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The More Things Change: Elections and Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia

30 Aug 2023
By Dr Avery Poole
ASEAN leaders achieve 5 points of consensus at the ASEAN Summit at #ASEC today (24/04)
Today, I accompanied President @jokowi in the ASEAN Leaders Meeting which discussed the situation in Myanmar and was initiated by Indonesia. Source: picryl /

Is Southeast Asia really becoming more authoritarian? And what are the implications for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)?

Recent developments in Thailand have reinforced the notion that there is a trend towards authoritarianism in Southeast Asia. The inability of the progressive Move Forward Party to form government after a convincing election result is another example of the durability of authoritarian institutions, and the tendency of elections in the region to fail to advance democracy.

Elections and transitions (or not)

The announcement in mid-August 2023 that Thailand’s Pheu Thai Party had reached a coalition agreement with the military-backed United Thai Nation party represented the culmination of several months of post-election jostling. Despite winning the highest number of House of Representatives seats in the May 2023 general election, Move Forward – known for its anti-establishment orientation and proposal to amend Thailand’s lèse-majesté law – was blocked from forming government by the military-dominated Senate.

On 22 August 2023, Pheu Thai’s Sretta Thavisin was appointed Thailand’s new Prime Minister. On the same day, Hun Manet assumed his role as Cambodia’s new Prime Minister, replacing his father Hun Sen, who held the role for nearly four decades. This followed the Cambodian People’s Party’s landslide win in the July 2023 elections – amid repression of opposition parties and independent media. Hun Sen described the appointments in Cambodia and Thailand as reflecting a “unique synchronicity.” For democrats in the region, these developments reiterate a curious theme: that the holding of elections is not, in itself, indicative of democracy. In fact, elections often represent the reinforcement of durable authoritarian institutions.

This is not a new phenomenon in Southeast Asia. The Philippines and Indonesia have both held regular elections since their democratic transitions (in 1986 and 1998, respectively). In more recent years, however, civil and political rights have regressed in the Philippines, particularly during former President Rodrigo Duterte’s infamous war on drugs. In Indonesia, democratic rule is well developed in some respects but poorly institutionalised in others; under President Jokowi there has been greater concentration of power in the executive and some suppression of criticism.

In other states with long-dominant parties and little meaningful opposition, elections are generally a predictable affair, albeit with some more recent disruption. In Malaysia, the first peaceful transition of power in 61 years took place in May 2018 when a majority government was formed by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. This transition has, however, been tenuous, with a major political crisis during 2020-22 and a snap election after which PH ultimately re-formed government. In Singapore, the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) appears more vulnerable than in the past; its share of the popular vote slid to 60 percent in 2011, but it regained some ground in 2015 (70 percent) before slipping again in 2020 (61 percent).

Other states in the region are persistently authoritarian; Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar continue to be closed autocracies. And in Myanmar – perhaps the most repressive regime in the region – state violence is routinely used to quell dissent against the military junta. While the 2010 elections led to a long-overdue transition to civilian government, a coup in February 2021 returned the military to power and anti-coup activists and critics have been arrested and detained.

Implications for ASEAN

The continued – and perhaps increasing – authoritarianism among Southeast Asian states has various implications for ASEAN. Among the most visible and concerning is the undermining of ASEAN’s ability to respond to the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. Since Myanmar’s admission to ASEAN in 1997, the Association has grappled with the humanitarian imperative to respond to the intermittent crises in Myanmar, and the criticism from international actors for failing to do so. ASEAN’s so-called “constructive engagement” of Myanmar has clearly failed. Taking a harder line by being outwardly critical of Myanmar’s recalcitrant military regime has also been ineffectual.

Authoritarianism in Southeast Asian states means that ASEAN is less likely to uphold democratic norms or respond to unconstitutional changes of government in its member states. The 2007 ASEAN Charter, which refers to the importance of democracy and human rights, gave democrats some hope that the Association would take a firmer stance on these core principles. In particular, many hoped that ASEAN would be prepared to pressure the military junta in Myanmar to retreat from politics and that the intermittent humanitarian crises in the country would cease.

Following the 2021 coup, ASEAN states (including Myanmar) signed a “Five-Point Consensus” stating that there would be a “cessation of violence” in Myanmar and constructive dialogue would commence to find a peaceful solution. ASEAN offered to mediate the dialogue and to provide humanitarian assistance. However – fairly predictably – Myanmar’s ruling State Administration Council has not conformed to the Consensus, and state violence continues. The long-standing ASEAN principle of non-interference in internal affairs means the Association is unlikely to take action that goes beyond diplomatic gestures.

Increasing authoritarianism among ASEAN member states means that taking a harder line on Myanmar is less and less likely, because of the precedent it would set. Governments are keen to avoid scrutiny of their own affairs.

This is not to suggest that all ASEAN members are resisting a harder line on Myanmar. Indonesia, the current ASEAN chair, has been the most active state in terms of holding meetings with parties to the conflict and engaging in other forms of quiet diplomacy. But Jokowi has admitted that there has been “no significant progress” in the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus.

Had Move Forward been able to form government in Thailand, we might have seen greater pressure on Myanmar. The prospect of new political parties resisting the durability of monarchy- and military-dominated regimes was tantalising for democrats in the region. While election results may not currently be yielding democratic change, the voices of a progressive and engaged next generation are unlikely to be easily silenced.

Dr Avery Poole is an Affiliate in the School of Politics and International Relations at Monash University. Her research explores regional cooperation and policy coordination in Southeast Asia. She has also published in the areas of East Asian multilateralism and Australian engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly regarding Australia-Indonesia relations.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.