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Incumbents fight to keep power in series of 2019 Asia elections

Thailand, Indonesia, India, Japan, Philippines and Australia brace for new polls

Voters in some of the Asia-Pacific's biggest economies head to the polls in the new year.   © Reuters

The stunning May election victory of Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad was one of Asia's biggest democratic upsets in recent memory. Elections in 2018 also brought victory for Pakistan's Imran Khan, extended -- albeit in a questionable vote -- the 34-year-reign of Cambodia's Hun Sen, put Nepal's communists in power, and boosted a China-friendly party in Taiwan.

In 2019, voters in Thailand, Indonesia, India, Japan, the Philippines and Australia will cast ballots in major elections. The difference this year is that incumbents in many of the countries appear set to stay in power. But to cement their positions, several are turning to populist measures such as cash handouts to keep voters onside.

Here is a guide to these elections, in chronological order:

Thailand -- General election

When: Planned for Feb. 24

Likely result: None of the three main groups win a majority

The junta seized power in a 2014 coup to restore law and order after months of protests crippled the nation's legislative process. This first poll since military rule began will determine whether Southeast Asia's second-largest economy can regain democracy.

However, that may be a difficult task. The lower house poll is expected to be a three-way race among the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party, the anti-junta Pheu Thai Party and its allies -- with ties to former Prime Ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra -- and a third group that includes the Democrat Party led by another former premier, Abhisit Vejjajiva. None of them are likely to attain a majority, suggesting a need for coalition deals.

If a majority coalition can be formed, and a premier and cabinet selected smoothly, there is likely to be a successful transition from military rule to democracy. But failure to do so could result in the kind of chaos seen in 2014. If this happens, Thais could again lose confidence in the nation's politics, as will the international community -- especially as the country is scheduled to host the 2019 Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in June.

In a bid to attract votes away from the pro-Shinawatra group, the junta government led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is providing "New Year's gifts" of 500 bhat (about $15) to 14.5 million Thais, and plans to give away mobile phone SIM cards to people on low incomes.

While the military government lifted a yearslong ban on political activity in December, many anti-junta parties are waiting for the Thai King to issue a royal decree on Jan. 2 allowing elections to proceed before they start campaigning. If all goes as planned, the government has proposed to hold elections on Feb. 24.

-- MASAYUKI YUDA, Nikkei staff writer


Indonesian President Joko Widodo   © Reuters

Indonesia -- Presidential election and general election

When: April 17

Likely result: President Widodo is reelected to a second term

In a rematch of the 2014 campaign, incumbent Joko Widodo will take on former Gen. Prabowo Subianto in Indonesia's presidential race.

The April matchup is likely to be framed by the sliding Indonesian rupiah, which has given up as much as 11% against the dollar, prompting the nation's central bank to hike interest rates by a total of 175 basis points since May. Widodo's administration has introduced a slew of unorthodox measures aimed at taming the currency's moves.

While inflation has stayed relatively low, the opposition has seized on the foreign exchange fluctuations, with vice presidential candidate Sandiaga Uno targeting housewives with warnings about rising prices. To shore up support, Widodo has promised to double the budget for a program aimed at alleviating poverty.

The 2014 poll saw the rise of religiously and ethnically charged campaigns. The opposition gained the support of conservative Muslims by painting Widodo as un-Islamic. The president appears to have pre-empted such potential slurs this time by choosing elderly Muslim cleric Ma'ruf Amin as his running mate.

Recent polls show the gap between the incumbent and opposition narrowing, but Widodo still enjoys support from 50% of the electorate compared with Subianto's 30%. Even so, the mood can swing quickly over the vast archipelago, so Widodo is working to alleviate people's fears about an economy that is growing more slowly than he pledged five years ago.

-- SHOTARO TANI, Nikkei staff writer


India -- General election

When: Due by May

Likely result: Prime Minister Modi's ruling majority narrows

Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is seeking a second five-year term in office, though it faces a tough challenge from the main opposition Indian National Congress led by Rahul Gandhi.

The BJP suffered major losses to the INC in the November and December regional elections held in key states. Voters were dismayed with rising unemployment, while indebted farmers -- a large slice of the electorate -- marched to the capital four times within a year to demand loan waivers and higher prices for their crops. Economic growth also slowed to 7.1% in the July-September period, down from 8.2% for the previous quarter.

While victories in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh helped the INC revive its fortunes, the opposition is still not seen as strong enough to overthrow the Modi government. Seeking to cement victory, Modi is likely to promise more subsidies to the nation's farmers in a populist move that follows the September rollout of the world's largest government-funded health insurance program.

