Briefing MONTHLY #70 | January 2024
Election watch | Taiwan’s mixed result | Indonesia v India | China trade fears | Regional growth outlook | PM’s Asian travel
Illustration by Rocco Fazzari.
This year has been variously described as the biggest election year in history to a frightening year for democracy. But as that vexed debate continues, one thing is clear: Asia has kicked off the voting and illustrated the parameters.
From Taiwan to Bhutan and Bangladesh to Tuvalu, some of the themes that will now play out in almost 60 countries holding national level direct elections over the remainder of the year have already been on display. Vibrant democracies are under pressure both internally and externally; flawed electoral regimes are prompting voter boycotts; and small countries are holding votes amid a concern that establishment democracy is under stress around the world, especially in the erstwhile exemplar the United States. (And just to clear up the varying numbers, about 80 countries are holding national votes if the tally includes the European parliament election and indirect votes for leaders and upper houses.)
Indo-Pacific countries only account for less than a quarter of the various elections in the world this year although they account for more than half the population of the countries holding votes. But with two of the world’s three largest elections in India and Indonesia, Asia will arguably play an outsized role in defining the practical state of global democracy.
And with an unusual concentration of polls in South Asia, the World Bank’s latest global outlook has warned that foreign investment and growth there could be endangered by political and social unrest. See DEALS AND DOLLARS
This month’s edition is substantially devoted to our annual comprehensive wrap of regional elections from Pakistan to Palau. And, in DATAWATCH, there is a fascinating chart of how Asian democracy is evolving.
Briefing MONTHLY editor
But first, the counting so far:
TAIWAN: On January 13, the Democratic Progressive Party reinforced Taiwan’s de facto independence from China by winning the island’s presidency for a record third term in a row since democracy began in 1996. But its failure to win a majority of votes in both the presidential race and of seats in the legislative Yuan suggests it will have a harder time actually running the government. Incoming President William Lai Ching-Te won 40 per cent of the vote and the DPP won 51 seats in the 113 seat Yuan. The once dominant KMT won 33 per cent of the presidential vote and 52 seats. But the rise of the new Taiwan People’s Party to take 26 per cent of the presidential vote and 8 seats suggests a growing proportion of the younger population want a less divisive approach to China and more attention to domestic issues. China has stepped up pressure on Australia to back away from Taiwan in response to the election result.
BANGLADESH: On January 7, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina won her fourth consecutive term in office in a controversial election which saw voter turnout halve to about 40 per cent due to an opposition boycott. Hasina’s Awami League won 223 out of 300 seats with many of the remainder going to its allies due to the Bangladesh National Party refusal to participate in the absence of an independent election administration. Hasina has largely ignored western criticism of her increasingly authoritarian approach to government with both China and India welcoming the result because they have developed close ties with the world’s longest serving female leader.
BHUTAN: On January 9, power changed hands to the liberal People’s Democratic Party (PDP) raising the prospect the country will tilt more towards India from China. The PDP won 30 out of the 47 seats at the fourth election since a constitutional monarchy was established in 2008. The former ruling Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa Party, which was more inclined to compromise with China, was eliminated in a first round of voting in November. The new government led by US-educated Prime Minister, Tshering Tobgay, a former leader, is likely to seek more Indian investment to recover from big tourism losses during the pandemic.
TUVALU: Last Friday, eight new members were elected to Tuvalu’s 16-member single parliamentary chamber, where there are no parties. They will now choose a new president and government to replace the pro-Australia and pro-Taiwan incumbent president Kausea Natano, who lost his seat. This election is significant because questions have been raised about whether the new leadership will support Australia’s Falepili Union agreement with the country which was signed last year, but not yet ratified. Tuvalu is also one of the three remaining Pacific countries to recognise Taiwan after Nauru’s change this month and it could also change sides after the election.
INDONESIA: new dynasty
Family man … Joko Widodo remains popular Picture: @jokowi
Indonesia’s election on February 14 is the vote to watch in Asia this year with a certain change of national leaders, the largest number of positions up for grabs, and the possibility the already year-long political manoeuvring will drag on to a second-round presidential vote in June before the new politicians actually take office in October.
