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Push Back! Against Shrinking Democratic Space

Sunday, 19 April 2020

On 20 November 2019, opposition leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit of Future Forward Party (FWP) was stripped of his parliamentary seat by Thailand’s military-backed Constitutional Court. Though intended to harass the country’s budding opposition, Thanathorn and his party comrades exhibited considerable grace and confidence as they hosted a regional conference on the emerging threats to democracy three days later.

Held in Bangkok from November 23 to 25, the event brought together more than three dozen participants from seven countries, stretching two continents. The conference, which was organized by the Network for Social Democracy in Asia (Socdem Asia), examined the authoritarian consequences of the rising populist movement and the actions that must be undertaken to address this danger.

By comparing the existing academic literature with actual political experience, the conference provided a useful framework to help democrats: (1) understand the global rise of populism; (2) reflect on the political situation in their respective countries; and (3) develop a unified response to the challenges that they now commonly face. This enabled the participants to have a shared conception of populism as a political doctrine that divides citizens into two competing camps — the exploited “common people” on one hand, and the corrupt and privileged elite on the other.

The conference further unbundled this concept by differentiating the kind of populism that thrives in the industrialized West from the type that is typically found in the developing world. In both the United States and Western Europe, populist movements largely reflect the sentiments of rural-based blue-collar workers from the Baby Boomer generation, with their rejection of globalization, the Establishment, and social welfare measures.

But apart from their shared contempt for the elites, populist movements in the Global South have nothing much in common with their Northern counterparts. In the developing world, the populist upsurge is largely driven by the demands of young, middle class urbanites for greater social welfare. Their leaders, at the same time, are also pro-globalization, though they often ride on anti-globalization sentiments to consolidate their power and expand their political base.

However, the conference concluded that these distinctions are largely inconsequential since populist movements (whether from the Global North or the Global South) generally lead to the same outcome: the erosion of civic space. A metaphor that has gained greater currency in recent years, ‘shrinking civic space’ does not only refer to reduced opportunities for policy intervention, but also to the deliberate attempt of the state to curtail political dissent and diminish the value of human rights.

By looking at the experience of six Asian countries — India, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines — conference participants were able to identify eight (8) strategies that populists and authoritarian regimes employ to gain and maintain power.

To gain mass following and destroy the reputation of the opposition, anti-democratic forces spread fake news and disinformation through both social and traditional media. They will then attempt to generate fanatical loyalty from their adherents by polarizing society into “us” and “them.” This is done by attacking religious and ethnic minorities, and by misappropriating religion to promote political extremism.

Once in power, populist leaders will seek the support of the military by giving it a prominent role in the management of the state. If this feat is accomplished, then the government can unleash the armed forces to intimidate journalists, harass opposition parties, and attack human rights defenders.

In recent years, populist autocrats have added a new weapon in their arsenal — lawfare. Understood as the weaponization of the law by the state to attack activists, journalists and opposition leaders, lawfare is increasingly being used, not only to pervert the law, but to also silence all forms of dissent.

To capture the spirited discussions of the conference, this issue of the Socdem Asia Quarterly has brought together selected articles from six of the conference participants. Most of these essays were presented during the event, while the rest are reflection pieces that drew insights and inspiration from the conference.

We begin with a brief analytical article from this publication’s editor-in-chief, Francis Isaac. Looking at the region’s overall political situation, Isaac highlighted the precarious situation of Asian democracy, with at least five electoral democracies “that are now under serious threat of shifting to autocratic rule.” Isaac further adds that though authoritarian rule is often seen as a “necessary precondition for economic growth,” much of Asia’s new prosperity “is being concentrated in a small segment of the population, resulting in worsening inequality throughout the entire region.”

From an Asian-wide perspective, we then shift our attention to Thailand with Pannika Wanich’s article. A prominent member of Future Forward Party, Pannika’s contribution not only underscores the gross inequality in Thai society, but also the continuing collusion between the country’s civilian elites and the powerful military establishment. And despite its unpopularity, the regime has managed to remain in power by manipulating the allocation of parliamentary seats and by using the country’s legal system to harass the opposition.

Prerna Singh, for her part, looks at the situation of India under Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi. Though this huge nation of 1.3 billion people is often described as “the world’s largest democracy,” India has been experiencing increasing attacks against religious minorities, even as journalists and human rights activists face continuing harassment from rightwing militants. A member of the Delhi Legislative Assembly, Singh asserts that, “authorities regularly use India’s sedition law and criminal defamation law to prosecute citizens who criticize government officials.” She also notes that women and girls remain highly vulnerable to misogyny and domestic abuse because of the government’s failure to hold public officials accountable.

The Philippines is in a similar situation, with Rodrigo Duterte’s election to the presidency in 2016. According to Tomasito Villarin of Akbayan Party, “the Philippines is now considered a fragile democracy,” after “Duterte destroyed democratic institutions built over the last three decades.” The President has also initiated a “state-sponsored war on drugs that has literally riddled (the) capital with dead bodies.” And in a recent move, Duterte has ordered the country’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, while his government continue to file sedition charges against the political opposition.

The threat to democracy, however, not only comes from authoritarian governments. In Indonesia, the main danger arises from extremist groups that are bent on overthrowing the country’s secular republican order. As Nasdem Party’s Damianus Bilo attests, various radical groups have emerged since reformasi “to carry out terrorist activities throughout the country.” These groups, he further adds, are using democratic procedures to undermine democracy, by infiltrating schools, places of worship and other vital social institutions.

But citizens are not simply keeping quiet. They are also fighting back. This is evident in the 2018 electoral victory of Pakatan Harapan which ended 61 years of semi-authoritarian rule in Malaysia. In her article, Thulsi Manogaran traces the efforts that the Malaysian people undertook to end the political dominance of Barisan Nasional and usher a new coalition government that promised to end corruption and ensure greater respect for human rights.

The essays in this issue all share a common message: that though civic spaces are rapidly shrinking, those spaces are also being contested. And social democrats do so, not only through electoral engagement, but also through grassroots organizing, protest actions, online campaigns, coalition building and solidarity work.

All these efforts reflect the sheer tenacity of the region’s social democrats. And their persistence was best expressed by Pannika Wanich who, during the conference, exclaimed:  

 “The direction of the tide is towards change. We are not swimming against the tide; we are swimming along with it.

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