OPINION: When Asian giants vote

Karim Raslan – Ceritalah ASEAN

Posted at Mar 26 2019 04:15 AM

Thailand is heading to the polls on Sunday, March 24, 2019, for the first time, since 2014’s military coup. ABS-CBN News

The writer, Karim Raslan, standing in front of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign billboard in India. Team Ceritalah

Indonesian President Joko Widodo will be facing a re-election against ex-General Prabowo Subianto – a rerun of the 2014 election. Team Ceritalah

Prabowo Subianto campaigning, following the Indonesian presidential election on April 17, 2019. He has gained strong backing at the grassroots level by mobilizing the power of conservative Islamic figures and organizations. Team Ceritalah

This weekend will kick off Asia’s 2019 election season. 

For the next 2 months, 1.2 billion Asians will head to the polls, starting with Thailand (52 million voters) on 24 March, then India (900 million), Indonesia (193 million) and the Philippines (64 million).
 
That’s a lot of voters! But, as usual, its likely that few people outside the region—especially the Europeans and Americans—will be paying any attention. That’s their loss. What happens in the East often reverberates in the West: the Philippines was the epicenter of the electoral earthquake that was later to ripple across Britain and the States.

Back in May 2016, small-town mayor, Rodrigo Duterte surprised the world by winning the presidency. Swept into power by a toxic combination of strongman rhetoric and online disinformation, the rugged iconoclast emerged from nowhere to capture the popular imagination of Filipinos. 

A month later, in June 2016, British voters wrong-footed metropolitan pundits and pollsters alike with their unexpected support for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU), dubbed “Brexit”. And then, as we all know in November, Donald Trump – a dubious New York property developer cum TV reality-show star, employing much of Duterte’s playbook and laced with primordial appeals to white supremacy – secured the White House despite losing the popular vote.
 
But let’s begin with the geopolitics. 

China will be watching these elections very closely. Having experienced a major diplomatic setback with Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s shock victory in Malaysia last year, Beijing will not want to see a repeat of this. 

The Philippines under Duterte (reversing former President Benigno Aquino III’s anti-China stance) has been uncompromisingly pro-Beijing. The Philippine midterm polls will be a vital test of the strongman’s popularity and policies. If his slate of senatorial candidates is voted in, he will continue ignoring Chinese military expansion in the South China Sea while drawing only limited economic benefit from Beijing’s investment.
 
The Thais have never seen China as a threat. However, the incumbent, General Prayuth Chan-o-Cha (as with most Asian military men) is a China “bull.” Nevertheless, a democratically-elected Thai leader – however unlikely the scenario – may well have more nuanced views. Whatever the case, Chinese visitors are turbo-charging a vast increase in tourism arrivals and the former general will be loath to reset relations.
 
India and Indonesia—both G20 members—while wary of Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions, are very eager for Chinese cash; especially for big-ticket manufacturing and infrastructure investments. Were either Joko Widodo or Narendra Modi to be defeated or even weakened, policies could well change.

However, Modi – dubbed the nation’s “chowkidar” or watchman, by his BJP colleagues – was badly humiliated by the recent Chinese refusal to sanction the Pakistan-based Azhar Masood, the leader of Jaish-e-Muhammad (a UN-designated terrorist group) and the presumed mastermind behind the Pulwama bombing, in which 40 Indian soldiers were killed only last month.

Political shifts could also prove problematic to Huawei's planned global 5G rollout. Indian distrust of Chinese intentions (they share a hotly-disputed land border) may well boost Qualcomm’s more expensive offering. Being locked out of one of the largest and fastest-growing telecoms markets would be a bitter blow. ASEAN governments seem less concerned but politics and American lobbying could jeopardize Huawei’s plans.

Continuing along the economic front, all 4 countries are experiencing growth levels (above 4 percent per annum) that would make the European exporters flush with excitement. At the same time, as thirsty oil importers, all 4 nations are firmly in the sights of Middle East producers – with the Saudi’s leading the charge to secure and maintain market access.

It’s also worth bearing in mind how Indonesian aviation authorities sparked off a global wave as they grounded their Boeing 737 Max 8’s.

Interestingly, American regulators were forced to follow suit, revealing in turn a mounting distrust of US corporates and institutions. This trend could well be replicated as the Asian giants turn to address and limit the influence and profitability of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix.

Of course, in economic terms India is the prize. With the world’s third-largest economy, (in Purchasing Power Parity terms), a 6—7 percent growth rate and an ambitious and expansive premier, many are hoping that the subcontinent will become a second Asian engine of global growth and counterbalance to the Chinese. As it is, India has already replaced China as Indonesia’s largest buyer of both palm oil and coal.

But let’s return to the politics.
 
Could these election results indicate global trends? After all, the Philippines and India are the world’s 2 largest service providers for software, IT, and business process outsourcing (BPO) – generating billions in revenue. I suspect that the online culture wars will be won or lost in the 21st century’s great sweatshops: the troll farms of Manila, Bangalore, and Hyderabad.

Still, 3 years on, it’s worth asking: could the pendulum be about to swing away from Duterte’s outrageousness? Could we be returning to liberal democratic norms? Or is the seeming rebirth of the Democrats in the US and the election of the spirited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (better known as AOC) merely a mirage?

The signs aren’t hopeful. In India, “fake” news appears to have drowned out the mainstream media – many of whom have become little more than BJP and Modi cheerleaders anyway. A terrorist attack and rising tensions with Pakistan have added to the fury. Many now wonder whether the secular Nehruvian ideals can ever be regained in an environment now loaded with virulent communalism and hoaxes.

In Indonesia, as the presidential campaign reaches its conclusion, memories of the Christian Chinese Jakarta Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (“Ahok/BTP”) being brought down in 2017 by dubious blasphemy charges whipped up on social media remain as a powerful warning of the dark and atavistic forces in its society now.

So as 1.2 billion Asian voters go to the polls, it’s worth bearing in mind how much is at stake. The world needs to take notice.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.