"We can expect a serious contest coming forward in 2019," said Sanjay Kumar, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. "It will not be a cakewalk for the BJP."

An opinion poll by ABP News and C-Voter in early October forecast that Modi would return to power in 2019, albeit with a reduced majority for the ruling BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. The poll suggests the alliance will walk away with 276 seats of the 543 in the lower house, compared with the 336 seats it won in 2014.

-- KIRAN SHARMA, Nikkei staff writer


Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte   © Reuters

Philippines -- Midterm elections

When: May 13

Likely result: President Duterte's allies maintain hold over Senate and Congress

Up for grabs in the Philippines' midterm elections are half the 24 seats in the Senate, around 300 in Congress, and over 17,000 local government posts, from provincial governors down to city councilors. The polls will test the public mood at the midpoint of President Rodrigo Duterte's six-year term.

The key races will be in the Senate -- the upper house of the country's legislative branch -- where a coalition of parties allied with Duterte will likely retain their majority, according to preliminary surveys conducted by Social Weather Stations in September. Duterte will likely keep his grip on Congress, as its members tend to align themselves with whoever is in power.

At stake is Duterte's bid to create a federal system of government, for which he needs the backing of the Senate. His tax reform program is also under threat: While it has boosted take-home pay for workers, it has also contributed to pushing inflation up toward its highest in a decade. Human rights issues are also expected to figure in the campaigns.

The Senate is seen as a training ground for future presidents. Duterte has backed several candidates with no political experience, including former national police chief Rolando Dela Rosa -- Duterte's enforcer in the brutal drug war -- and Bong Go, the leader's longtime personal aide. Also running are Imee Marcos, daughter of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos -- for whom Duterte brushed off protests to grant her father a hero's burial -- and the sons of two former senators who fought the Marcos dictatorship. 

-- CLIFF VENZON, Nikkei staff writer


Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison   © Reuters

Australia -- General election

When: Expected by May 18

Likely result: Labor returns to power

After years of internal party bickering that led to the ouster of two prime ministers, Australia's conservative Liberal-National coalition is forecast to fall in an election in the first half of 2019, opening the way for the return of a center-left Labor government.

The nation's economy appears to be healthy, and boasts the world's longest economic growth streak in modern history -- now at 27 years. New Prime Minister Scott Morrison has promised a national budget surplus for 2019-20 after over a decade in the red, hoping that room for extra spending and tax cuts will deliver his party to victory.

But the party's claim to a "strong and stable government" has been damaged by policy stagnation and two bruising leadership coups, the latest of which installed Morrison as prime minister in August.

This, along with a slumping housing market, high electricity prices and stagnant wages, will likely see uneasy voters switching support to Labor leader Bill Shorten. The political veteran and ex-union official will prioritize a large renewables-friendly energy policy and intervention in the volatile housing sector. Shorten's proposals on handling chilly economic relations with China, the nation's largest trading partner, will be closely watched.

Polls show Shorten is headed for a landslide. Labor's two-year-long lead in the closely watched Newspoll rose sharply to 10 points in August after the ruling party coup. Morrison's Liberals have governed as a minority since October, when they suffered the embarrassing by-election loss of deposed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's seat. 

-- SARAH HILTON, Nikkei staff writer


Japan -- Upper house election

When: By July 28

Likely result: Prime Minister Abe's coalition keeps majority

Serial election-winner Shinzo Abe's political clout will be tested again in a poll for the less-powerful upper chamber of parliament, scheduled to take place by the end of July. Half the 242 seats will be up for grabs, with winners serving six-year terms.

Together with its coalition partner, Abe's Liberal Democratic Party has won five consecutive national elections -- three in the lower house and two in the upper -- since he returned to office in late 2012. A decisive win this summer will keep Abe on course to becoming Japan's longest-serving prime minister.

Recent polls show Abe's approval ratings falling in recent weeks, which analysts attribute to a revised immigration law that opens the door to more foreign workers, angering the premier's conservative base. Opposition parties may attempt to amplify their criticism that the revision was pushed forward without thorough discussion.

The election comes ahead of a consumption tax hike in October. To prevent a dent in consumer spending, Abe has laid out a generous stimulus package that includes tax cuts for cars and rebates for cashless payments. The additional spending, however, has pushed the proposed budget for fiscal year 2019 to a record 101.4 trillion yen ($900 billion), and the prime minister will face scrutiny over his ability to control the country's finances.

With opposition parties still weak and divided, Abe's coalition is expected to win comfortably. But the LDP is bracing for a long campaign because local elections also will be held nationwide in April. 

-- WATARU SUZUKI, Nikkei staff writer

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