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Democracy will get a reckoning in Asia this year

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A RECORD NUMBER of people are heading to the polls around the world this year, including in Asia. This is particularly significant for the region because with the exception of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, the Asia-Pacific region is seeing a significant increase in populism and authoritarianism, harking back to an era when strongmen presidents ruled with an iron fist. Hundreds of millions of votes won’t necessarily mean more democracy.

There are a few reasons for this. We have already seen the rise of less democratic leaders in the Netherlands and Italy, and there is a corresponding trend in Asia. China’s alternative model of governance, which prioritizes economic development over civil liberties, is increasingly appealing. Many voters have become disenchanted with Western democracies in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world, and are actively looking for something else. Combine that with social media amplifying the message of candidates who can now bypass a press struggling to keep them accountable, and it helps explain the allure of more authoritarian leadership. Artificial intelligence tools will only make things worse, as the proliferation of fake news, misinformation and disinformation inundate the timelines of a largely young and often unquestioning voter demographic.

Asia’s liberal credentials are under significant pressure, according to figures from the International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy (GsoD) Initiative. Only a tiny minority live in a high-performing democracy, with institutions appearing stuck.

From Bangladesh in the coming week to Pakistan and Sri Lanka toward the end of 2024, voters will be having their say. Three of the most consequential elections will be held in Taiwan, Indonesia, and India. Their outcomes will determine the region’s future and democratic trajectory in years to come.

TAIWAN IS THE BRIGHT SPOT
The island is a bright spot among less democratic neighbors. Taiwanese will choose their next president and legislature on Jan. 13. For the most part, they are expected to be vibrant, free, and fair, with an engaged electorate. Voters want a new administration that will manage issues like the economy and jobs but also navigate the difficult and tricky relationship with China. Taiwan regularly scores well on the annual Freedom House report on the state of liberties in countries around the world. Threats to its democracy are mainly external. Beijing poses the biggest existential risk and concerns have been building in the past few years over the Chinese government’s efforts to influence policymaking, media, and the democratic infrastructure.

It wasn’t always like this. For several decades, Taiwan was ruled under a dictatorship, harshly regulated by martial law that was finally abolished in 1987. In fact, it was Southeast Asia in the 1990s and early 2000s that seemed to be the beacon for the golden age for democratization, serving as a model for other developing countries. At that time, Indonesia, which will hold presidential elections on Feb. 14, was just beginning its experiment with democracy and decentralization, after the toppling of strongman dictator and former President Suharto. The rest of the region was also in relatively good shape.

Today, though, as Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council for Foreign Relations, noted recently, it is a long way from that promising period. Timor-Leste is the only fully free democracy in the region, according to Freedom House’s rankings, despite its poverty and isolation.

INDONESIA LOOKING BACK
Indonesians will almost certainly elect the former general and alleged human-rights violator Prabowo Subianto as their next president, along with the eldest son of the incumbent Joko Widodo as vice-president. Many have questioned why in a country of 270 million people, the man most likely to lead is a throwback to the old authoritarian era, the Orde Baru, as it was called, the 32-year rule under Suharto marked as one of the most corrupt and dictatorial in Southeast Asia’s history.

Those who fought against the old order are asking themselves what Prabowo’s ascendancy means for Indonesia’s democracy, and whether it implies a fresh role for the military in politics. That Prabowo’s past has failed to make a dent in his popularity is a testament to his social media game, which has seen him use the image of a cute and cuddly grandfatherly figure to appeal to younger voters. In another ominous sign, the choice of Gibran Rakabuming Raka as his running mate has raised concerns that nepotism and cronyism — hallmarks of the Suharto era — are making a comeback.

INDIA’S ‘MODI FACTOR’

Over several weeks in April and May, India will hold elections for over 600 million registered voters to determine whether Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will govern the world’s most-populous nation for five more years. All the signs point toward another Modi victory. The BJP is playing up his personal popularity, what’s often called the “Modi factor.”

The BJP is celebrating the results of the Dec. 3 state polls that gave it huge wins in the Hindi belt states of Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. The opposition Indian National Congress won in the southern state of Telangana. There is no denying Modi’s pull — he regularly ranks as the most popular leader in the world. It is true that under his rule India has become more globally significant and has enjoyed impressive economic growth. But minorities feel less welcome and safe than ever before, with one report noting that the ruling party and affiliated groups were behind most hate speech incidents against Muslims during the first half of last year. Laws are passed quickly through a parliament, which meets for fewer and fewer days, and a once vibrant and free press has now largely been muzzled or accommodates the BJP and Modi’s hardline Hindu message.

It would be understandable then to feel dispirited and demoralized by the state of Asia’s democracy in 2024. Indeed, simply writing this column has made me wonder whether the experiment with this system of government has failed in the region. Still, it would be churlish to begin the new year with limited optimism, and it is in the very mechanisms of democracy that I keep the faith. Ultimately, voters must and should decide on whether their elected officials are delivering on promises. It would be wise for those in office and those who put them there to remember that the real power rests with them, the people. Another election is hopefully just one term away.

BLOOMBERG OPINION

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