Mr. Tharman Shanmugaratnam with cheering supporters at Taman Jurong Market and Food Centre on 1 September 2023. (Photo by Shintaro Tay / ST / SPH Media via AFP)

Changing Political Landscapes and Leadership Transitions in Southeast Asia


Electoral politics have been heating up in Southeast Asia after the COVID-19 pandemic. The Philippines and Malaysia elected new leaders in 2022. Vietnam underwent a major leadership change after President Nguyen Xuan Phuc tendered his resignation. Voters in Thailand and Cambodia, headed to the ballot box to elect their representatives, while Singapore voted for a new president this year. 2024 will be a fascinating year for Indonesia as the largest democracy in the region will hold its presidential election. ASEANFocus invites experts to assess the changing political landscape and leadership transitions in Southeast Asia, and its implications for society and regional stability.

Indonesia will be holding its presidential and parliamentary elections in February 2024. Identity politics, including the use of religious sentiments, have influenced the country’s political discourse. The role of Islam in politics is complex. How will this influence the leadership selection? 

ARIFIANTO: Indonesia has never been a full-fledged secular state; hence religion has played a role in Indonesian politics during much of its history. Its significance has multiplied since the 1998 Reformasi, due to the growing religiosity of Indonesians across all faith traditions, but is particularly so within Indonesian Islam. The rise of identity politics, particularly during election time, is a response by all political parties and politicians since they perceive that they might not be able to win an election without utilising religious symbols and rhetoric on the campaign trail.

The usage of identity politics during the 2024 presidential election is expected to be as intensive as during the 2014 and 2019 elections. However, the three presidential coalitions which incorporate both nationalist and moderate Islamic elements would hopefully mean that the usage of identity politics this election cycle would not be as divisive as in the previous two cycles.

Indonesia is seen as one of the world’s advanced democracies, but has the country’s democratic system facilitated smooth leadership changes at both the national and local levels, considering that some local leaders have been appointed rather than elected?

ARIFIANTO: New measures like the appointment of interim regional and local leaders were introduced in 2020 as transitory measures to fill the four-year time lag between the last regional executive elections held in 2020 and the next round of elections scheduled in 2024. Analysts perceive such measures as yet another attempt to reverse the autonomy granted to these sub-national governments enacted during the early years of Indonesia’s Reformasi. This includes the introduction of direct elections of regional government executives – governors, mayors, and regents (bupati) in 2004.

These new measures were ratified due to concerns that regional and local governments were not coordinating well with the national government on various policy issues. Many analysts, however, see them as an attempt by national-level officeholders and bureaucrats to increase their power over regional governments by keeping out promising regional leaders from national prominence. The fact that none of the 2024 presidential candidates and their (likely) vice presidential appointees are regional or local government leaders adds to this perception.

The current Marcos administration and the previous Duterte administration appear to have different leadership styles, especially on foreign policy. How does foreign policy intersect with the Philippines’ domestic politics?

ARUGAY: While the Philippines’ national interests have remained largely unchanged, the de facto power given to the president as chief architect of foreign policy has traditionally given every leader a lot of leeway in crafting the country’s strategic policies and external relations. The intensifying US-China rivalry and its implications for the country’s defence posture has become the primary security issue faced by the Marcos Jr. administration. This is a departure from the overly domestic security focus of his predecessor. However, if history were to be consulted, there could be domestic challenges in the ability of a president to maintain this disposition. While popular at the moment, domestic politics and economic issues may prevent Marcos Jr. from consistently implementing his “friends to all, enemies to none” policy. Balancing the US and China will also be quite difficult as both superpowers no longer tolerate hedging stances of small countries unlike in the past.

Social media played an outsized role in the lead-up to the 2022 election. What role does social media (including disinformation and misinformation) play in influencing public opinion and electoral outcomes in the Philippines?

ARUGAY: Since 2016, the Philippines has become a potent site for deploying fake news for electoral purposes. Given its degree of internet penetration, Filipinos’ good handle of the English language, and its highly polarising politics, a high-ranking executive of a social media platform dubbed the country as “patient zero when it comes to the weaponization of digital platforms during the elections”. Social media played two important political roles during the 2022 elections. On the one hand, it mobilized young Filipino voters online as social media were sources of (dis)information about the election campaign. Social media bridged the online and offline modes of political engagement and participation leading to the ballot box. On the other hand, the disinformation narratives that surfaced during the 2022 electoral campaign polarised the electorate into two bitterly hostile camps that revolved around the presidential candidacy of Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. – son and namesake of the country’s late dictator. The interrelated narratives of nostalgia for authoritarian leaders and disillusionment with democratic processes resonated with digitally wired Filipinos, who became potent influencers of support for Marcos Jr. However, this undermined the other candidates, resulting in far-reaching repercussions on the state and health of Philippine democracy.

