Two cheers for democracy in Southeast Asia?: recent elections in Malaysia, the Philippines and Cambodia

As Australia approaches its own poll, 2013 has seen three national elections across Southeast Asia. This Flagpost outlines the results and the controversies, and possible implications for Australia’s regional engagement.


Malaysia’s 5 May poll saw the return of the ruling National Front (Barisan Nasional—BN) coalition which won a plurality of seats (133 out of 222) over the opposition People’s Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat—PR), despite recording the lowest-ever share of the popular vote (46.5%).

Criticism of Malaysia’s electoral system and allegations of fraud involving foreign voters featured heavily in the campaign with PR’s leader, Anwar Ibrahim, leading a series of rallies protesting the results. More important to the outcome, however, was the effectiveness of BN’s rural campaign—described by one analyst as ‘the visible tip of a party machine that reaches into the very heart of rural Malay society’.

While a major disruption to relations would have been unlikely, a PR victory may have been awkward for the Australian Government given that it had rebuked Anwar’s repeated calls to send election observers, PR had publicly expressed some scepticism towards the proposed ‘Malaysia-solution’ for dealing with regional people smuggling, and the fact that PR had said it would review a controversial investment by an Australian mining company on environmental grounds.

BN’s victory does not, however, rule out controversies ahead. As one analyst points out, probable post-election instability in BN and heightened concerns in Australia’s Parliament about Malaysia’s democratic record could both undermine bipartisan support for a stronger bilateral relationship.

The Philippines

The mid-term congressional elections in the Philippines on 13 May encompassed contests for 18,000 elected positions, including 12 senators, 229 district members of the House of Representatives, and 80 provincial governors. These contests pitted President Benigno Aquino’s Liberal Party (LP)-led coalition against the opposition United Nationalist Alliance (UNA). The mid-terms were seen as an important test of recent reforms aimed at enhancing participation, increasing transparency, and curbing election-related violence.

While Aquino’s coalition allies fared well in both houses, the results also highlighted the entrenched position of powerful dynasties in the Philippine political system.

Australia has publicly supported some of President Aquino’s key reforms, including a 2012 peace accord aimed at resolving the longstanding conflict in the country’s south. Canberra will likely welcome his strengthened mandate. For his part, President Aquino has called for closer strategic ties with Australia in the face of Manila’s heightened territorial and maritime disputes with China.


Cambodia’s 28 July elections for its 123-member National Assembly attracted significant attention from human rights groups. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who heads the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), expelled 28 opposition members from parliament prior to the election.

Independent observers have highlighted systemic flaws in Cambodia’s electoral process. Others, however, believe a growing urban youth vote offers longer-term hope with young Cambodians ‘increasingly pushing for electoral reforms and more transparency in the electoral process’.

It seems this group had some impact. While its leader, Sam Rainsy, was ineligible to run, the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) made significant ground, reducing the government’s majority by over 20 seats according to unofficial results. Nevertheless, the CNRP has rejected the result and demanded an investigation into election irregularities, with UN involvement.

Prior to the poll, some members of the US Congress called for cuts in aid to Cambodia if the elections were not deemed credible. Cambodian opposition politicians encouraged other donors to consider similar measures. In 2013–14, Australia’s aid to Cambodia will reach an estimated $97 million.

Others have suggested that a punitive approach could be self-defeating and further strengthen the influence of other nations, particularly China, in Cambodia. Despite accelerating growth, Cambodia remains a low-income country, with China the country’s biggest investor and a major source of aid and trade. Like other Western donors, Australia faces difficult choices calibrating its support for Cambodia’s economic development in a political environment in which the CPP continues to dominate state institutions and curtail civic space.

Looking ahead…

The next two years will see national elections in Indonesia (2014), Thailand (2015), and Myanmar (2015).

Indonesia has made impressive strides in democracy over the last decade. The focus is now on the strength of the country’s democratic consolidation in the face of growing concerns about rising intolerance towards religious minorities, the influence of money politics, and the political and economic power of local dynasties.

In Thailand, the politics of reconciliation remain finely balanced and the elections will bring the future role of controversial former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, even further to the fore.

In Myanmar, where recent political reforms are in their early stages, opposition parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi has said she will run for president should a constitutional review remove current restrictions on her eligibility. The prospect of some form of constitutional ‘grand bargain’ that addresses this issue, the country’s long-standing ethnic conflicts, and the future role of the military will be closely watched over the next couple of years.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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