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The Politics of Pandemic in Southeast Asia

No government is likely to fall as a result of its COVID-19 response, the impact on politics is still significant. 

By Zachary Abuza and Bridget Welsh for
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The Politics of Pandemic in Southeast Asia

Indonesian President Joko Widodo wears a face mask as a precaution against coronavirus outbreak during the inauguration ceremony of the Chief of Supreme Court Muhammad Syarifuddin at Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, Thursday, April 30, 2020.

Credit: Sigid Kurniawan/Pool photo via AP

COVID-19 hit Southeast Asia earlier than most regions of the world, and today the region has over 90,000 cases, with more than 2,700 confirmed deaths. The low levels of testing in all states, bar Singapore, however, should give rise to skepticism. The virus is likely far more prevalent than what governments are admitting, and anecdotal evidence suggests that there are far more deaths than what has been officially reported.

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the economies of Southeast Asia, which are dependent on tourism and exports. The IMF is predicting a global economic contraction of 3 percent, and all evidence suggests that the globalized economies of Southeast Asia will be deeply impacted, with recessions in Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines.  

How will COVID-19 impact politics in the region?

On the surface, we see little change. There are only three countries that have scheduled elections or routine political transitions coming months. With a new COVID-19 election bill passed earlier this month, Singapore is moving ahead with elections as soon as infections drop; Myanmar announced that elections will proceed as planned by year’s end, but is introducing a series of administrative changes due to limitations posed by the virus. Vietnam will hold its quinquennial Party Congress in January 2021 and will be sure to capitalize on its COVID-19 management success

The pandemic response in Indonesia has exposed Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s weakness, but with elections just held in 2019 it’s not going to change the government. In Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines, the response to COVID-19 has simply accelerated the authoritarian trends of the leadership. In fact, COVID-19 has strengthened incumbents, giving them space to capitalize on fear and displace challengers. 

This does not mean that all leaders are safe or the trend will last. Weak leaders are more exposed. COVID-19 has constrained patronage to appease challengers, resources have contracted as economies have shrunk ,and the costs of responding to the virus have increased. 

Ultra-royalist elites in Thailand have questioned Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s competence for a while, and there has been a growing push to replace him and key cabinet members, though leaving the military-backed coalition in place. Despite reopening the economy, the Emergency Decree remains in place.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s attempt to dodge a vote of no confidence has done him no favors. Leaders who lack broad public mandates and face elite challengers are vulnerable and beholden to their allies. They have to spend time politicking rather than focusing on crisis response. 

All that said, we’re not predicting any immediate political COVID casualties. The intensity of the economic crisis tied to COVID-19 will be more determinant than the public health challenges.

We see five distinct political trends that will impact politics in the medium term.

The first is an abject failure in governance in many countries. States have basic obligations to provide security, education, public health, and a legal system to their electorates. In country after country, public health systems were exposed to be underfunded and poorly staffed. Governments were caught flat-footed despite seeing the crisis unfold in China and experiencing other public health scares since the 2003 SARS outbreak.

With the exceptions of Singapore, Vietnam, and Malaysia, governments in the region were slow to respond to COVID-19, sent mixed and confusing messages, peddled quackery, were largely in denial, and proved unwilling to defer to medical and public health advice. 

In a region that is based on notions of paternalistic leadership, including the region’s few democracies, where people are not supposed to question the state, there is now a growing realization that government does not know best. Revered politicians have fallen off their pedestals. 

Demands for greater competence and embrace of science-based approaches, especially among the younger generations, is sowing the seeds of new political forces. Civic-mindedness has already sustained mobilization at local levels and it is only a matter of time until such sentiments translate into greater demands for accountability and political movements. In Indonesia, the hashtag “Whatever Indonesia” is trending; an expression of frustration with the government’s chaotic response.

It is telling that in Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines the governments immediately adopted emergency decrees. Indonesia’s president considered adopting one. Governments were unable to cope with the pandemic with existing institutions and authorities and aimed for extended power, but these emergency powers, in all cases, were used to go after dissent first.

