11 Apr 2019
The playbook of modern populism in Southeast Asia was written by former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra - between 2000 and 2006, he mobilised poor rural Thais against urban elites, winning office and holding onto power with giveaways.

Despite living in exile in Hong Kong, his influence remains strong at the Thai ballot box. His party, Pheu Thai, was ahead in early results after Thailand’s 24 March poll, continuing their dominance of electoral politics in that country.

Anti-elitism and challenging consensus has since worked for latter-day populists like US President Donald Trump, and President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines — where there are important mid-term regional and national elections in May.

How is populism in Asia evolving?

At a recent panel discussion for Channel NewsAsia's (CNA) INSIGHT, held by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), the 2019 Asian elections were examined in detail — in particular those in the two biggest democracies in the region, India and Indonesia. The panelists said Asian populism was heading along several paths.

Professor Kanti Prasad Bajpai, Director of the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at LKYSPP, said out of the three types of global populism, he saw two of these happening in Asia simultaneously.

“In the case of Trump and the West, it does seem [that type of] populism is looking at messaging about an elite that is uncaring, that wants to take control and exploit society,” he said.

“That's not quite true in Asia.

“There's a populism of giveaways, economic giveaways - that's another kind of populism which is pandering to ordinary people and all kinds of welfare [schemes]... that would take care of them, even if it's not necessarily economically rational,” he added.

“And I think there's a third kind that is a general kind of nationalism and identity formation type of populism.

“In the West with Trump you see more of the first... I think in Asia you see a lot more of the other two.”

Giveaways are an old hat but the identity issue is emerging and growing.

CNA Senior Southeast Asia Correspondent and veteran Indonesia watcher Sujadi Siswo told the audience that Indonesian President Joko Widodo — who is widely expected to win — was fighting off serious challenges on social media that he is not nationalistic enough. In fact, rising media consumption patterns will play a major part in influencing Asian elections. As a result, he has been forced to send influential envoys into small communities to counter the social media chatter.

President Widodo, also known as Jokowi, has also been accused by his challenger Prabowo Subianto, of being too close to China in return for infrastructure funding from its Belt and Road programme.

Mr Siswo also told the panel that Indonesia's democracy was in a process of consolidation and the power elites — the “Menteng mafia” — were battling for supremacy.

The number of parties was merging into a few larger groupings. At the same time the role of Islam in Indonesian politics was being used to win votes — effectively religious populism. By leveraging Islamic beliefs, political candidates stand to win the favour of the millions of Muslims in Indonesia. Nevertheless, such actions bear consequences. That sense of belonging, induced by religion, could also cause a rift between different groups of people - specifically the 'believers' and 'non-believers', leading to disruptions in social peace.

“It’s not political Islam but it is a politicisation of Islam and the political magnates are riding on it to gain momentum for political purposes,” he said. “It is a still a work in progress for Islam to be represented in Indonesia.”

China's increasing influence

Meanwhile, China’s rise and its deep pockets plays a dual role in this identity formation with regional powers.

“[Belt and Road] has created a political backlash in many countries around the region,” Associate Professor in Practice James Crabtree from LKYSPP said. “We've seen that most obviously in Malaysia at the last election but also in Myanmar and to some degree in Indonesia because of the high-speed rail line between Jakarta and Bandung.”

He added that the Belt and Road initiative annoyed voters because it was not seen to provide local jobs.

Despite this, China provides a model of success that other countries aspire to measure up to.

“[China’s] spectacular rise over the last 25 years with a very different form of government ... messages that a highly technocratic group of people running a complex country can produce these astonishing rates of growth,” Professor Bajpai said.

“Western countries, as well as other parts of the world, look at those rates of growth and can’t help but think - democracy is great, but it’s messy - and you don’t seem to be able to match China.”

Mr Crabtree said comparatively, other countries might find themselves wanting.

“The benchmark that China provides, of 20, 30 years of real double-digit growth leads to a certain dissatisfaction in the performance of the regional democracies even though by normal standards they’re doing pretty well,” Mr Crabtree said.

Protectionism not a factor

One thing that hasn’t suffered so far in Asian populism is free trade. Unlike in the West, free trade has remained a strong commitment of regional democracies.

“So far, neither country has slipped too far into protectionist policies.” Mr Crabtree said.

“Most of the countries in this part of the world, in contrast to the West, are still betting on openness and globalisation despite some populist pressure,” said Professor Bajpai.

Mr Siswo said the commitment to free trade was most recently shown by Indonesian President Jokowi’s recent signing of a free-trade agreement with Australia.

“That was a bold move by Jokowi just before the election, it’s going to have a huge impact on the Indonesian market,” he said.

India and Indonesia

“[The] strong man brings stability,” Professor Bajpai said. “That’s part of a world-wide trend... When countries face a lot of problems there’s a desire for someone who will cut through difficulties, complexities and contradiction and give it direction.”

For instance, Professor Bajpai said India’s Prime Minister Mohendra Modi was using the recent clash with Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir region for domestic gain.

“It has played to the advantage of Modi. It’s come at a very good time when his election fortunes were flagging and he’s made no bones about exploiting it to the hilt,” he added.

Professor Bajpai views this as unusual, considering how foreign policy and national security have not historically played a central role in the Indian elections.

As a matter of fact, the two leaders, Modi in India and Jokowi in Indonesia, came to power as “reform-minded” technocrats, according to Mr Crabtree.

“Both of them are the more likely candidates to win — the question is how far they will turn populist themselves in offering pre-election giveaways,” he said.

The panel heard that Modi’s detractors were initially concerned that he might become a strongman, but instead, the opposite has happened and his popularity has slipped.

On the other hand, Jokowi has remained popular but has tried to offset weaknesses — in particular his standing with Muslim voters — by selecting a well-known cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his running mate.

India goes to the polls between April 11 and May 19 and Indonesians vote on April 17.

(Photo by Nilanjan Chowdhury)

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