Three men are running to replace Joko Widodo as president: Defence Minister and three-time candidate Prabowo Subianto, from the third largest Gerindra Party; former East Java governor Ganjar Pranowo, from the largest and oldest Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle; and former Jakarta governor Anies Basweden, with a looser party coalition base. They each have vice-presidential running mates from different parties.
But, in the first combined election, voters, depending on their location, will receive four or five ballot papers to allow them to choose 732 members of the two national legislative bodies, 2375 members of the provincial legislatures and, outside Jakarta, 17,500 members of local government councils. Nine parties in the national legislature will be running again along with about 30 others with provincial seats or none, due to a minimum voter threshold.
While the national leadership will turnover, Prabowo’s decision to choose Widodo’s son as his vice-presidential candidate suggests a new political dynasty is emerging which may limit change. And with Prabowo the leading candidate in the opinion polls, the big question is whether Ganjar and Anies can, or will, join forces in any second round run-off vote to frustrate the frontrunner. Meanwhile future national leaders may emerge from the provinces in Indonesia’s highly devolved system.
India’s fractious regionalised democracy is shifting towards a notionally more bipolar national election as opposition parties have formed an alliance to compete with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dominant Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has held national power since 2014.
The world’s biggest election, by voter numbers, will choose 543 single seat members for up to five-year terms in the Lok Sabha with voting spread across various states in April and May. But state elections are also due to be held during that time in Andra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, and Sikkim
The BJP has long dominated a notional coalition - the National Development Alliance - whose members now hold office in 17 of the country’s 36 jurisdictions. The decline of the once dominant Congress Party has prompted the creation of the new opposition Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) of almost 30 parties as the only practical way to provide a national alternative to the BJP.
After some setbacks last year, opinion polls and the most recent state elections polls suggest the BJP is set to win another strong victory which will confirm Modi’s stature as one of the world’s most powerful elected leaders and one of the most significant in his country’s modern history.
PAKISTAN: Khan's last wicket
Hard choice … party symbols are crucial for illiterate voters.
Asia’s fourth most populous country is facing a potential election crisis on February 8 with calls for the vote to be postponed and continued efforts to undermine the stature of ousted former prime minister Imran Khan, the former cricketer, and his party. Khan came to power at the head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party in 2018 with the sympathy of the military but was ousted in 2022. He was charged with several offences to stop him running and the party has crumbled despite apparently retaining significant public support. Meanwhile three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Party appears to be back in favour with the military with legal issues facing Sharif dropped after a period of exile. The crackdown on Khan’s once popular political movement may see a revival for the Pakistan Peoples Party, long associated with the Bhutto family and now headed for former foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Pakistanis will be choosing 266 individual seat members, 60 women by proportional representation, and ten seats for non-Muslims.
SOUTH KOREA: three-way battle
A looming split in the country’s left wing political forces may give conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol some respite from legislative opposition in the National Assembly after the April 10 election. Former prime minister Lee Nak-yon has launched a new centrist political party to challenge the domination of Yoon’s right-wing People Power Party and the Lee’s former left-wing Democratic Party. Lee’s move is the latest effort to provide some alternative to the extremely combative two-party system in the country which has led to many prosecutions of former leaders. The Democrats now dominate the 300 seat Assembly with by-elections and opinion polls suggesting that will remain, thus continuing to undermine Yoon’s ability to pursue a domestic reform agenda. And that is despite rising criticism of current Democrat leader and potential future presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung for abusing his power. While the Democrats dominate the Assembly, they face growing internal fissures with some members seeking to unseat Lee, accusing him of abuse of power. Meanwhile, North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly is also due for its five yearly renewal by April amid speculation dictator Kim Jong-un is grooming his daughter for succession surprisingly early.
