Populism, illicit electoral financing and the politics of identity are amongst the biggest threats to democracy in Southeast Asia, experts and policy makers from across the region concluded at a two-day conference on Democracy in Southeast Asia.
Opening the conference, the sixth president of the Republic of Indonesia, 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.” The former President added that “many politicians are learning that shallow populism can be a short-cut to public office.”
Yves Leterme, former Prime Minister of Belgium and Secretary-General of International IDEA pleaded with “all nations in Southeast Asia to ensure that the gains made over the past decades in electoral integrity are maintained and that tendencies towards sectarianism and identity politics are minimized to ensure that democracy building in the region can endure for generations to come.”
Southeast Asia’s pluralistic societies are seen as one of the region’s key strengths and many participants expressed concern over growing sectarianism and manipulation of identity politics by political leaders. The emergence of ideologies claiming race or religion-based majoritarianism over other segments of society was identified as posing a central threat to the democratic process.
Several panels pointed to the central role of strong and independent electoral management bodies to safeguard the electoral process. It was also recognized that elections alone are not sufficient for healthy democratic governance: Surin Pitsuwan, former Foreign Minister of Thailand and former Secretary General of ASEAN pointed out that while elections are the established mechanism for the peaceful arbitration of political rivalry, elections without integrity cannot provide the winners with legitimacy, the losers with security and the public with confidence in their leaders and institutions.
In his closing statement, Dr 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.”
The conference, held in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, brought together political leaders, civil society representatives and media from across ten countries across Southeast Asia.
Key takeaways will be captured in a synthesis report expected to be published in October 2017, containing cutting-edge approaches to strengthening democracy and electoral integrity throughout Southeast Asia.