As we argue in our recent book, Democracies Divided, rising political polarization is a significant element of the global democratic crisis.1 Intense divisions are tearing at the seams of democratic societies in every part of the world, from Brazil, India, and Kenya to Poland, Turkey, and the United States. The coronavirus pandemic is only exacerbating this trend as contending political camps in many countries clash over responses to the crisis, and leaders determined to monopolize control exploit the emergency to claim sweeping new powers.2
South and Southeast Asia, two regions with tremendously diverse democracies, are a vital ground for understanding the swelling tide of polarization, its many troubling consequences, and the ways in which domestic and transnational actors committed to strengthening democratic governance can try to contain or reduce it. Deepening divisions, frequently fueled by majoritarian political agendas, are driving democratic regression in key countries throughout these regions. In India—the longest-lasting democracy in the Global South—threats to liberal freedoms “are now approaching critical proportions” as the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi advances a polarizing Hindu nationalist agenda.3 Indonesia and Sri Lanka have also been wracked by majoritarian political forces that are aggravating divisions and eroding democratic institutions.
Deepening divisions, frequently fueled by majoritarian political agendas, are driving democratic regression in key countries throughout these regions.
Elsewhere in these regions, where democracy has recently taken tentative steps forward, entrenched political divides are limiting liberalization. In Malaysia, the opposition stunned the world in 2018 by ousting an incumbent coalition that had held power for more than sixty years. Yet enduring polarization prevented the new government from implementing reforms and led to its dramatic collapse just two years later. Thailand, after years of democratic turmoil and regression, has recently experienced a limited political opening; in 2019, it registered the greatest year-on-year improvement in political freedoms of any country in the world, according to the Economist’s Democracy Index.4 But unhealed divisions after more than fifteen years of polarizing struggles threaten to destabilize democracy once again.
An in-depth grasp of the patterns and dynamics of polarization is thus crucial to understanding politics in South and Southeast Asia, particularly for domestic and transnational actors working to support democratic governance. To help meet this need, we worked with experts from across these regions to explore the topic in detail.
We chose to focus on six key countries: India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. All meet the minimum criteria to be described as an “electoral democracy.”5 However, they differ significantly across a range of axes, including their degree of democracy, the design of their political systems, their societal makeup, and their levels of economic development. They are also experiencing varied degrees of polarization; some have suffered from divided politics for decades, whereas one (the Philippines) has comparatively little polarization despite its significant societal diversity. These differences help illuminate which factors lead to higher or lower levels of polarization and democratic erosion.
We utilized a common definition of severe polarization developed by Jennifer McCoy and Murat Somer. In their path-breaking recent work, these scholars define severe or “pernicious” polarization as “a process whereby the normal multiplicity of differences in the society increasingly align[s] along a single dimension, cross-cutting differences become reinforcing, and people increasingly perceive and describe politics and society in terms of ‘us’ versus ‘them.’”6 As they elaborate in an article with Tahmina Rahman, a defining characteristic of severe polarization is that “distance between groups moves beyond principled issue-based differences to a social identity [emphasis added].”7
Several of the case studies, such as India and Thailand, clearly meet this definition of severe polarization. Their divisions are structured around a reductive binary cleavage, are rooted in an identity struggle both among political elites and within society more broadly, and are sustained rather than transitory. Yet even when divisions do not reach the threshold of severe polarization, they can still be intense and damaging to democracy. In Indonesia, for instance, bitter political rivalries have poisoned societal relations in recent years, but it remains too soon to tell whether these divisions will be lasting and become an ingrained feature of social identity.
Yet even when divisions do not reach the threshold of severe polarization, they can still be intense and damaging to democracy.
We structured the case studies around a set of common themes and questions, namely, the roots, trajectory, drivers, and consequences of polarization, as well as remedial actions.
- Roots: What is the primary dividing line between the two sides? What historical episodes or conflicts set the stage for polarization today?
- Trajectory: When did the current phase of polarization begin and why? How has polarization changed over time in its intensity, dividing lines, and sociopolitical manifestations?
- Drivers: What factors—such as political leadership and institutions, economic transformations, and changes in the media landscape—have driven polarization? Does polarization stem primarily from the actions of elites, or is it also rooted more widely in society at large?
- Consequences: What political and societal effects is polarization having? How is it affecting the functioning of different elements of the political system, such as the executive, judiciary, legislature, and political parties? What kinds of social tensions and conflicts is it producing?
- Remedial actions: What efforts have been made to counter polarization? Have any initiatives achieved notable results, and if not, what challenges have they faced?
The report first presents the five country cases that are significantly (if not necessarily severely) polarized. They underscore that polarization is having serious, wide-ranging effects on democratic governance, contributing to outcomes from illiberal majoritarianism and executive abuse of power to military intervention and civil war. They further demonstrate that the sociopolitical strain caused by the coronavirus outbreak has often amplified polarization and its already dangerous consequences.
In India, as Niranjan Sahoo argues, the divide between secular and Hindu nationalist visions of Indian identity forms the crux of polarization today. Although the country’s political tensions have been simmering since the 1980s, the Hindu right’s landslide electoral victories in 2014 and 2019 brought polarization to a boil. In the current context of toxic partisanship, attacks on independent institutions have increased, violence against minority communities has flared up, and the electoral success of Hindu nationalist parties has rendered the opposition reluctant to defend pluralism and minority rights.