SOLOMONS: waiting game
Long wait … the island nation’s poll was postponed Picture: RNZ
The long-delayed election for the Solomon Island’s Parliament is due to be held in April with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare heading into the campaign as the Pacific Person of the Year. Sogavare controversially delayed the election last year on the basis it was too expensive to hold in the same year the country was hosting the Pacific Games. Although the delay has also given him the ability to deal with the change of government in Australia amid China’s growing influence in the Solomons. Sogavare will be seeking a fifth non-consecutive term as prime minister with Islands Business magazine naming him as the region’s person of the year. The 50 members of Parliament are elected in single-member constituencies using first-past-the-post voting. Eight parties won a total of 29 seats at the last election and independents won 21 creating a political hot house situation. Sogavare ran as an independent but controversially reformed the old Ownership, Unity and Responsibility Party after the election to form a four-party coalition to win government.
CAMBODIA: finishing touches
Cambodia will complete the transfer of power within the dominant Cambodian People’s Party on February 23 with the election of a new Senate. Last year, long ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen handed official power to his son Hun Manet after a massive victory in the National Assembly election from which the leading opposition Khmer National Rescue Party was banned from participating. The 62 seat Senate has 58 contested seats and the CPP won 58 in 2018. The main interest in the election is whether Hun Sen takes over the Senate’s chair role in addition to remaining CPP chief and being a member of the King’s Privy Council.
MALDIVES: Changing sides
China tilt … Mohamad Miuzzu is worrying India. Picture: Indiatvnews.com
The Maldives will choose new members for its 81 seat Majlis legislature in March with elected members chosen under a first past the post system. The country chose its new President Mohamed Muizzu, from the Progressive Party of Maldives-Peoples National Congress group, last October with 54 per cent of the vote replacing pro-India Maldivian Democratic Party incumbent Ibrahim Solih. Muizzi has stepped up his election campaign pro-China position since the vote but has faced a domestic backlash because the country is dependent on Indian tourists. The Majlis has had a greater role in running the country since it was expanded and restructured in 2019 for the last election.
SRI LANKA: Rajapaksa redux?
A new president is due to be elected for a five-year term by October raising the prospect of another shakeout in the country’s politics after the 2022 civil unrest. While the powerful Rajapaksa family was forced to cede the presidency back then amid an economic crisis, its Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party still holds a majority in Parliament. Incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took the job as a quasi-neutral candidate acceptable to the International Monetary Fund, can run again. However, his United National Party (UNP) only has one seat in Parliament after being devastated by the SLPP at the 2020 elections when the China-oriented Rajapaksa family still dominated politics. The President is disliked by the civil society sector but supported in Parliament by the SLPP and appears to be seeking support from the minority Tamils and India in a complex strategy. Sri Lanka has had periods of successful co-habitation between presidents and prime ministers from different parties – but also nasty bust-ups. An election for the 225 seat Parliament is due by late 2025 but Wickremesinghe has hinted it could be called soon after the presidential vote.
MONGOLIA: squeeze play
It might be awkwardly sandwiched between two authoritarian giants, but Mongolia will be continuing its momentum towards being a functional democracy by choosing members of a new State Great Khural on June 28. Under recent constitutional changes voters will choose 78 single member seat representatives and 48 proportional representation members from party lists. The election follows a series of corruption scandals last year involving members of the ruling Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) which party led to the expansion of the Great Khural to provide more power balance with the executive government. Mongolia has managed to maintain an independent foreign policy from Chin and Russia but is still highly economically dependent on China. Two existing parties the Democrats and KhUn will compete with the MPP.
PALAU: Taiwan stronghold
Palau will hold general elections on November 12 for its president and two houses of parliament which each sit for four-year terms. It is one of the three Pacific countries to still recognise Taiwan and President Surangel Whipps, a US educated businessman, has been an outspoken advocate of more US assistance for his country to fend off Chinese advances.
KIRIBATI: each way bets
Kiribati is due to hold an election by March for the 44 elected seats House of Assembly, which is dominated by the Tobwaan Kiribati Party. A legally disputed by-election in December hinted at a more competitive political environment. The President is elected after the new House sits. The country has drifted closer to China since switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, and it then split from the Pacific Islands Forum, before returning last year. Australia signed a co-operation pact with incumbent President Taneti Maamau early last year but he was subsequently lukewarm about the much deeper Australian deal with Tuvalu.
