The rise of populist leaders and parties in Europe and the United States over the past two years has reshaped the political landscape from Budapest to Washington. Challenging elites as corrupt and disconnected from common concerns, these populists claim to derive their legitimacy from the supposed will of the people and usually use their influence to blame some “other” for the country’s ills. They have tried to upend post-Cold War norms on everything from free trade to the integration of Europe, raising fears in the West about the strength of the rule of law and even democracy itself.
But this intense focus has overshadowed the growing threat of populism in another major region of the world that is already susceptible to a higher chance of inter-state conflict: Asia. Unlike in the West, where populism is often still constrained by strong democratic institutions and norms, institutions in Asia are generally weaker and most Asian populists have little concern for the rule of law, so populism could actually prove more dangerous to democracy.
For all the worries about Donald Trump in the United States, or emerging populists in Europe like the far-right Alternative for Germany party, the places where populists have actually most threatened democracy in the West tend to be countries where democratic institutions were already fragile, before the arrival of populists who had no interest in keeping the existing system. In Hungary and Poland, for example, populist leaders have politicized the courts, made elections less free and fair, and badly undermined media freedoms.
In Asia, most states where populism is rising are more similar to Hungary or Poland than they are to France, Germany or the United Kingdom. These Asian states are countries where institutions are weak and democracy can be easily dismantled.
Thailand, where the 1997 Asian financial crisis battered the economy and undermined elites’ popular legitimacy, in many ways has been patient zero for Asia’s new populism. Over more than a decade of populist rule, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who took office in 2001, and his allies weakened Thailand’s rule of law, undermined the judiciary and launched an extrajudicial war on drugs. The Thaksin brand of populism ultimately sparked a counterreaction from the kingdom’s conservative military, which launched one coup in 2006 and then took power in another coup in 2014. Still, if the armed forces ever allow a free election, Thailand’s Thaksinite party could win control of parliament again, in large part because its economic policies, which helped many working class Thais, were highly popular. But Thailand’s fragile democratic institutions are now totally shattered.
Other Asian leaders have since—wittingly or unwittingly—copied Thaksin’s strategies. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, elected in 2016, won the presidency using Thaksinesque rhetoric. After the presidency of Benigno Aquino III, when growth improved but the Philippine government made few inroads into reducing inequality, Duterte portrayed himself as the authentic voice of the masses, vowing to personally lead a major law and order campaign and blasting entrenched elites. In office, Duterte has, like Thaksin, overseen a drug war using extrajudicial tactics, and also has declared martial law on the southern island of Mindanao. He regularly attacks the media, and his government has overseen the prosecution of political opponents. And like Thaksin, Duterte also has embraced some progressive and popular economic policies, such as land reform. Many observers often compare Duterte to Trump, but in many ways he’s really following Thaksin’s lead in Thailand.
Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s most influential country and, up to now, its most successful democracy, is also seriously threatened by the rise of populism. In the 2014 presidential election, the governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, defeated a former lieutenant general, Prabowo Subianto, whose campaign was almost stereotypically populist. Prabowo rode into one rally on an actual white horse, repeatedly suggested that he alone could solve Indonesia’s challenges, and denigrated Indonesia’s democratic reforms—implying that, if elected, he would govern as a strongman of the people.
Populism in Asia has opened fault lines of conflict at a time when many countries are engaged in a regional arms race.
Prabowo lost, but he appears to be gearing up for another run in 2019. He and his allies have made gains within Indonesian politics over the past two years, partly by allying themselves with conservative Islamists. Prabowo’s favored candidate, Anies Baswedan, won the crucial Jakarta governor’s election earlier this year against the incumbent governor, a Chinese Indonesian. Baswedan won in part because he was backed by a campaign of massive rallies demonizing Chinese Indonesians as “others.” If Prabowo runs for president, Asia Times recently reported, he likely will portray Jokowi as a tool of Chinese Indonesians and of Beijing. Baswedan also may stand for president in 2019, likely running as a populist supported by Islamists and criticizing Chinese Indonesians and foreign investors.
Although Indonesia’s recent democratic track record is better than that of Thailand and the Philippines, Baswedan’s popularity shows there is a public hunger for economic and political change—and for demonizing minorities. There may be enough anger, indeed, for a populist to defeat Jokowi, who is more of a pragmatist and technocrat. As in the Philippines, in Indonesia solid economic growth has not alleviated public dissatisfaction over inequality and corruption, which populists blame unfairly on Indonesian Chinese elites. Despite two decades of decentralizing political reforms, it seems likely that an Indonesian president who wanted to rule like an elected autocrat could do so.
Other Asian states are vulnerable, too. In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi’s weak civilian government has been eclipsed by the continuing power of the military, whose offensive against the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state appears sadly popular with much of the public. Army commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing may be gearing up to challenge Suu Kyi and her party in the next elections as a populist strongman.
And even in India, the world’s largest democracy and arguably Asia’s strongest, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often governed as a populist. He won his office with a campaign that demonized the traditional elites who had mishandled the Indian economy in the early 2000s. His party stokes grievances against a Muslim “other,” while Modi portrays himself as the sole leader who can solve the country’s myriad problems.
India has far stronger democratic roots than most other states in South and Southeast Asia, and its institutions are resilient. Yet the media has become increasingly submissive to the Modi administration, as the government seems to be attempting to intimidate independent news outlets. The judiciary, too, is in Modi’s crosshairs: In a speech on India’s Constitution Day in November, Modi suggested that judges should be more supportive of government policies overall.
Asia’s rising populism is worrisome not only because many of its democracies may be too weak to stand up to populists, but because it has opened fault lines of conflict at a time when many countries are engaged in a regional arms race. India and China nearly fought a border war last year. China and Southeast Asian states regularly ratchet up tensions over the South China Sea. And there are multiple flashpoints in Northeast Asia, most of all North Korea.
The risk of conflict is magnified in Asia when countries that could go to war are run by true autocrats, in the case of China under Xi Jinping, or populists who operate like elected autocrats. In both cases, there are fewer checks on a government’s ability to go to war than there would be in a strong democratic system. Both populists and autocrats tout their muscularity, a dangerous image to maintain that could turn minor conflicts into escalations.
It is not difficult to imagine that Xi and Modi, both of whom are consolidating power, could slip into another dispute that, unlike last year’s border standoff, might actually lead to war. Nor is it hard to imagine Prabowo as the next president of Indonesia, whipping up a clash with Beijing over the South China Sea. Rising populism in an already tense region full of geopolitical traps could make Asia ripe for conflict.
Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.