Home Special Coverage Democratic Shocks in Southeast Asia When the Pandemic Strikes

Democratic Shocks in Southeast Asia When the Pandemic Strikes


Thursday (4/1), Regional Support for Elections and Political Transitions or RESPECT held regional discussions on democratic conditions during a pandemic. Activists from various countries conveyed the democratic conditions in their respective countries: Indonesia, Malasia, the Philippines, as well as Thailand and Myanmar. Democracy is not all right. Anxiety and precarious conditions were illustrated by the activists’ presentation.

The Sheraton movement has further slowed down Malaysia’s electoral reforms

Mahathir Mohamad’s reappointment as prime minister of Malaysia in 2018 after 15 years of Malaysia being led by Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Najib Razak, promises a long-awaited electoral reform. However, as time went on, electoral reform turned out to be slow.

“We are disappointed that the reforms are slow, but there are still reforms going on. One of the most significant is the decline in age choosing from 21 years to 18 years. It requires a constitutional amendment,” said the chairman of Bersih 2.0, Thomas Fann.

From Thomas’ statement, both the ruling and opposition parties approved a constitutional amendment to change the voting age. These changes require automatic voter registration, while Malaysia’s General Election Commission (KPU) said it would take one to two years to set up the system. The latest news is that the Malaysian KPU will postpone the election until 2022 due to the pandemic.

“They will postpone 14 months until next year. This puts pressure on young voter rights in Malaysia. Depriving them of their suffrage. Nearly 4 million voters were deprived of their voting rights. If it is automatic, the registration process is based on data, not door-to-door visits,” explained Thomas.

He considered that the Coronavirus disease 2019 or Covid-19 pandemic had been used by the authorities to remain in power. At the end of February 2020, a multiracial coalition formed over the sentiment of ethnic Malay political parties created a political coup that could be seen as changing the outcome of the election. Members of Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party and Malaysian Islamic Parties joined the opposition and formed a new government. Muhyiddin Yasin of the Malaysian Indigenous Peoples Party was appointed by the Sultan to be the new prime minister of Malaysia.

“We see it as a way to change the election. This has a negative impact on democracy in Malaysia because when election were exercised, there was a small group of politicians less than 50 people who decided to betray the old government,” said Thomas.

The political coup movement was known as the Sheraton Movement. Movement actors consolidate their movement at the Sheraton Hotel.

According to Thomas, during the pandemic the parliament could not run. However, the government persuaded the Sultan to declare a state of emergency and postpone the elections. The Sultan rejected the proposal. Surprisingly, the government recently passed a law that could pass a budget plan for the government even without the state treasury’s approval.

“Just yesterday the government launched a new law whereby they can increase the government budget without having to pass through the treasurer to ask for more money due to Covid. So, Covid strengthens authoritarianism,” said Thomas.

The Philippines and authoritarianism dressed in a “war” against drugs and communism

The pandemic complements the suppression of public liberty in the Philippines. In 2020 itself, several phenomenal cases occurred. First, attacks on the media by the government and parties supporting President Duterte, one of which is the ABS-CBN media which was forced to go off the air because of its critical reports of the government. Second, the passing of the anti-terror law. Third, threats, arrests and killings of people suspected of being involved in the sale and distribution of drugs or having links to the communist movement.

“Under the guise of anti-drugs, people are being killed, people are accused of being involved with drugs. Also, people in certain institutions were accused of being involved in the communist movement so that people were threatened, even killed,” said the Secretary General of the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), Eric Alvia.

As an effort to fight against laws that are considered controversial and detrimental to society and democracy, 37 petitions were filed by various parties to the Supreme Court.

The Philippines will hold a Presidential Election in 2022. These elections will determine whether democracy and civil liberties are restored in the Philippines.

“The elections will determine whether we will recover from this time and the setbacks we face or what. Because, what the government has done, has frozen long-term liberal populism, “said Eric.