Source: V-Dem/Briefing MONTHLY
There are many definitions of democracy in Asia, but they all show some diverging practices. The Electoral Democracy Index from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg relies on 3500 analysts to judge whether political leaders are elected under comprehensive voting rights in free and fair elections. This chart shows the 40-year trend in seven countries holding elections this year and the Asia-wide trend.
After five years of security and economic concerns about China, the tide appears to be turning with a pre-Christmas opinion poll revealing that the China relationship was the only cause for optimism out of ten broad measures.
The Australian Financial Review/Freshwater Strategy poll showed voters thought everything from wages to the economy, energy bills and the behaviour of politicians had deteriorated.
Of the 10 mostly domestic parameters polled, the only cause for optimism was the bilateral relationship with China, with 54 per cent of respondents saying felt it was improving, while 45 per cent felt it was worsening or unchanged.
This gave it a net positive of 9 per cent, up from 2 per cent when this was measured in December 2022. The only other positive measure was Australia’s progress towards net zero carbon emissions – but that was down from a net positive of 20 per a year ago to five.
Last year’s Lowy Poll in June showed that 52 per cent of respondents saw China as more of a security threat down from 63 per cent a year before and 44 per cent saw it as more of an economic partner which was up from 33 per cent as year earlier.
Market man … Hu Jintao in Parliament in 2003
Australia’s decision to recognise China as a “market economy” for trade purposes in 2005 has echoed down the years as the United States and the European Union have not followed suite and China’s recent economic coercion has undermined its market stature.
This year’s Cabinet papers from 2003 provide an insight into how the then Howard government wrangled with China’s demand to be seen as a market economy rather than a developing economy which affected how it was treated over issues such as dumping.
In 2002, Prime Minister John Howard agreed to a framework study for a possible bilateral trade agreement. By mid-2003 the pressure was on for some substance with President Hu Jintao due to address Parliament in late October.
On October 9 trade minister Mark Vaile told Cabinet: “China maintains it could not agree to an FTA study, and much less FTA negotiations, unless Australia agrees to recognise China as a market economy, and not to apply certain provisions of its WTO Accession commitments to bilateral trade. No other major country has recognised China as a market economy.”
The documents show the ministers were concerned about criticism from other major countries if they made this concession. And in contrast to the business pressure for more China engagement in more recent times, there was also concern business would react badly to any limits on Australia’s dumping regime against Chinese exports.
But the Cabinet agreed a concession had to be made to get China to do more than vaguely “seriously study” a trade agreement and to actually embark on a feasibility study with a deadline. “Such a concession would involve Australia agreeing, either permanently or for a limited period, not to apply the specific provisions in China’s WTO accession package relating to anti-dumping and safeguards to bilateral trade. In addition … it may be necessary to indicate, on a prospective basis, that Australia would be willing to recognise China as a market economy,” the favoured Option B recommendation says.
This year’s documents also show how 2003 was the year when Australia’s bilateral trade engagement with Asian countries really took off with deals with Singapore and Thailand, along with efforts to keep Japan focused on the issue.
The Albanese government has been urged to create a new cross-ministerial to prepare for a declaration of independence by Bougainville as Papua New Guinea takes a harder line on separation. The call comes as Prime Minister James Marape faces a possible leadership challenge after this month’s rioting in Port Moresby.
Former Australian high commissioner Ian Kemish says the “almost certain” rejection of independence by PNG by 2025 - despite the 98 per cent support for independence at the 2019 referendum - could lead to a unilateral declaration of independence and potential new interference in the region by China.
He says in a new National Security College paper that: “Australia should work with other trusted international parties to support dialogue on alternative models for Bougainville’s political status. This should involve fully fledged backing for the identification, recruitment and technical support of a new, trusted international moderator.”
Kemish warns that while Australia has acquired credibility with both sides through support of the 2001 peace agreement it must prepare for some Bougainville leaders to feel they have got this far without real support from Australia and thus to look for support elsewhere.
Some Bougainville leaders have hit already hit back at perceived bias towards PNG’s position as Australia has moved towards a security agreement with PNG. But many PNG politicians are still sensitive about Australia actions over what PNG sees as an internal matter.
