Under pressure from elites and other interest groups in Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand, democracy appears to be in retreat in Southeast Asia. These setbacks should be seen as temporary. Over the long term, democratic forces will prove too strong to resist. Indeed, there are already signs that give cause for optimism about the outlook for democratic processes in the region.
Indonesia presents a good example. The losing candidate in the recent presidential elections, Prabowo Subianto, had used his coalition to engineer a vote in Indonesia's lame-duck parliament to end direct elections of local government executives (The Law on Regional Executive Heads). Most observers considered this a setback for hard-won democratic reforms in the post-Suharto period and a blatant attempt to prevent popular local politicians such as President-elect Joko Widodo from ever capturing the national imagination.
Bowing to popular pressure and an outcry across the country, outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued regulations that temporarily annulled the newly passed law. After it convenes in January 2015, the parliament must either keep or discard these regulations. To encourage lawmakers to retain the previous system for local elections, a growing coalition of civil society groups -- women's organizations, farmers' associations, electoral groups, and public research firms -- have joined forces to raise public awareness and lobby their newly elected parliamentarians. Online petitions have already gathered tens of thousands of signatures. Separately, nine petitions for judicial review have been filed with the Constitutional Court challenging the constitutionality of the law.
There is no certainty these pro-democracy initiatives will succeed in preserving Indonesians' hard-fought rights to directly elect their local leaders. But Indonesia's new parliamentarians have been delivered a clear message: Rolling back political reforms without a national debate will not be accepted quietly.
At the same time, there are signs that, with time, Subianto's dominant "Red-White Coalition," which commands 63% of the seats in the new parliament, could start to fray. For example, the United Development Party (PPP) -- a member of the opposition coalition -- are set to elect a leader who may cross the aisle and join Widodo's "Great Indonesia Coalition." The Golkar party, a large and powerful member of the Red-White Coalition, may also rebel against its leadership at its next convention and opt to join Widodo's group. The combination of activist pro-democracy groups and a weakening Red-White Coalition may help Indonesians retain their right to elect local government heads directly. This confrontation will be only one among many in the coming months and years as Indonesian democracy matures.
Myanmar's big test
Now consider Myanmar. The upcoming national elections, tentatively scheduled for late 2015, will test whether the Thein Sein administration is genuinely committed to restoring democracy. Much will depend on whether the 2008 constitution can be amended before the polls to remove some of its most egregious features, including restrictions on eligibility for the presidency -- currently the biggest obstacle to the presidential aspirations of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Article 436 of the constitution states constitutional amendments require a more than three-fourths majority in parliament. Given that the document reserves 25% of parliamentary seats for the military, and that more than half the legislature is controlled by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, or USDP, no constitutional amendment can occur without the military's approval.
Until recently, there was little prospect this would change. A parliamentary review committee tasked to study possible amendments to the constitution concluded that no significant changes were necessary. But then, in early October, after a nationwide campaign for constitutional reform organized by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, the USDP made a surprise announcement that it was prepared to support revision of Article 436.
If approved by parliament, the revision could pave the way for transformative constitutional amendments that would hopefully entrench democracy firmly in the body politic. One such amendment could be to Article 59(F), which would then allow Suu Kyi to run for president in 2015. Another could be fundamental alterations to the electoral system from first-past-the-post to proportional representation (which would give the USDP representation in a future NLD-majority parliament). A third could be to do away altogether with reserved parliamentary seats for the military.
Thailand's long road
Compared with Indonesia and Myanmar, the prospects for democracy in Thailand appear the bleakest. But here, too, there is cause for hope -- albeit slender. When former-general-turned-Prime-Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha announced that elections would have to await reforms, he effectively postponed the vote indefinitely, despite earlier mentioning late 2015 as a possible date. A national reform council has started work on, among other things, a new constitution that will dilute the power of elected officials and concentrate it in the hands of the military and the political elite. Equally important, the National Council for Peace and Order, or NCPO, as the junta which controls the government is known, must ensure a peaceful succession for Thailand's revered monarch, who is in failing health.
Once a new constitution is in place and a monarchic succession is secured to the satisfaction of the military and the Bangkok elite, the NCPO would have every incentive to return the country to democracy. No one wishes to return to the pre-1998 days of perpetual military rule. The longer the junta stays in power, the more resentful people will become, especially in the poor and restless Northeast. There have been occasional episodes of defiance among civil society groups, but these have been met with immediate suppression. To establish some legitimacy, the NCPO had hoped for quick economic gains, but these have not materialized. The Thai economy is doing much worse than its neighbors. Prayuth and his military-dominated cabinet are finding that running a country successfully is not so easy after all.
So there is a significant probability that the country will hold an election within two years. While Thailand's new democratic institutions are unlikely to be "of the people, by the people, and for the people," they will nevertheless be an improvement over military rule, martial law and restrictions on press and political freedoms. And they will provide a more stable path toward more representative democracy over the longer term.
The examples of Indonesia, Myanmar and even Thailand show that recent setbacks to democracy in Southeast Asia are matters for concern, but not causes for despair. They serve as reminders that democratic progress is neither linear nor predictable, but rather a complex process with periodic advances and occasional setbacks. Democratic institutions can be undermined, but civil society has the power to push back when elites encroach on individual freedoms or roll back democratic reforms. That power is manifest in Indonesia, growing in Myanmar, and subdued (albeit temporarily) in Thailand. The rest of the world should pay attention. Southeast Asia's struggle today could be theirs tomorrow.
Yun Tang is a junior fellow with Carnegie's Asia Program.