Eve Warburton’s analysis of Indonesia similarly shows just how rapidly polarization can intensify and erode democratic institutions. Three major elections since 2014 have left the country more divided than it has been in decades, as opportunistic politicians deploy sectarian, populist campaigns to smear their more secular rivals. Yet divisive leadership alone cannot explain the growing polarization; disillusionment with Indonesia’s political establishment and the gradual Islamization of society also lie behind the rise of polarizing figures. With political strains deepening, the incumbent government has abused its executive powers to crack down on the opposition, most recently during the coronavirus pandemic.
In Malaysia, Bridget Welsh writes, what makes polarization so fraught is that it draws on three deep and distinct divides: an ethnic cleavage between Malays and non-Malay minority groups, a religious one between Islamists and secularists, and a third one between competing visions of state power and reform. These compounding divisions have prevented the adoption of various reforms, fueled political instability, and sustained a political system defined by ethnic majoritarianism and significant democratic deficits. Although the opposition took historic strides toward reducing polarization by building a diverse base of support and winning at the ballot box in 2018, the new governing coalition—the most inclusive in Malaysia’s history—soon collapsed under the weight of its internal divisions.
In Sri Lanka, Ahilan Kadirgamar traces how polarization rooted in ethnic and religious identity has fueled recurring bouts of majoritarian politics since the 1930s and even a decades-long civil war (1983–2009). Domestic political actors and institutions have exacerbated divisions, but so too have global forces—including an international push for addressing wartime human rights abuses and the rise of Islamophobic discourse during the U.S.-led Global War on Terrorism. The resulting polarization has entrenched a majoritarian, centralized state structure, fomented violence against minority communities, and pushed parties across the political spectrum to embrace ethnonationalism.
Thailand stands out as a case in which polarization has contributed to military intervention in politics, with the armed forces staging coups d’état in 2006 and 2014. As Janjira Sombatpoonsiri argues, Thailand’s pernicious polarization is rooted in an almost century-old divide between two opposing political outlooks. Whereas one camp regards the Thai king as the country’s rightful ruler and defends existing social hierarchies, the other seeks a more democratic and egalitarian sociopolitical order. Economic liberalization and democratizing political reforms in the 1990s paradoxically aggravated the struggle between these “two Thailands,” while social media and weaponized mass mobilization have only fueled the proverbial fires of polarization.
Finally, Paul Kenny’s chapter on the Philippines offers an interesting negative case, in which polarization shows no signs of emerging in what is an ethnolinguistically and regionally diverse country, despite the rise of a populist president and persistently high economic inequality. Unfortunately, the factors mitigating divisions in the Philippines are antidemocratic—party labels mean little to voters, since politics revolve around patronage and personalities rather than ideology or identity. Furthermore, President Rodrigo Duterte’s signature war on drugs has largely united Filipinos behind him, but at the cost of perhaps tens of thousands of lives.8
Polarization is feeding on long-standing political divisions and clashing social identities, including those of majority communities that feel aggrieved or threatened despite their electoral dominance.
The concluding chapter distills cross-cutting findings from these diverse case studies, including on how polarization in South and Southeast Asia aligns in important ways with polarization elsewhere. On the whole, our conclusions are sobering. Polarization is feeding on long-standing political divisions and clashing social identities, including those of majority communities that feel aggrieved or threatened despite their electoral dominance. It has intensified during the past two decades, propelled by powerful factors from rapid economic development to gradual societal shifts. It is damaging democracy, civil society, social cohesion, and the rights of minority groups.
Various actors have attempted to limit polarization and mitigate its negative effects, but to date these efforts have not been able to check the negative trend. Nevertheless, the analysis contained herein points to several policy guidelines and opportunities for addressing polarization. We hope that the report will enable engaged political and civic actors and observers in the countries under study—as well as transnational actors seeking to help these countries build more democratic futures—to better understand the dangerous dynamics of rising polarization and formulate effective responses.
1 Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue eds., Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2019).
2 Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue eds., “Polarization and the Pandemic,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 28, 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/04/28/polarization-and-pandemic-pub-81638.
3 Ashutosh Varshney, “Modi Consolidates Power: Electoral Vibrancy, Mounting Liberal Deficits,” Journal of Democracy 30, no. 4 (2019): 76.
4 Economist Intelligence Unit, “Democracy Index 2019: A Year of Democratic Setbacks and Popular Protest,” 2020, 25, www.eiu.com/public/topical_report.aspx?campaignid=democracyindex2019.
5 Following the work of Larry Diamond, we employ a minimalist definition of electoral democracy as “a civilian, constitutional system in which the legislative and chief executive offices are filled through regular, competitive, multiparty elections with universal suffrage.” See Larry Diamond, Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 7–10.
6 Murat Somer and Jennifer McCoy, “Déjà Vu? Polarization and Endangered Democracies in the 21st Century,” American Behavioral Scientist 62, no. 1 (2018): 2.
7 Jennifer McCoy, Tahmina Rahman, and Murat Somer, “Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy: Common Patterns, Dynamics, and Pernicious Consequences for Democratic Polities,” American Behavioral Scientist 62, no. 1 (2018): 19.
8 Howard Johnson and Christopher Giles, “Philippines Drug War: Do We Know How Many Have Died?” BBC, November 12, 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-50236481.