themselves is not complete yet.
Nevertheless, Thailand is stuck in a dilemma. Continuing to wait around will not lead to democracy, but elections, unexpected as the results may be, are the best chance to lead back to a peaceful division of political power and benefits.