Connecting Regions of Asia.

COVID-19 Eroding Electoral Democracy In Southeast Asia

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COVID-19 has allowed governments across Southeast Asia to further chip away at already fragile democratic institutions. The pandemic has enabled governments to alter election schedules, reschedule parliamentary sittings and encumber political opponents. While some of these moves may have legitimate public health purposes, others were purely orchestrated for controlling parties’ political gain. 
The above was a key finding in Asia Centre’s baseline study “COVID-19 and Democracy in Southeast Asia: Building Resilience, Fighting Authoritarianism,” released on 9 December 2020 to mark the United Nations International Human Rights Day. The 54-page report, compiled from July to November 2020, examines the state of democracy and human rights in the Southeast Asia region from 1 January to 30 November 2020.
In 2020, sitting governments intentionally manipulated the timing and execution of elections to reap political benefits. As a result of public health concerns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, face-to-face campaigning was limited, enabling incumbents and larger political parties with more resources to get disproportionate exposure in comparison to challengers and smaller parties. Voters also risked exposure to the COVID-19 virus as election officials struggled to administer safe voting practices during the pandemic.Here in Myanmar, the government did not push up, altogether cancel, or delay the 2020 general election, despite urging from opposition parties and others to delay the election due to public health concerns. However, citing security issues, the government selectively cancelled voting in some ethnic minority areas, especially impacting Rakhine state. This disenfranchised scores of otherwise eligible voters and boosted the incumbent National League of Democracy’s (NLD) prospects of victory. Discontent bubbled up for pressing on with the election despite the gradual increase of COVID-19 infections in Myanmar during the peak campaign season of August and September. As fears of the virus festered, questions arose about the military’s role and campaign protocols favouring the NLD. Moreover, limits on international election observers increased citizens’ suspicion and distrust about the electoral process. When campaign protocols from the Union Election Commission were announced just one day prior to the official commencement of campaigning, observers noted that this rollout’s timing benefits the NLD, to the detriment of smaller ethnic minority parties. With its mass of volunteers, prominent pre-existing social media presence, and door-to-door canvassing capacity, the NLD’s ultimate electoral victory became increasingly likely. While Myanmar pushed forward with an on-schedule election despite COVID-19, other governments altered their election schedules for apparent political gain, also benefitting their respective ruling parties. The Singaporean government’s June 2020 dissolution and announcement of snap elections raised questions about the dominant People’s Action Party’s (PAP) intentions. On the back of public anger rising from the government’s COVID-19 mismanagement, the PAP government pressed on to hold a snap general election. The ruling party was ultimately re-elected, albeit with reduced vote share and parliament seats. Other governments used the pandemic as leverage to delay – rather than hasten – elections. In Indonesia, President Jokowi’s Regulation in Lieu of Law No. 2/2020 introduced executive authority to postpone regional elections and their preparation until further notice during disasters, citing the COVID-19 pandemic. This strategic move came at a time when Indonesia was a hotbed of COVID-19 infections and citizens largely held the government accountable for its inaction to mitigate the pandemic. While this may have been the correct decision from a public health perspective, it also had the effect of delaying a public referendum on the government’s COVID-19 mismanagement.The dissolution of Malaysia’s reformist, multi-ethnic coalition government in February 2020 and the re-establishment of a backdoor government garnered widespread discontent and mistrust in democratic elections. Amidst discussions of an estimated election budget, voting provisions for quarantined citizens, and statements from Prime Minister (PM) Muhyiddin Yassin suggesting the need for snap elections, Malaysia has been at the forefront of electoral turbulence – which has yet to be resolved. Governments in the region have also tampered with parliamentary sittings in apparent attempts to prevent their own dissolution or to fast-track legislation.In Malaysia, PM Muhyiddin Yassin has avoided calling parliament sittings due to fear of a no-confidence vote against his backdoor cabinet. This vote has been delayed in his favour since March 2020, in order to prevent another government collapse during COVID-19. Here too, while it is legitimate to avoid government instability during a public health crisis, this delay has benefitted the incumbent party by artificially propping it up in power. With the ruling party’s slim passage of its 2021 budget on 15 December, it narrowly avoided a de facto no-confidence vote. In the Philippines, in order to pass the contested OMNIBUS Guidelines on the Implementation of Community Quarantine bill, House of Representatives meetings were held through Zoom due to pandemic health concerns and to minimize hurdles to the bill’s approval. Ultimately, this benefitted the government as it was able to push through the bill in May and swiftly implement it thereafter. Governments in Southeast Asia have also further stepped up efforts to encumber political opponents during COVID-19, expanding already vigorous pre-existing efforts to dismantle opposition parties before 2020.
Although it was disbanded in 2017, the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s (CNRP) senior members were persecuted in 2020 for criticizing the current government’s COVID-19 response. It has been a longstanding tactic of the Cambodian government to persecute any criticism of its actions by the CNRP as ‘fake news’ or treason, but COVID-19 related movement restrictions and social distancing regulations have provided further tools in the government’s arsenal to attack the former opposition party’s leaders and prevent their supporters from gathering and conducting legitimate political activity. 
Similarly, in Thailand, the constitutionally disbanded Future Forward political party has been the ongoing focus of government efforts to quell pro-democracy protests, due to Future Forward’s relationship with the pro-democracy movement. Furthermore, coinciding with attempts to protect its authority, the Thai Army increased its information operations in 2020 by spreading pro-government propaganda through Twitter and increasing political attacks on rival voices. Citing COVID-19, the Thai government announced a State of Emergency, which hampered the right to peaceful protest. Civil disobedience has since erupted due to frustration with the State of Emergency’s extension, and as of late November 2020 at least 175 protestors have been arrested and charged with public offenses or sedition. 
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte and his cronies have honed their attacks inward toward Duterte’s own administration, focussing in on Vice-President Leni Robrero for her opposing views of the government’s COVID-19 measures. Regardless of whether her COVID-19 views were a ruse to side line Robrero for other reasons or the President Duterte simply does not wish to suffer any criticism of his COVID-19 policies, this is yet another example of the COVID-19 debate and policies being used by sitting governments to suppress opposition.  During the COVID-19 pandemic, governments across the Southeast Asian region have tried to manipulate democratic institutions and practices for their advantage, by issuing policies and protocols advantaging their political interests, altering election and parliamentary schedules in their favour, and criticizing political opponents. These practices inflict long-term damage to the state of democracy in the region. It is imperative to urgently address this regression of democracy in Southeast Asia. If we fail to do so now, the future of democracy in this region is at risk. 
Dr James Gomez is Regional Director of Asia Centre – a not-for-profit organisation working to create human rights impact in the region. Khin Mai Aung is an Asia Centre associate and has practiced American civil rights, immigrant rights, and education law for over 15 years. She was born in Yangon, and immigrated to the United States as a child. 
(This opinion piece is adapted from Asia Centre’s latest report, “COVID-19 and Democracy in Southeast Asia: Building Resilience, Fighting Authoritarianism”, released to mark the United Nations International Human Rights Day, 10 December 2020. )

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