Southeast Asian ruling parties, history shows, seldom lose elections. Only four have done so this century – Indonesia’s Golkar in 2004, Thailand’s Democrat Party in 2001 and 2011 and Myanmar’s military-run United Solidarity and Development Party in 2015.
Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which had been in power consecutively since 1957, can now be added to that list after it lost a momentous general election on Wednesday, despite now former Prime Minister Najib Razak employing every manipulative tactic he had to hand.
In a result that caught most political analysts and pollsters off-guard, the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition stormed to victory, winning 122 of the lower house’s 222 seats.
On Thursday evening, Mahathir Mohamad, a former prime minister who quit the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and joined the opposition alliance in 2016, was sworn in as the country’s new premier.
During most of the day, it seemed that Najib was wrangling for some way to remain in power but in the end his party conceded defeat.
The shock electoral result has sent ripples throughout Southeast Asia, a region which has witnessed a significant deterioration in democracy in recent years.
In July, Cambodians head to the polls in a general election devoid of the country’s largest opposition party, which was summarily dissolved in November. Thailand’s military junta has delayed calling an election for years.
Myanmar’s civilian-led government, led by former pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, has disappointed even its most ardent supporters. And Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte looks increasingly authoritarian by the day.
But some analysts are now asking whether Malaysia’s election result could reverse this illiberal trend and serve as the region’s so-called first democratic domino.
“The Malaysian election shows that there are limits to malfeasance and rights abuses that people are prepared to accept, meaning that elites like Najib who take the people for granted will pay a heavy price,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told Asia Times.
Wednesday’s ballot also shows citizens in the region that a country ruled by one party for six decades can be removed from power and, regardless of how much a ruling party gerrymanders and distorts a country’s political system, it is not impossible for an electoral rival to overcome hefty odds.
“Hopefully, some governments may take this as a signal that they should do better in representing the people’s interests,” Robertson said.
Tash Aw, a distinguished Malaysian author, summed up the national mood when he wrote that “Malaysians can exult in the knowledge that they took part of the greatest show of democracy this country has ever seen.”
Citizens across Southeast Asia have been equally jubilant. Singaporeans, who have also been controlled by one party since the 1950s, took to social media to praise their Malaysian neighbors, as well as ponder whether they might achieve a similar electoral surprise at their own general election, due by 2021.
Thaksin Shinawatra, a former democratically-elected Thai prime minister who was ousted in a military coup in 2006, was quick to heap praise on Mahathir for the victory. “The power of the people has spoken loud and clear that they do not only remember his outstanding legacy but needed his leadership,” Thaksin wrote on Facebook.
The Pheu Thai Party, the latest incarnation of Thaksin’s now-dissolved Thai Ruk Thai Party, is no doubt hoping to instigate a similar electoral surprise when Thailand’s military junta led by Prayut Chan-ocha eventually holds general elections, now slated for February 2019.
Timor-Leste, widely regarded at the strongest democracy in Southeast Asia, despite being the region’s poorest nation, is set for another general election this weekend, after last year’s returned a weak minority government that couldn’t form a mandate. It is expected to take place freely and fairly.
Yet, not everyone is optimistic that Malaysia’s election result will be a harbinger for greater democracy in the region; quite the opposite, in fact.
Robertson says that, despite his hopes, he expects most other Southeast Asian leaders to take the election result as a warning and “crack down harder on civil society and the media to ensure there are no threats to their power.”
“If anything, governments in countries like Vietnam, Laos, and Singapore will take it as a cautionary tale to put a brake on democratic liberalization,” he added.
The victory of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar’s 2015 general election, which overturned five decades of military rule, was also heralded as a hopeful new phase for Southeast Asian democracy.
But now, three years on, all optimism has faded as the military still maintains considerable power, “ethnic cleansing” has been unleashed against the country’s Muslim Rohingya population, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee across the border, and most political reforms promised by the NLD have failed to materialize.
Instead, Suu Kyi’s civilian government has harassed the media, staunchly supported the rights-abusing military and, all in all, shown itself to be anything but democratic when in power rather than the opposition.
The same sense of optimism betrayed might soon strike Malaysia, some analysts think, given that this democratic happening has just voted in as prime minister the man responsible for much of the country’s long-entrenched political problems.
Mahathir arguably fitted the bill of a “developmental dictator” when he previously served as prime minister between 1981 and 2003, though he has now promised to restore rule of law, improve human rights and ensure greater freedoms for Malaysians. This waits to be seen.
But what Southeast Asia’s other autocrats will no doubt consider is how economics affected the Malaysian election. Although economic growth has remained strong under Najib’s rule, growing between 4% and 7% per year, Malaysians have been hit with a substantial rise in the cost of living in recent years, affecting the poor and middle class alike.
Merdeka Centre, a local pollster, found in a November survey that 72% of respondents considered the economy as the foremost concern of the election.
While both sides made lavish and populist economic promises on the campaign trial, arguably the Harapan coalition’s pledge to scrap the unpopular Goods and Services Tax (GST) and replace it with a sales and services tax drew significant support from the public.
One of Mahathir’s first announcements on the morning after the election was to confirm that his government will scrap the GST.
Just as important, Najib’s numerous handouts failed to win his coalition significant support, an indication perhaps that people prefer sound economic plans rather than state-provided charity. Serial philanthropes like Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen might take note.
“Politics in Southeast Asia is the politics of economic growth,” Takashi Shiraishi, chancellor of Japan’s Prefectural University of Kumamoto, summed it up neatly when speaking to Japanese media this week. “The political arena remains stable only as long as the government fulfills expectations that living standards will rise. But as soon as it fails, stability goes out the door.”
Financial insecurity, despite strong GDP growth rates, is a hard fact of economic life that most of the region’s autocrats currently face.
Even in socialist Laos and Vietnam, which have been one-party states since 1975 and have enjoyed enviable economic growth rates in recent years, financial problems are among the primary reasons for growing displeasure with the ruling Communist parties, as well as a growing sense that democracy might be possible alternatives.
The latest Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index, a report compiled by state and non-state actors, found most Vietnamese citizens feel poverty is now their biggest concern. 21% of respondents said their financial situation was deteriorating; up from 13% in 2016’s poll.