Second, the weakness exposed by COVID-19 has caused militaries to gain more prominence

In Indonesia and the Philippines, the weakness of the government response has forced the presidents to rely on militaries and security forces to backstop their flailing responses. 

In Indonesia, this has been welcome news for the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI), which has sought to claw back many of the civil-administrative powers that it lost following the collapse of the New Order regime in 1998. Jokowi’s entire COVID-19 response team is staffed by acting and retired generals who are responding with an insurgency-based approach, an abject failure as the pandemic continues to spiral out of control.

We have seen the same thing in the Philippines, where Duterte’s COVID-response team is comprised of retired and acting generals, not medical professionals. The result has been a militarized response not informed by public health. Meanwhile, Duterte has called security forces to shoot people who violate quarantine orders on sight.  

In Myanmar, the military has assumed a role in crisis-management, pitting itself against Aung San Sui Kyi’s National League for Democracy during an election year and at the same time using the distraction of the crisis to ratchet up fighting in ethnic conflict areas. 

While regional militaries are providing order and using the crisis to accumulate power (and money), they are also exposing their poor capacity to manage public health problems. 

Third, the greater role that security forces are playing accentuates authoritarianism. Many governments are adopting securitization to address the crisis and simultaneously cracking down on critics of the crisis response. This is worryingly happening in the region’s more open regimes.

In Malaysia, we’ve seen a shocking attack on the free press, which for the past two years had seen the most notable improvements in the region. A journalist was summoned to police headquarters for her reporting on the roundup of migrant workers. While there is no evidence of an overall shift in government policy to reverse the positive trajectory on press freedoms, such incidents point to increased intolerance of alternative views.

In Indonesia, circumstances surrounding the charges against researcher Ravio Patra, who raised questions about Jokowi’s COVID-19 response, raise even further questions.

COVID-19 is being used to curb discussion and necessary criticism – often dismissed and framed as “disinformation.” Thailand, Singapore, and Cambodia have all wielded their “fake news” laws to that effect, while Duterte has increased his use of the cyber crime law to target dissenters. This comes at a time where governments are breaking down the boundaries of privacy via the centrally controlled use of applications to track and trace citizens. 

Fourth, the pandemic has exposed the glaring inequities around the region. Singapore, which received accolades as being the “gold standard” of pandemic responses, has seen the largest number of cases in the region. An overwhelming majority of the more than 35,000 cases (as of June 1), have been in the crowded dormitories for the 324,000 migrant workers who make the country’s first world living standards possible.  

Thailand, whose excellent public health and medical systems have responded well to the crisis, has been unable and unwilling to address the large numbers of poor that can ill-afford a prolonged shutdown. COVID-19 has seen a rise in other health problems, as well as hunger and helplessness. In Thailand the number of suicides has soared.

Thailand, according to a the 2018 Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook, is the most inequitable society in the world, a trend that has been exacerbated since the 2006 coup d’etat. The military and ultra-royalist elites simply do not care about the underclass, and as such the government has done little to support them. Thai government official are now predicting that some 14 million workers could be unemployed in the second and third quarters of 2020.

But inequality is rife around the region, and all countries have rising Gini coefficients. A prolonged economic recession will further exacerbate existing inequalities. The region’s social safety nets have serious holes and do not provide broad cover for those who need them. 

In the Philippines, Duterte has tried to direct COVID-19 relief funding to the poorest segments of society, but simply doesn’t have the resources to do so in a meaningful way. The Indonesian and Malaysian governments are in a similar predicament – although in Malaysia’s case the former Najib government decimated the country’s finances in the 1MDB scandal.

COVID-19 spread through globalization, but it is a stark reminder that what made the rapid economic growth in Southeast Asia possible has been distributed inequitably. Unless the poorest and most marginalized of a society have adequate protections, then no one does. 

The final trend is the growth of polarizing, identity politics, exacerbated by a vociferous religious fringe and rising xenophobic nationalism. This is not new. We’ve seen extremists Buddhist monks in Myanmar fan the flames of a genocide, the sudden reassertion of chauvinist identity politics in Malaysia, and the wielding of Islamist politics in Indonesia.  