President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos Jr. speaking at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2023 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland. (Photo by Ciaran McCrickard / World Economic Forum)

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CCP) was sworn into power once again at the recent elections in July 2023. Some observers believe that banning the main opposition Candlelight Party from participating has undermined Cambodia’s democracy. Have the issues of human rights and democracy been addressed in Cambodia’s evolving political landscape?

CHHEANG: Democracy is a form of government by the people and for the people. The Cambodian people are the ones who will decide on the destiny of the country through democracy. Democracy is a never-ending process that requires the participation of all stakeholders based on national context and driven by the principles of flexibility, openness, inclusiveness, transparency and accountability. Cambodia is a young but progressing democracy.

Prime Minister Hun Manet assumed his role on 22 August 2023 together with a new generation of leaders taking over key positions.  Do you expect Hun Manet’s leadership to be different from his father’s?

CHHEANG: Hun Manet will continue to implement the vision and strategic goals of the previous administration, but with more robust reforms at the level of the implementing agencies. His leadership style can be characterised as consensual leadership, one that emphasises collaboration, inclusivity, and the involvement of key stakeholders in the decision-making process.

His worldview and open-mindedness have certainly been shaped by his academic journey and practical experiences within the country. Pragmatism will remain the guiding foreign policy philosophy while hedging is expected to be more robust.

Vietnam witnessed major high-level personnel changes, including its president and two deputy prime ministers, early this year in response to corruption scandals. How do corruption and governance issues impact Vietnam’s political stability and public trust in leadership? 

HIEP: The ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) considers corruption a major threat to its political legitimacy and regime security, as well as a hindrance to economic growth. To address the issue, the party has adopted a relentless approach to combatting corruption. Since 2016, its anti-corruption campaign has resulted in the discipline or prosecution of tens of thousands of government officials and high-ranking military and police officers, including several Politburo members. These measures can be seen as a short-term cost that the party is willing to pay for the long-term gain of reducing corruption. The high-level personnel changes made earlier this year should be viewed in this context. So far, these changes have helped improve public trust in the CPV leadership and have had no adverse impact on Vietnam’s political stability.

The CPV attaches importance to China’s ideological support as they share similar political systems and ideological underpinnings. Will ideological factors influence Vietnam’s foreign policy?

HIEP: Ideological considerations used to be a major factor in determining Vietnam’s foreign policy, particularly during the Cold War era. However, in recent decades, nationalism and pragmatism have become more prominent forces in shaping the country’s foreign policy decisions. Thus, although the CPV may take ideological considerations into account in certain circumstances or issues, its overall foreign policy is mainly driven by how it can best protect or advance Vietnam’s national interests. This is exemplified in Vietnam’s relationships with China and the United States. Despite the ideological affinity between Vietnam and China, Vietnam has been able to stand up to China in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, ideological differences between Vietnam and the United States have not been able to prevent the two countries from steadily strengthening their ties in various fields, culminating in their recent announcement of a bilateral comprehensive strategic partnership.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim (C) speaks during a press conference after the release of state election results in Kuala Lumpur on August 12, 2023. (Photo by Mohd Rasfan / AFP)

Malaysia held its parliamentary elections in November last year and another round of state elections (involving six states) this year. Amid ethnic and religious polarisation, how have Malaysia’s diverse political ideologies shaped its political dynamics and leadership choices?

HUTCHINSON: Malaysia is in a new phase of its political trajectory. From 1957-2008, the country was ruled in uncontested fashion by the Barisan Nasional (BN). From 2008-2020, it operated under a two-coalition system involving the BN and the parliamentary opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH). Since 2020, multiple coalitions are needed to obtain a parliamentary majority. Due to the unprecedented competition for Malay votes, which is the dominant ethnic group in more than half of all parliamentary constituencies, a single coalition will be unable to secure sufficient parliamentary seats on its own.

Anwar Ibrahim’s Unity Government was formed by bringing PH and its former foe BN together along with other coalitions and parties in the wake of 2022 parliamentary elections. 

The August state elections confirmed the status quo, as the Unity Government and PN each retained control of three state governments. However, PN solidified its control over the northern states where it was the incumbent. It also made incursions in the three urbanised, ethnically mixed states led by the Unity Government.

Some have labelled this progression by PN as the Green Wave, attributing it to greater conservativism and religiosity of Malay voters. Others have argued that this is simply the search by Malay voters for an alternative means of representation to the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

Malaysia has seen four Prime Ministers in the last five years. How has the fragmentation of political parties impacted economic stability and Malaysia’s vision of becoming a high-income economy by 2028?

HUTCHINSON: Malaysia has very durable political parties and has been grappling with how to attain high-income status. It has had middling progress, even during periods of political stability and the long political tenures that used to characterise the country.

The issues that Malaysia faces in its quest to attain high-income status are formidable. First, as countries attain higher levels of income, they tend to grow more slowly. Second, the benefits of structural transformation, essentially the shift of workers out of agriculture into manufacturing and services have already been reaped.

