Illiberal leaders in the two regions like to maintain a veneer of democratic politics, making them susceptible to real reform efforts.
By Joshua Kurlantzick
Editor’s note: In previous installments of this series, the author presented how illiberal leaders, not only in South and Southeast Asia but also in various other parts of the world, have taken advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to politically aggrandize themselves. In the face of the anti-democratic maneuvers by illiberal leaders, the author has suggested a number of countermeasures that can be carried out to defend democracy and human rights even in a pandemic. Eight of these suggestions have been put forward in the fourth installment of this series. This concluding installment begins with the ninth suggestion.
• Combat illiberal leaders’ disinformation campaigns and efforts to undermine the press and watchdog institutions. Leading democracies can combat disinformation in several ways. In South and Southeast Asia, where leaders have increased disinformation efforts during the pandemic, independent media outlets have been effective in revealing such disinformation and uncovering leaders’ attacks on democratic institutions. Leading democracies should boost funding for independent media and fact-checking organizations in these regions. In addition, the U.S. Congress should pass the Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act, which would prod the executive branch to create a plan for addressing rights abuses during the pandemic.
• Combat Chinese and Russian messaging that democracies are failing in the battle against COVID-19 and that authoritarian states are succeeding. To combat Chinese and Russian messaging that democracies are failing to address the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States and other leading democracies should apply more pressure on social media platforms to research the activities of state-backed disinformation agents and publicly release information about their activities. If they refuse, democratic governments can more aggressively regulate social media firms. Democracies should also boost funding for their own counterpropaganda activities, such as those of the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center.
• Ensure the United States’ own domestic response to COVID-19 respects democratic norms and institutions and values expertise. The United States cannot support rights and freedoms in South and Southeast Asia if it is undermining rights and freedoms at home without looking blatantly hypocritical. Yet to date the United States has not effectively balanced battling COVID-19 with protecting freedoms at home. President Trump has falsely suggested that efforts to protect the integrity of national elections while also safeguarding public health— expanding voting by mail, for instance—would lead to rampant voter fraud and questionable elections. Nevertheless, the United States needs to demonstrate that it will uphold the integrity of elections during the pandemic, preserve basic rights at home, and follow public health expertise in addressing the virus.
• Hold a major aid conference to focus on the effects of COVID-19. In South and Southeast Asia, as in other developing regions, COVID- 19 has had a more catastrophic effect on economies than it has on the economies of most developed states. Wealthier countries can more easily roll out stimulus packages funded by international borrowing; few developing countries can afford to match the kinds of stimulus launched in Australia, Japan, Europe, or North America. Although a prolonged economic downturn in South and Southeast Asia could create popular anger against some leaders whose policies have caused economic pain, such downturns risk exacerbating economic inequalities in the long run. The past decade has shown that such rising inequality fuels divisive politics, which could make way for leaders who are even more illiberal to seize on popular anger and possibly further undermine democratic progress. To help prevent even more inequality in South and Southeast Asia, and thus indirectly support democracy, developed states led by the United States, Canada, Japan, and the European Union should hold a major aid conference. It could be modeled on conferences that assisted Afghanistan in the early 2000s and assisted Asian states during the financial crisis of the late 1990s. The conference would be designed to help economies most damaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, including those in South and Southeast Asia. The aid, primarily grants, could be used in part to help pay for vaccines but would mostly go toward stabilizing economies. The donors could appoint an independent overseer to handle the disbursements and an inspector general to produce reports analyzing how the funds are spent.
The situation for democratic progress seems grim in South and South- east Asia. Although failures to address COVID-19 could rebound against incumbent politicians, Duterte and other illiberal populists today are likely more secure in office than earlier populists would have been, because social media makes it easier for them to distort information and because they are more willing to use violent repression to stay in office. Illiberal populists and other illiberal leaders today can bypass traditional gatekeepers, who have lost influence in the last decade, and deliver their often-distorted messages directly to the public via social media and the partisan press. In addition, while a generation of populists in the 1990s and 2000s used techniques such as altering voting systems to wield power but shied away from violently targeting opponents, the current generation is more willing to instigate violence against other politicians and opponents in civil society.
Despite the bleakness, the situation in South and Southeast Asia remains less grim than in other parts of the developing world. Although more secure in office than earlier generations of illiberal populists, South and Southeast Asian leaders are more constrained in how far they can repress democracy than peers in places such as Africa, because South and Southeast Asian states had built relatively strong democratic institutions and norms before the pandemic. And South and Southeast Asian illiberal leaders, including many illiberal populists, are not Xi Jinping or Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Unlike truly autocratic leaders, they maintain a veneer of democratic politics, allowing at least somewhat free and fair elections, tolerating opposition parties while also harassing them, and accepting some degree of civil society activity. These constraints make South and Southeast Asia’s illiberal leaders more vulnerable than outright autocrats to real reform efforts. Even partially free and fair elections, and partially free civil society, provide the foundations for greater democratization.
Preventing a further slide into illiberalism would benefit U.S. strategic interests as well. Most of the United States’ treaty allies and closest partners across Asia and the Pacific are democracies, and the United States tends to work more effectively with the region’s freer states. And other than India, with whom bilateral relations have flourished even as Modi has undermined democracy, countries in this region where leaders have reversed democratic progress often have become as unpredictable in their relations with Washington as in approaches to other domestic and foreign policy issues.
Editor’s note: This article is a commentary. The views expressed here are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of PinterPolitik.