Both governments and the people have already proven quick to scapegoat certain communities for the spread of the pandemic. Thai leaders blamed Western tourists, ignoring community transmission. In Singapore and Malaysia, the blame quickly fell on migrant workers. In Indonesia, Islamists immediately resorted to their default position: blaming the Chinese community

In any crisis, there is an innate response to scapegoating, but what is so telling in COVID-19 is that governments are not stepping in to counter those destructive narratives, instead often using them to distract from their own responsibility and their lackluster responses.

Extremist religious groups are poised to take advantage of both the emotions of COVID-19 – fear and insecurity – and well as government weaknesses; they will capitalize on the inequities of society and to try to mobilize their constituents through scapegoating out-groups. 

Despite these trends that should cause alarm for governments and the elites who back them, they have several things in their favor. First, the weakness of the political oppositions. While we have seen the Thai and Philippine presidents further consolidate their authoritarian grips and go to lengths to crush the free press, the reality is that they have sustained a long-term assault on the political opposition.  

Duterte has jailed political opponents on trumped-up charges, marginalized his vice president (who hails from the opposition party), and trounced opposition figures in the midterm elections. With a stacked parliament and supreme court, Duterte has wielded the police as a hit squad in his war on drugs, without any due process, oversight, or accountability. COVID-19 has seen even greater attacks on the opposition and the shuttering of the largest media conglomerate

In Thailand, the military-backed government has used the courts to dissolve political parties and bring legal cases against opposition figures, already having stolen an election in March 2019. The government wields enormous coercive legal powers through its arbitrarily applied Computer Crimes Act and lese majeste provisions of its criminal code.

In Indonesia, the opposition was largely co-opted by Jokowi when he brought his long-time political rival Prabowo Subianto into government as the minister of defense. The remainder of the opposition is a very loose coalition of parties that have little ideological or policy affinity for one another. 

In Malaysia, the recently ousted Pakatan Harapan faces divisions over leadership and grapples with winning a new national base, especially among Malays, and among its own base who are dissatisfied with their slow record of implementing reforms while in office from 2018 until February of this year. 

In Singapore, an expanded opposition has yet to resolve internal differences. While people may cast votes for the opposition, it is usually only a way to signal displeasure with the ruling People’s Action Party rather than voting for an alternative.

In short, political oppositions across the region are weak, divided, and largely unable to work together. In several cases, they are simply not up to the task of governing at all.

The second thing in favor of governments is the ability to distract. Governments can manufacture security incidents and political crises. As no country in Southeast Asia has a truly free press, governments can use mainstream media to push certain narratives. They have more resources at their disposal to rent a mob or an army of cyber trolls to shape opinions on social media. While there may be opposition and dissent, the government has greater coercive power as well as the ability to mobilize. COVID-19 at least in the short term limits the ability for mass protests, forcing criticism to be localized or online.

The third tool at their disposal is patronage. While traditional patronage has shrunk in COVID-19, we will likely see the fire sale of government assets to cronies or potential political rivals as governments face soaring budget deficits amidst recession. Increasingly, as has happened in earlier crises, regimes will shore up oligarchs as policies move toward protecting elites over ordinary citizens.  

While no government is likely to fall in the short term as a result of its COVID-19 response, the impact on politics is significant. The pandemic has exposed weaknesses in governance capacity, weak leadership, and rising inequalities, to which governments have responded with an overreliance on security forces and onslaughts on critics. At the same time, they have tried to buy off challengers through patronage, keeping the political opposition weak and allowed distracting scapegoating narratives to take root — exposing their own fragility. In the short term COVID-19 has been a political opportunity for many governments, but as the crisis deepens with contracting economies the pathogens within these regimes may also spread.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College, Washington, DC and an adjunct at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. The views are his personal opinions and do not reflect the opinions of the National War College or the U.S. Department of Defense. 

Bridget Welsh is Honorary Research Associate, UNoARI, University of Nottingham Malaysia and a lead author of the Asia Barometer Surveys.