By Dr Diego Fossatiand Dr Lee Morgenbesser
Griffith Asia Institute and the Centre for Governance and Public Policy

The notion that democracy had triumphed over authoritarianism became an irresistible conclusion following the downfall of the Soviet Union. In what amounted to a historic transformation, 46 countries transitioned to democracy between 1991 and 2006. This process was particularly evident in Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America, where elite-driven coups and mass-led overthrows precipitated regime change.

Over the past decade, however, the number of democracies around the world not only plateaued, but declined. This alarming trend has been acutely evident in Southeast Asia — a region where no country is ranked “Free” by the organisation Freedom House.

The apparent suddenness of Southeast’s Asia’s “democratic recession” is partly owing to historical circumstance. This is a region that has always displayed recalcitrance to democracy, where universal notions of political rights and civil liberties have never been widespread. The continuity of authoritarian rule has ensured that any optimism about the broader growth of democracy invariably appears misplaced. This inconvenient truth is underscored by current political events, which have plunged Southeast Asia into an even deeper democratic malaise.

The most troublesome development in recent months has been the wanton persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. In an orchestrated campaign by the military, thousands of people have been killed and more than 600,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries. This apparent genocide has occurred under the government of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which many experts and policymakers had hoped would steer Myanmar towards democracy after more than five decades of military rule.

The news from Cambodia is alarming for different reasons. The recent arrest, jailing, and charging of opposition leader Kem Sokha for alleged treason marks the culmination of a steady but sweeping crackdown. The Cambodian People’s Party government of Hun Sen has now sidelined five opposition party leaders, muzzled 15 radio stations, expelled two civil society organisations, and shut down the most independent newspaper in the country. This crackdown marks the final failure of the long-standing international effort to bring peace and democracy to Cambodia.

“Hard-line Islamist groups, once at the fringes of politics, have gained mainstream support and political clout.”

A much less-noticed crackdown has been under way in Vietnam for several months now. The most consistent target has been civil society organisers, online bloggers and democracy promotion activists, all of whom have been quietly detained by the ruling Communist Party. According to Amnesty International, 84 prisoners of conscience are currently being held on false charges ranging from attempting to overthrow the government and propaganda against the state.

The clearest manifestation of a “democratic recession” in the region is found in Thailand. Since launching a coup in May 2014, the military junta headed by Prayut Chan-o-cha has repeatedly used lèse majesté laws to punish dissent and predictably delayed the holding of new elections. Given that democracy is based on the idea that all legitimate authority stems from the consent of those over whom it is exercised, the sanctioning of free and fair elections remains necessary to its return in Thailand.

Indonesia, meanwhile, is facing an unprecedented resurgence of radical Islam. Hard-line Islamist groups, once at the fringes of politics, have gained mainstream support and political clout. Over the last year, they have demonstrated an impressive ability to mobilise large crowds with virulent nativist rhetoric and calls to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state. These developments have raised questions on Indonesia’s commitment to liberal democratic values and its ability to protect religious minorities.

In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte’s uncompromising populism and frontal attack to liberal democratic principles has resonated with many Filipinos frustrated by years of disappointing government performance under democratic rule. His tenure has so far featured thousands of extrajudicial killings, intimidation of political opponents and media, and a constant erosion of constitutional checks and balances.

Against this bleak backdrop, does democracy still stand a chance in Southeast Asia? In a workshop to be held next week at Griffith University, we bring together internationally established scholars to discuss perspectives of authoritarianism and democracy in the region.

“Southeast Asian democracy — to the extent it exists — has often been dominated by elites perceived as being unaccountable.”

While a democratic recession may originate from several interconnected factors, a look at the recent history of democratic experiments in Southeast Asia suggests that policy failure and lack of participation may be especially consequential in exposing democracy to legitimacy crises.

First, many Southeast Asian societies are divided along ethnic, religious and geographic lines, which increases the incentive for politicians to promise narrow, selective benefits to their supporters instead of policies that could benefit larger segments of the population.

Democracy may strengthen in Southeast Asia if political competition becomes more programmatic and less patronage-based. This implies a stronger emphasis on the effective delivery of public goods like economic growth, public safety and transparent governance. Better policies strengthen the legitimacy of democratic institutions and dampen the inflammatory power of populist rhetoric.

Second, Southeast Asian democracy — to the extent it exists — has often been dominated by elites perceived as being unaccountable. This dominance typically translates into a lack of policy alternatives and genuine competition, which in turn feeds scepticism about the prospects for meaningful participation in democratic processes.

Thinking of new ways to increase political engagement, especially beyond elections, is crucial for the growth of democracy in the region. This goal may be achieved by providing new opportunities for grassroots engagement at various levels of government and by leveraging the participatory potential of new technologies, as popular participation strengthens democratic institutions by fostering a sense of ownership and satisfaction with the decision-making processes associated with democratic rule.