Serious challenge for democracy in S-E Asia

Serious challenge for democracy in S-E Asia
Anti-government protesters shouting slogans outside a stadium in Bangkok on Dec23. Elections in Thailand have been the source of political conflict for nearly a decade.

Scenes of mass popular protests in Bangkok and Phnom Penh have alarmed those who consider the ballot box the bedrock of democracy. The protesters in both capitals are demanding that the winners of successive democratic elections leave power and, in the case of Thailand, surrender sovereignty to an unelected people's council.

Democracy is facing a serious challenge in South-east Asia. The reasons for this are simple: as popular sovereignty gains traction and ordinary voters really start to have a say in who governs, the traditional power alignments and ordering of societies are fracturing.

Faced with unpredictable outcomes at the ballot box that threaten their interests, usually conservative forces are resisting electoral change and challenging the legal basis of the democratic process. And they are doing this by harnessing popular protest and threatening violence, as is the case in Thailand. And when the establishment wins, the opposition cries foul and seeks to overturn the result, again using the power of the mob.

As a result, after a long period of struggle to establish democratic representation as the basis of government in the region, the electoral process is turning into a flashpoint for violence and conflict.

In Malaysia, elections in May brought the ruling conservative Malay-dominated Barisan Nasional coalition to the edge of defeat. The opposition alliance won a plurality of the popular vote in peninsular Malaysia but not the election overall based on the total number of parliamentary seats won. Opposition leaders urged supporters to rally against the result - which was deemed legal by the election authorities. Several weeks of mass rallies rattled the government but failed to undermine the result.

There were similar scenes in Cambodia a few months later in July, when the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party came close to defeating the Cambodian People's Party, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, South-east Asia's longest-serving elected leader. Months of protests and rallies followed as the opposition boycotted the new Parliament and demanded that Mr Hun Sen resign.

Elections in Thailand have been the source of political conflict for nearly a decade. The flashpoint was former police officer Thaksin Shinawatra's landslide election win in 2005, which made him the first premier in Thailand's six decades of democracy to enjoy a commanding parliamentary majority. Thaksin's election, with a clear majority on the back of populist policies, made the conservative elite closely associated with the palace and military nervous. The result was a military coup in 2006 that ousted him.

One explanation for this foment around election results is that democratic systems are maturing and being run more transparently. As a result, voters are better informed and make genuine choices at the ballot box. So, when political parties or leaders present appealing programmes, they inevitably result in swings from one side to another, which upset the traditional balance of forces in paternalistic societies.

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