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There has been a fundamental tension in the electoralist polities of Southeast Asia (Indonesia, the Philippines, and, until 2014, Thailand) between the interests of key elites and their middle class ‘base’ and the dictates of liberal (human rights) democracy (allowing populist politicians to exercise power if elected). Paradoxically, electoral democracy in the region was initially an elite project (backed by key ‘strategic groups’ - business, civil societal, and communalist). It utilised a liberal reformist narrative to gain hegemony over cross-class movements which overthrew dictatorships and installed electoral regimes in all three countries. But when democracy did not deliver the expected ‘good governance’ goods, many elites supported ‘people power’ coups against ‘bad’ pro-poor populists. In the process, they destroyed the democratic system (most notably in Thailand), or backed neo-authoritarian candidates making illiberal appeals, potentially weakening future electoralism (in the 2014 elections in Indonesia and this year’s presidential polls in the Philippines).
Professor Mark R. Thompson is head of the Department of Asian and International Studies and director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre, both at the City University of Hong Kong. He was Lee Kong Chian distinguished fellow of Southeast Asian studies at the National University of Singapore (2007) and Stanford University (2008). He is the author of The Anti-Marcos Struggle (1995) and Democratic Revolutions (2004) and the co-editor of Dynasties and Female Leaders in Asia (2013). He is working on projects on the Philippine presidency (with Julio Teehankee) and authoritarian modernism in Asia.