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2018 in review

Elections in Southeast Asia signal uncertain future for democracy

Votes in Malaysia and Cambodia bring starkly different outcomes

Mahathir Mohamad, center, defeated onetime protege Najib Razak in Malaysia's election last year, ending over 60 years of one-party rule (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

TOKYO -- Southeast Asia faces mixed prospects for democracy after two contrasting elections this year -- one in Malaysia that sent a corrupt government packing and another in Cambodia that reinforced control of an authoritarian leader.

The Malaysian election in May stunned the world by bringing back 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister. The odds had been stacked against the opposition. Then-Prime Minister Najib Razak had redrawn the electoral map to his advantage and led a crackdown on "fake news" in an attempt to silence critics.

Yet those maneuvers failed to quell voter disgust with Najib's government ensnared in the $4.5 billion 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal.   

In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen tightened his grip on power in a widely criticized election two months later. His ruling Cambodian People's Party won all parliamentary seats after the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in 2017 on accusations that it plotted to take over the government with U.S. help.

Cambodia also shut down an English-language newspaper critical of the government by forcing its sale to a Malaysian businessman through a tax claim. Hun Sen squelched public criticism against corruption with a draconian crackdown.

Both countries last held elections in 2013, when opposition forces made big strides and nearly took over the government. Five years later, their paths have diverged.

While Malaysia made progress toward democracy by ending an era of one-party rule dating to the country's independence in 1957, most of Southeast Asia faces a dimmer outlook.

In a World Bank ranking of democracy among nations for 2017, Indonesia and Myanmar were the only two Southeast Asian countries to improve from 1996, rising to 101st and 156th, respectively. The region's eight other countries declined, with the Philippines falling to 105th and Thailand dropping to 161st.

The Philippines and Thailand led democratic movements in Southeast Asia during the mid-1980s. Indonesia began such a process after the fall of President Suharto in 1998, and Myanmar initiated democratic reforms in 2011.

But Myanmar seems to be in retreat, as journalists covering the persecution of Rohingya Muslim minorities were convicted and jailed this year on claims of leaking national secrets.

The waning presence of the U.S. and the rise of China's influence in the region are at play. While President Donald Trump skipped the East Asia Summit in November, China pledged increased aid to Cambodia and Myanmar, both facing criticism from the West.

China has become an economic superpower by thoroughly suppressing democratic movements. This trajectory could influence Southeast Asian leaders aspiring for economic success.

Thailand faces a test for democracy with its election in February. Though the country ostensibly is returning to a civilian government after the 2014 coup, the junta's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha could stay in power by garnering support from a pro-military political party.

Indonesia's election, set for April, represents a rematch between President Joko Widodo and former Army officer Prabowo Subianto.

But Widodo named Muslim cleric Ma'ruf Amin as his vice presidential candidate, likely in an attempt to secure support from Muslims, who account for nearly 90% of the population. The selection means that Muslim hard-liners may gain influence in the government, casting a shadow over democracy.

Thailand suffered the biggest slide in the World Bank ranking over the two decades, while Indonesia saw the biggest gain. The upcoming elections in the two countries competing to lead Southeast Asia may offer insights into the future of democracy in the region.

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