The world will have its eyes on Asia in 2019 as the people of the Philippines, Thailand, India, and Indonesia are set to cast their ballots in the upcoming months. Elections in each of these countries are crucial as they will test the resilience of electoral democracy in a region which has been swept by a brand of populism unique to Asia. This populist trend conflates other phenomena which are becoming more salient: the polarization of politics, the erosion the secular state, and the steady shift towards authoritarianism.

One of the most commonly accepted definitions of populism was developed by Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. Fundamental to Mudde’s conception of populism is the tension between the morally pure populace and a self-serving political elite perceived as corrupt. Based on this premise, he argues that populist leaders appeal to the people by claiming that they alone can represent them, while accusing the elites of putting their own interests first. Mudde also notes that populism is a thin-centered ideology, meaning that it is often combined with other ideologies to justify a certain political or economic agenda, such as socialism or nationalism. Thus, populism can be found anywhere within the political spectrum and can take different forms.

Unlike in Europe, populism in Asia is much less focused on economic decline and immigration. Instead, it is centred around issues such as countering crime, religious and ethnic divides, and appealing to a disgruntled middle class which is losing faith in their leaders’ ability to address inequality and the provision of social services.

In the last few years, many populist leaders have risen to power by portraying themselves as outsiders capable of solving problems caused by the old generation of established political elites. One can think of the Philippines’ Duterte, whose 2016 election platform ran on his anti-establishment and tough-on-crime image.

Populist leaders tend to make policy promises often targeted at the lower classes with the purpose of garnering wide political support. Although these policies seem appealing to the voters, they are often unsustainable in the long-term, and are thus more of a political strategy than a meaningful reform.

In Thailand, populist leaders have been successful at appealing to the urban and rural poor who make up the majority of the population. Thaksin Shinawatra, a businessman turned politician who was in power from 2001 to 2006, championed pro-poor policies such as universal healthcare, low-cost housing schemes and farm debt suspension. Despite their success and popularity among rural voters, critics argued that Thaksin’s policies were “irresponsible” because they contributed to a growing public debt and were allegedly used to buy off the rural poor. Thaksin’s populist tendencies became more and more apparent as a crisis emerged.

He began to describe his opponents as a conspiring traditional elite and identified the poor as the Thai people. Amidst allegations of corruption and abuse of power, Thaksin turned to increasingly undemocratic measures, like the suppression of critical media outlets and an aggressive anti-drug campaign which violated human rights. These behaviours led to large-scale protests by right-wing groups such as the Yellow shirts, which eventually provoked a military coup that ended Thaksin’s rule.

The legacy of the Thaksin-era is still felt today in the polarization of Thai politics. The country is split between two opposing camps: the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts and the conservative Yellow Shirts. Recently, the military government led by Prayut Chan-o-cha has been accused of gerrymandering, censoring social media and arresting activists linked to the Red Shirt movement in an attempt to clamp down on opposition. With elections on the horizon, Thailand remains more divided than ever.

In India, populism is intertwined with nationalist and religious elements. Hindu nationalism has become a prominent political ideology which sees Hindus as the exclusive owners of the country, an idea that runs contrary to the spirit of secularism enshrined in the Indian constitution. Leaders of major parties and their affiliates, particularly Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have not hesitated to use religious rhetoric to shore up support before the upcoming elections. Even Rahul Gandhi, leader of the Congress Party and great-grandson of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who is known for his commitment to secularism, has been visiting Hindu temples in an attempt to sway voters away from the BJP.

Despite recent polls showing a decline in support for Modi, the prime minister is still widely seen as a the most popular politician. There is concern among mainstream voters that Modi’s Hindu nationalist rhetoric will continue to fuel religious polarization. In northern India, assaults against the Muslim population by nationalist Hindu vigilantes over cattle protection have increased since Modi took power in 2014.

Religion has similarly been occupying a bigger role in Indonesian politics. Muslims in the country have become more pious and more conservative. Many of them consider President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) not sufficiently Islamic, and overly accommodating towards minority interests. As a response to these criticisms, Jokowi has tried to court the Islamic support, notably by appointing Ma’ruf Amin, a conservative cleric, as his running mate for the April 2019 elections. However, Jokowi has also strengthened a law to ban civil organizations deemed to go against the state’s secular ideology, a move which has fueled the anger of Muslim hardliners who advocate for Islamic law to be imposed in Indonesia. Jokowi has also backed the police forces’ attempt to hinder the activities of some anti-Jokowi groups in several cities, which he considered necessary to maintain public order. Once lauded for its democratic achievements and religious tolerance, Indonesia’s slow but steady authoritarian turn is concerning.

Although it can be argued that populist policies are not inherently bad, recent examples in Asia show that they exacerbate existing tensions between different groups within a country. In Thailand, the Red Shirt-Yellow Shirt rivalry has penetrated all levels of society, and is likely to continue or even worsen post-election. In India and Indonesia, the resurgence of ethnic and religious conflict has intensified political competition between groups living in the same pluralistic societies. These divides have tempted political leaders to ride the wave of populism in order to win votes, effectively undermining the democratic foundations of these societies.

Much is at stake for Asia in 2019. More than just determining who gets to sit in power, the elections will test the people’s resolve to defend their hard-fought democratic gains. No matter who the winners and losers of this year’s elections may be, populist forces will likely continue to take toll on institutions and democratic norms across Asia. Until the grievances of an increasingly disillusioned populace are properly addressed, it will be difficult for both electors and politicians to resist the lure of populism.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Featured image by Prachatai, via Flickr Creative Commons.