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Expect More Dramatic Political Change in Asia

For decades Asia was thought to be unable to translate populist political sentiment into change at the ballot box, with communist autocracies, military dictatorships and paternalistic strong-men ruling so much of the region — seemingly in perpetuity. Indeed, four of the world’s five remaining communist governments are in Asia (China, Laos, North Korea, and Viet Nam), the military remains firmly entrenched in the political process in countries such as Indonesia and Myanmar, and de facto one-party rule persists in Singapore. That said, populist political movements have now become prevalent, if not predominant, in much of the region, resulting in an unusual mix ranging from democracy to autocratic rule.

Asian populism has produced some surprisingly good and bad leaders over the past couple of decades. The Philippines stands out in that regard, having produced presidents as diverse as Joseph Estrada, Ninoy Aquino and Rodrigo Duterte, all in the space of 15 years. The wild gyration in the political orientation of its leaders – from the pragmatist Aquino to the bombastic and outrageous Duterte — speaks volumes about the power of popular will, as well as its capriciousness. The net result of the elevation of Duterte to the presidency is dramatic change in the country’s domestic and international landscape, with what is in effect the capsizing of the Post-War security relationship between Manila and Washington – something Philippine voters certainly did not expect and many do not want.

The same is true in a very different way in Malaysia. While the exercise of popular will resulted in the status quo ante in Malaysia’s presidential election of 2013 — with the Barisan Nasional (and Prime Minister Najib Razak) remaining in power — as a result of the 1MDB scandal and growing disaffection with the BN, Mr. Razak’s government is now in trouble. With urban voters increasingly rejecting the BN and its policies, Mr. Razak has decided to court rural Malays, who tend to be more conservative and support some elements of Islamic Law in greater numbers than their urban counterparts.

Earlier this year, the BN fast-tracked the reading of a bill which sought to increase the punishment that courts may impose on those Muslims convicted of religious offenses through existing Islamic courts. The very idea that Mr. Razak would embrace Islamic law for political gain is despicable, but also extremely short-sighted, given that doing so will likely prove to be difficult to reverse in the future, as well as have unintended consequences. This is also something Malaysian voters did not want or expect when they voted Mr. Razak back into power.

After having completed the largest purchase of U.S. military hardware in 20 years this past February, Mr. Razak’s government has just announced that it intends to purchase littoral mission ships from China. Mr. Duterte has said that the Philippines also intends to purchase future arms from China (and Russia) rather than the U.S. America’s ‘Asia Pivot’ is working out well, so far — for China — with two historically staunch U.S. allies unexpectedly shifting allegiance away from Washington and toward Beijing. In Mr. Duterte’s case, this is an unintended consequence of the exercise of political populism; In Mr. Razak’s case, it is the result of a desperate bid to cling to power.

Both are indications that Asia is increasingly ripe for some of the same radical political change that is sweeping other parts of the world, such as in Europe with the rise of the right, strong-man rule in Nicaragua and Turkey, and the outpouring of political expression of tens of millions of disaffected voters in the U.S. presidential election. The stage certainly seems to be set in Malaysia and South Korea for political change, and it would not be unrealistic to expect something similar to occur in Thailand, given the death of King Bhumibol and the simmering, unresolved battle between the red-shirt and yellow-shirt movements.

The world has entered a particularly perilous time as historic political change is once again starting to become the rule. Democracy – whether with a small or large ‘D’ – has unleashed unanticipated forces with some unusual results. Voters all over the world are expressing their dismay and disgust at the ballot box against ‘business as usual.’ Over the past several decades, Asia’s people have proven themselves quite capable of leading the charge in favor of dramatic political change. That should be encouraged. But voters should also be careful what they wish for.

This article was originally posted in The Huffington Post.