🔮 Populist polarisation might benefit democracy – as Southeast Asia suggests

We typically associate populism with corrosive partisan polarisation. Indeed, populist rhetoric often denigrates opponents as 'enemies of the people'. But while polarisation can have negative effects on democracy, Diego Fossati argues that it may also bring unexpected benefits. Using cases from Southeast Asia, he offers some convincing evidence

Populism and democratic backsliding

The interplay between democratic backsliding, populism and partisan polarisation has emerged as a central concern in recent years. Polarisation, an increasing ideological and affective divide between opposing political groups, is one of the key drivers of democratic erosion. Academic research offers ample evidence of the pernicious effects of polarisation on democratic politics.

Perhaps most importantly, polarisation can erode democratic norms. In polarised politics, defeating the opposing camp can be more important than preserving basic democratic values and procedures. Populist mobilisation, and the polarisation that typically underpins it, can therefore encourage democratic backsliding.

Populism in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia offers valuable insights into the nexus between populism, polarisation and democratic backsliding. Many countries in the region have recently suffered democratic setbacks.

In Indonesia, for example, the government has imposed restrictions on civil freedoms. In the Philippines, the war on drugs has precipitated gross human right abuses. And in Thailand, restrictions on political dissent, and a concentration of power in the military and the monarchy, have substantially autocratised the political system.

To what extent, then, can we trace these developments back to the polarised politics that characterise populism?

Thailand’s democracy yet to recover

Until the late 1990s, Thailand’s democracy had a clientelistic character. It featured poorly institutionalised parties and low political polarisation.

From the late 1990s, however, the nature of political competition changed substantially. Media mogul Thaksin Shinawatra scored decisive election victories in 2001 and 2005. He campaigned on a platform of populist appeals, and he achieved mass mobilisation in poorer provinces. The emergence of this new powerful bloc produced two decades of paralysing politics in the country. This period offers a perfect illustration of the devastating effects of severe polarisation on democracy. Thailand endured years of instability, social unrest, the decay of democratic institutions, weaponisation of the judiciary and increasing intervention of the military in politics. This, eventually, led to a 2014 coup from which Thailand’s democracy has yet to recover.

The election of the populist media mogul Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand precipitated two decades of unrest, militarisation, and democratic decay

Beyond the Thai case, however, political dynamics in Southeast Asia suggest that the relationship between populism, polarisation and backsliding is more complex than we often assume.

Democratic backsliding in the Philippines

Over the last decade, the Philippines has experienced pronounced democratic backsliding. President Rodrigo Duterte embodies a typical mix of authoritarian and populist politics. This has led to executive aggrandisement, the erosion of democratic norms, attacks on independent media, intimidation of opposition figures, large-scale disinformation campaigns and thousands of extra-judicial killings.

Despite a period of pronounced democratic backsliding, there is little political polarisation in the Philippines. Indeed, both elites and grassroots voters show strong support for Duterte and his successor

Yet all this has happened despite overall low polarisation. In the Philippines' most recent elections, political elites were united in their support for Duterte and his successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Voters have also been strongly supportive of Duterte and his policies, including his extreme and controversial crime-fighting measures.

Indonesia and the role of Islam

In Indonesia, too, ideological polarisation regarding the role of Islam in politics has prompted concerns about democratic backsliding, at least since the elections of 2014. In that year, Prabowo Subianto established a coalition with radical Islamist groups. He deployed the typical populist strategy of pitting corrupt elites against virtuous masses, spread false and defamatory information about his opponent, and questioned the integrity of electoral institutions.

In Indonesia, polarisation may have had the paradoxical effect of increasing citizens' satisfaction with democracy, thereby strengthening the legitimacy of democratic institutions

However, polarisation has also been associated with increasing satisfaction with democracy among Indonesian citizens. This paradox is often overlooked. Polarisation, I argue, has contributed to satisfaction with democracy by increasing the salience of substantive debates. Polarisation has strengthened perceptions of party differentiation on important issues, and motivated people to participate in democracy.

Democratisation and polarisation in Malaysia

Malaysia is one of the most polarised polities in the world. Religious cleavages are reinforced by deep-seated ethnic divisions. Yet this polarisation has not translated into democratic backsliding. On the contrary, the 2018 elections marked the first electoral defeat of the coalition that had underpinned authoritarian rule. In 2022, the country’s most prominent advocate for democracy, Anwar Ibrahim, was sworn in as Prime Minister.

Interestingly, democratisation in Malaysia has been closely intertwined with increasing ideological polarisation. Prior to the 2018 elections, the opposition camp included a broad, ideologically diverse range of actors. But the highly polarised 2018 campaign climate, and the reconfiguration of the opposition camp, presented voters with a binary us-versus-them choice. For the first time, this choice was tied to clearly identifiable policy positions.

Unexpected benefits?

The perils of polarisation are undeniable, especially when polarisation is severe and extends to collective emotions and social identities. However, polarisation also has close links with a key aspect of democratic politics: representation. A healthy democracy is one in which political parties offer a range of alternatives, voters cast their ballots based on personal preferences, and parties behave according to their programmatic promises. This would not be possible without a certain degree of polarisation. From this perspective, populist polarisation may also have positive implications for democracy.

By offering insightful examples of how fluid and diverse populist mobilisation may be, Southeast Asia reminds us of the pitfalls of relying on unsubstantiated stereotypes. Depending on the context, populism may manifest itself as nativist appeals, draconian anti-crime policies, illiberal understandings of democracy or economic grievances. It may be a highly polarising force, or one that unifies masses and elites.

Southeast Asia confounds our expectations about the effects of polarisation. Some countries in the region show that the political polarisation which often sustains populism, while disruptive and potentially devastating for democracy, may at times offer unexpected opportunities for democratic advancement.

No.66 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Diego Fossati
Diego Fossati
Assistant Professor, Department of Public and International Affairs, City University of Hong Kong

Diego studies representation and political behaviour, especially in the context of East and Southeast Asia.

He has been awarded research grants by Hong Kong's University Grants Committee (Early Career Scheme, General Research Fund), Singapore's Ministry of Education (Tier-II Research Grant) and the Australian Research Council (Discovery Project).

He received a PhD in Government from Cornell University in 2016.

Unity through Division Political Islam, Representation and Democracy in Indonesia by Diego Fossati

Unity through Division: Political Islam, Representation and Democracy in Indonesia
Cambridge University Press, 2022

The Meaning of Democracy in Southeast Asia Liberalism, Egalitarianism and Participation

The Meaning of Democracy in Southeast Asia
Cambridge University Press, 2023
Co-authored with Ferran Martinez i Coma

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