🗳 The Year Ahead - Southeast Asia Votes
Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and a little Indonesia teaser
Hello friends and happy new year!
Two things before we kick off on a look at national elections happening across the region this year.
Firstly, congratulations to the two winners of Ben Bland’s ‘Man of Contradictions’! I forgot to ask if they’d be happy for me to share their name, so noted for next time. I enjoyed doing a little giveaway like that and I’m keen to dig further into books (~forward sizzle~) for this newsletter in the months ahead so keep an eye out.
Secondly, I think it’s fairly customary to offer some sort of subscription promo to kick off the new year. Sign up here for 23% off for one-year, will last all week as we take a look at some of the key events and issues ahead:
As always, free premium subscriptions for Asean and Timorese nationals (I wonder how much longer I’ll need to explicitly note Timor-Leste in this!) under the age of 30. Hit that reply and let me know a bit about yourself to qualify.
See you Wednesday for a chat about some of the stories I’ll be paying particular attention to in the months ahead!
🇹🇭 Can voting change much in Thailand?
Thai voters will head to the polls by the first week of May at the latest. Support for earlier elections was very high in the final quarter of 2022 when one survey found nearly 64% of Thai voters wanted parliament dissolved during the leadership crisis that saw Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan acting as PM as Prayuth Chan-o-cha temporarily stood down. God, last year was insane.
This being Thailand, an election is really only a moment of liminality between political crises. Already, the politicking of Prayuth — who the court ruled can only serve as PM for another two years before hitting the constitutional limit — shows the long year of 2014 is still not over. Towards the end of December, he announced he’d jumped ship from the ruling Palang Pracharat Party and will instead run with the brand new Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party.
It follows months and months of splintering within Palang Pracharath as Prayuth’s deep unpopularity and very public in-fighting threatened the futures of other cadres. Never underestimate Prayuth’s self-esteem. He’s already confirmed he will be the new party’s candidate for prime minister. This is a very overly simplified version of events, may I point you in the direction of this Thai Enquirer piece that lays it out (with a hell of a kicker, even by TE’s standards)?
No matter which table Prayuth sits at he’ll find it hard to touch Paetongtarn Shinawatra — yes, she is the daughter of Thaksin and niece of Yingluck — when it comes to popularity. She joined dad’s Pheu Thai Party for the election but isn’t formally named the prime ministerial candidate, though it’s a fairly safe assumption given Thaksin’s enduring popularity among Pheu Thai voters and the entrenchment of the dynasty. Pheu Thai won the most seats in 2019 but was unable to form government and so remained the major opposition. The party is again on track to be the largest party, according to polling. “To think big and act smart will help rebuild our country and improve the livelihood of Thai people — as if it’s a miracle. Only political stability will help us,” Paetongtarn told supporters in December.
While Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and his Future Forward have been banned from politics after the exciting showing in 2019, the legacy lives on. Successor party Move Forward is expected to do mighty well for itself according to a poll from the National Institute of Development Administration released in early December. It ranked second to the Pheu Thai powerhouse and finds a lot of support among young Thais.
I don’t understand how I read like 10 books about Thai politics in October and yet have no idea what happens next. Back to Bangkok? Don’t mind if I do!
🇰🇭 Old faces, old challenges in Cambodia
Cambodia will head to the polls for a general election on July 23. Will anything dramatically change? Surely not, but I’m very curious about what the tea leaves may tell us about an eventual succession within the Hun clan.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has already committed to pursuing another five-year term with his Cambodian People’s Party. There are just a few reasons I could think that would prevent this from happening and they’re all fairly catastrophic. Hun Sen will be 71 shortly after the election which honestly seems quite young after the last few years of Malaysian politics skewed the regional mean. In 2020, Hun Sen put forward his son Hun Manet as successor, a move approved by his CPP immediately. Still, Hun Sen is keen on serving out another full term so where does that leave Hun Manet?
The year ahead will be an intriguing one for succession watchers. Writing in the aftermath of 2022’s bogus communal elections, Andrew Nachemson notes that those five years of waiting will be tough for Cambodia. The global economy is feeling the post-pandemic bumps and Cambodians are suffering doubly due to the hideous household microloan exploitation creating a deep well of debt. Nachemson adds that the effects of climate change and upstream damming of the Mekong will only exacerbate the crunch for many of the country’s poorest. That’s a nasty combination for any incoming leadership, let alone one relatively unproven and reliant on dad.
I’ve been particularly intrigued by Nachemson’s punchy analysis here: “Hun Manet’s position will be much less secure than his father’s. Hun Sen is a political mastermind who has outplayed his opponents for decades. Hun Manet will likely struggle to command the same level of respect from political elites. He may need to become more ruthless than Hun Sen as he fends off potential challenges from other party leaders — or even his own brothers, who include the director of military intelligence.”
The Game of Thrones will take a long time to play out but expect to see far more attacks on the opposition in the next six months. Last year saw plenty of dramatics around the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party and figures Mu Socha and Sam Rainsy as well as post-commune elections targeting of the Candlelight Party. Ananth Baliga at VOD English has a comprehensive look at how this played out here.
For longtime Cambodia watchers, this is much of the same. But I’m a Cambodia neophyte (in fact, 2022 was an enormous year of Cambodia studying) so I expect to learn a lot this year.
🇲🇲 Bullshit in Myanmar
Myanmar will hold an election this year. An “election.” It’s part of a pledge the junta made to the country after it seized power in February 2021. Half the dang National League of Democracy have been jailed and generations of activists and would-be voters have been killed, chased out of the country or had their lives entirely disrupted. The junta may well claim this is an election, an attempt to salve some of the harsher words the rest of the world directs at it, but it is nothing of the sort and will not be considered one. We will chat about the Myanmar crisis later in the week as we look at Asean’s year ahead.
🇮🇩 Okay, I’m cheating on this one, I’ll admit
Indonesia won’t be heading to the polls until Feb. 14, 2024, but you better believe we’ll be hearing about it all year (the call may be coming from inside the house). I’ll be relaunching my Indonesian election pop-up newsletter Ayolah on Valentine’s Day so please join us there if you’re keen. I’m well aware that not everyone on this list wants to know about my thoughts on Puan Maharani or discuss the ins and outs of how the electoral commission navigates hundreds of millions of votes over literally tens of thousands of islands (omg, I’m excited), so it’s an opt-in rather than an opt-out job. Although I will be pushing it a lot!