Per the discussion, the idea for an early election in the 2022 Philippine Presidential Election has emerged. Of the 7 million new voters, only 2 million have entered the voter list. Meanwhile, the deadline for voter registration is the end of September or in six months.

The narrower space for participation in policy-making in Indonesia

The pandemic that hit Indonesia caused the government to impose social restrictions, especially in the capital city. This limitation has narrowed the space for public participation in the law-making process. The ratification of the Omnibus Law on Cipta Kerja in a short time prompted thousands of students and civilians to take to the streets, rejecting the law which many see will further torment workers during the pandemic.

“By reason of a pandemic, the making of laws takes place very quickly and instantaneously without meaningful public involvement,” concluded a member of Supervisory Board of the Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem), Titi Anggraini.

The holding of Regional head elections (Pilkada) during the pandemic also took place with a number of notes. The increase in the number of regions with single candidate pairs is in the spotlight, because political recruitment, which has not been transparent and democratic, has become increasingly common when Pilkada is held during a pandemic. Covid-19 also infected at least 70 candidates with 7 candidates dying during the Pilkada stage and 4 elected candidates dying before being inaugurated, as well as 140 election organizers throughout the region.

“The election in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, the implementation in Indonesia, shows that it is very risky and should not be carried out carelessly because the stakes are the safety of human life,” said Titi.

In addition, Titi also touched on the potential setbacks of democracy in Indonesia. At present, there is an offer for a presidential term of a maximum of three terms or 15 years, from the current regulation a maximum of two terms or 10 years in the constitution. The limitation of the two-term presidential term is a souvenir from the 1998 Reform, as an evaluation of the unlimited presidential term during President Soeharto’s authoritarian regime.

Low voter turnout in Thai Local Elections

Local elections were held during the pandemic on December 20, 2020 and March 28, 2021. From the monitoring of the Asian Network for Free Election (ANFREL), the voter turnout rate is low. Thailand election commission targets voter turnout of more than 70 percent, but what happened was only 57 to 58 percent.

According to ANFREL Executive Director Chandanie Watawala, the low participation in Thailand’s local elections is caused by several reasons, namely the lack of socialization and voter education, lack of interest in politics, and the unavailability of alternative election methods that voters can choose from. “During the pandemic, people find it difficult to return to their hometowns to vote. Meanwhile, there is no alternative method to choose. This is also a factor in the low voter turnout during the pandemic,” said Chandanie.

Chandanie also saw the lack of interest in the Thai media in covering local elections. After the election was held, not a single print media reported on the election process.

The fall of the 2020 Myanmar Election results

Funding for elections is not cheap, especially elections with health protocols that cause election costs to swell for the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE). However, despite sacrificing the state budget, the Myanmar 9 December 2020 Election was rejected by a number of opposition political parties on the grounds of massive fraud. ANFREL monitoring report, there were indeed some frauds in the 2020 Myanmar Election, but this was not massive and the principles of organizing an honest and fair election were still fulfilled.

“They spend a lot of money on elections. ANFREL also monitors the Myanmar elections. However, the distrust of the election process and results was used to carry out a coup,” said Chandanie.

In organizing the 2020 Election, the Myanmar UEC, said Chandanie, has done various things to make the election a success. The UEC is working with health authorities on risk mitigation work, as well as working with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) and The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) to train polling station officers.

Regional solidarity is expected to be able to strengthen civil resilience

In the midst of a pandemic and many non-democratic challenges from actors emerging from democratic elections, even though they are still procedural, it is hoped that civil society between countries in the Southeast Asia region can maintain the consolidation and connectedness of the movement. Democracy can survive with an active and dynamic civil society. Solidarity that can distribute moral, movement and material support is needed.

“Maintain a diverse and dynamic civil society. The consolidation and connectivity of civil society movements through synergy and solidity between CSOs (civil society organizations), student movements, academics, media, and other parties across issues and actors is very important. And also, make sure that the military is not involved in political activities,” suggested Titi at the end of the discussion.

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