For decades, Asia was thought to be unable to translate populist political sentiment into change at the ballot box, with communist autocracies, military dictatorships and paternalistic strongmen ruling so much of the region – seemingly in perpetuity.
Indeed, four of the world’s five remaining communist governments are in Asia (China, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam), the military remains firmly entrenched in the political process in countries such as Indonesia and Myanmar, and de facto one-party rule persists in Singapore. That said, populist political movements have now become prevalent, if not predominant, in the region, resulting in an unusual mix, ranging from democracy to autocratic rule.
Asian populism has produced some surprisingly good and bad leaders over the past couple of decades. The Philippines stands out, having produced presidents as diverse as Joseph Estrada, Benigno Aquino and Rodrigo Duterte, all in the space of 15 years. The wild gyration in the political orientation of its leaders – from the pragmatist Aquino to the bombastic and outrageous Duterte – speaks volumes about the power of popular will, as well as its capriciousness. The net result of Duterte becoming president is dramatic change in the country’s domestic and international landscape, with what is in effect the capsizing of its post-war security relationship with Washington – something Philippine voters certainly did not expect and many do not want.
The same is true in a very different way in Malaysia. While popular will resulted in keeping the status quo in the presidential election of 2013 – with the National Front (and Prime Minister Najib Razak) remaining in power – as a result of the 1MDB scandal and growing disaffection with the Front, Razak’s government is now in trouble. With urban voters increasingly rejecting the ruling coalition, Razak is courting rural Malays, who tend to be more conservative and supportive of some elements of Islamic law.