Kemish says Bougainvilleans will be reluctant to return to the fullscale conflict of the 1990s but there could still be localised conflict extending into the Solomons.
DEALS AND DOLLARS
GROWTH: mixed messages
Economic growth in East Asia and the Pacific is set to slow to 4.5 per cent this year and 4.4 per cent next year from an estimated 5.1 per cent in 2023, mostly due to the slowdown in China. With China out of the numbers, the outlook is slightly better with growth up to 4.7 per cent over the next two years from 4.4 per cent last year.
And in as positive for Australia’s development aid obligations in the Pacific, the World Bank’s latest economic outlook notes that combined economic output in the Pacific Island economies will exceed pre-pandemic trend levels after a slower recovery than the rest of Asia.
However, East Asia minus China is still tracking below the 2000-19 growth rates, underlining the broader message from the Bank’s world outlook. It points out that the 2020 decade globally has had the weakest start for a decade since the 1990s – a period characterised by geopolitical strains and a global recessions.
Source: World Bank
Meanwhile in South Asia growth is forecast to dip slightly lower from 5.7 per cent last year to 5.6 per cent this year but then pick up to 5.9 per cent next year, led by India which is tracking at about 6.4 per cent.
However consistent with this edition’s election them, the Bank warns that the unusual concurrence of elections in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, and Pakistan), means he heightened uncertainty could dampen activity in the private sector, including foreign investment. “If combined with political or social unrest and elevated violence, this could further disrupt and weaken economic growth,” it says.
MUFJ’S NEW LINK
Japan’s biggest banking group Mitsubishi UFJ will buy the share registry and superannuation administrator Link Group in a $1.2 billion purchase that will end many years of troubled performance and potential takeovers for the Australian company.
The purchase continues the diversification of Japanese investment in Australia away from resources and particularly towards financial services as Japanese both look for offshore higher growth and use Australia as a testing ground for expansion.
MUFJ Trust and Banking Corporation said the purchase would allow it to further accelerate its global business expansion via access to Australian funds and global corporate clients. Link chairman Michael Carapiet said: “It allows Link to be owned by a major international organisation who has growth ambitions and who wants to back this business.”
"As for certain forces in Australia, it is absurd and dangerous to talk about peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits while condoning and supporting “Taiwan independence”. It is illogical and harmful to link China’s internal affairs with Australia’s security and safety. If Australia is tied to the chariot of Taiwan separatist forces, the Australian people would be pushed over the edge of an abyss."
- Chinese Ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian (January 12)
"We think that it's a good thing when you see the peaceful exercise of people's democratic rights. That is what has occurred here. And we'll continue to support the status quo when it comes to the position of Taiwan, consistent with our bipartisan one China policy."
- Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (January 15)
ON THE HORIZON
When Prime Minister Anthony Albanese hosts Southeast Asian leaders in Melbourne in early March he will be in the serendipitous position of ticking off two key foreign and domestic imperatives at the same time. He will meet some of Australia’s most important foreign partners without making an overseas trip.
That should give the prime minister some room to burnish his promise to focus on domestic cost of living issues after facing growing criticism over his foreign travel last year.
But by the time speculation about the next federal election hits real time with the first possible date in in early August (with the last in mid-May 2025), the pressures to attend regional summits will be back on again.
The Pacific Islands Forum meets in August in Tonga, to be followed in October by the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Samoa, both events where Albanese will need to maintain momentum towards Australian hosting a United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) climate change summit with Pacific countries in 2026.
November is looking particularly fraught for a prime minister wanting to look more grounded with this year’s COP meeting in Azerbaijan; the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group summit in Peru; the Group of 20 leaders meeting in Brazil; and the East Asia Summit in Laos around that time.
Meanwhile a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue leaders meeting in India’s is now a wildcard with President Joe Biden turning down an Indian invitation for last month (January) and Indian’s own election consuming the country in April and May.
And just ticking off regional responsibilities doesn’t account for a possibly observer invitation to the Group of Seven Summit in Italy in June and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation summit in Washington in July.
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