Malaysia’s challenge is to produce goods and services of a higher value-added nature, through fostering advances in production processes, the development of more sophisticated products and increasing technological intensity. This requires very deep, targeted, and far-reaching reform in areas such as university and technical education, university-industry linkages, and labour policy. These are long-term processes that will involve considerable political capital, and the benefits will take a long time to reap. 

Thailand has experienced frequent government changes due to protests, coups, and other parliamentary manoeuvres leading to political instability. How has Thailand’s history of political uncertainty affected the country’s democratic processes?

JATUSRIPITAK: Since the exile of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, Thailand’s political landscape has been entangled in a vicious cycle of distrust and disenfranchisement that hampers the prospects for stable democracy and effective governance. Successive military coups, judicial interventions, and the tampering of constitutional and parliamentary procedures have eroded public trust in the political system, fueling widespread skepticism about the legitimacy and viability of any government that arises from it. This sense of doubt is amplified by the absence of effective mechanisms for ordinary Thai citizens to make demands on the government — other than through street protests — in a political environment that stifles freedom of expression and hampers most political parties from establishing robust connections with the electorate. Within this flawed framework, only the elites — those who have the power to either define the limits of “Thai-style” democracy or dismantle it altogether — can exercise influence over the nation’s future. This power imbalance has shifted the priorities of governance toward power struggles among the elite, at the expense of the development of a cohesive, stable, and inclusive governance.

The Move Forward Party (MFP) failed to form a government, although it secured the popular vote. Now that the election runner-up, the Pheu Thai Party, has successfully formed a coalition government, how confident are you that this government can bring stability moving ahead?

JATUSRIPITAK: The Pheu Thai-led government is propped up by an uneasy alliance between Thaksin Shinawatra and the conservative establishment, fronted by a tenuous 11-party coalition in which Pheu Thai is the minority. While there is little incentive for any party to seek new elections, the coalition’s fragmented nature and its shaky legitimacy do not promise stability. They underscore the government’s need to appease key actors, both within the coalition and beyond, including powerful conglomerates, military generals, and royalist elites, to secure its unstable political foothold in the absence of widespread public support. As it attempts to strike this precarious balance, the government also confronts a dual challenge. It needs to fend off pressures from a formidable parliamentary opposition, spearheaded by the MFP which secured first place in both seats and popular vote in the election. It also has to navigate reformist demands that persisted even after the party was sidelined from power. In short, rather than setting the stage for political stability, the new government seems poised to perpetuate a cycle of stagnation fraught with the potential for conflict and unrest.

Former Move Forward Party leader and prime ministerial candidate Mr. Pita Limjaroenrat addresses supporters in Bangkok. (Photo by Supanut Arunoprayote / Wikimedia Commons)

Singapore has just held its third contested Presidential Election since 1991 (following the legislation on the elected presidency). What do the 1 September 2023 Presidential Election results reveal about the maturity of political perceptions in Singapore?

TAN: Mr. Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s strong mandate of 70% of the popular vote came as a surprise to everyone, including Mr Tharman himself. It underscored the electorate’s maturity in understanding the roles and powers of the non-partisan office of head of state, with a limited check and balance capability in a constitutional system of government that remains inherently parliamentary in nature. Voters recognised that the presidency is not a political prize to be captured by political parties for partisan ends. The electorate was also persuaded that Mr Tharman’s prior affiliation to the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) would not get in the way of his exercising the president’s custodial powers over the national reserves and the public service. The electorate also demonstrated it could evaluate a presidential candidate’s track record, experience and ability, character and values. These were what ultimately mattered for the presidency which has evolved into a unifying institution.

Singapore will be holding its next general elections by November 2025. Changing demographics appear to be linked to different voting patterns in the region. Do you think Singapore’s unique political system of a dominant party can withstand these changes?

TAN: Singapore’s one-party system is not immune to changing demographics and changing voting patterns. Much as the more than 60 years of political dominance of the ruling PAP appear anachronistic, the reality of its political legitimacy founded on good governance outcomes is not lost on voters. Moreover, voters are not bent on supporting the opposition blindly even as they lean towards enhanced political diversity and competition. Additionally, the electorate has been socialised to expect the government of the day to be competent and responsible. The challenge for all political parties and the electorate is how to engender incremental political change without undermining the basis of Singapore’s success grounded on strong leadership, political-social stability, and openness to the world. The PAP’s political longevity, if not hegemony, will depend on its ability to manage political change. This will be continually tested.

Editor’s Note:
This is an adapted version of an article from ASEANFocus Issue 2/2023 published in September 2023. Download the full issue here.

Alexander Arifianto is Senior Fellow at the Indonesia Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

Aries A. Arugay is a Visiting Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Philippine Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He is also Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science, University of the Philippines-Diliman.

Chheang Vannarith is President of Asian Vision Institute.

Le Hong Hiep is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

Francis E. Hutchinson is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

Napon Jatusripitak is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. He is a PhD Researcher at Northwestern University.

Eugene Tan is Associate Professor of Law at the Singapore Management University.