We are just back from the vibrant Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, where for two days we discussed the state of democracy in Southeast Asia. Some the region’s brightest and most prolific activists, researchers and former heads of government warned of a backsliding of democracy across the region. Here are the main takeaways:
Democracy in retreat
Populism, illicit electoral financing and the politics of identity are among the biggest threats to democracy in Southeast Asia. Opening the conference, former Indonesian President Dr. Haji Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono stated that “there is an attempt to swing the pendulum back towards authoritarianism. If this trend gains momentum, it is possible that we will see the reversal of democratic expansion that we have seen in recent decades.”
Pluralism vs politics of identity
Southeast Asia’s pluralistic societies, one of the region’s strengths, are threatened by growing sectarianism and manipulation of identity politics by political leaders. The emergence of ideologies based on race or religion was identified as posing a central threat to the democratic process.
Democracy AND economic development
While some contend that democracy comes at the expense of development and economic progress, President Yudhoyono answered that the Indonesian example demonstrates that one must not come at the expense of the other: in the long run, democracies regularly outperform autocracies economically.
Pragmatic way forward? Safeguard electoral integrity!
In his closing statement, former Secretary Geberal of ASEAN and former Thai Minister for Foreign Affairs Surin Pitsuwan stated that “Southeast Asia needs to re-imagine a more efficient and holistic form of democracy. To progress further, political processes need to include not just society’s upper 10%, but all people, including those who remain at the fringes of society today.” Dr Pitsuwan identified electoral integrity as “the next pragmatic step forward for the region’s progress.”
We are currently working to capture the conference’s salient action points in a report, which will be launched in October 2017. We will share this with you next month.
Executive Director of the Kofi Annan Foundation