Political polarization is growing in South and Southeast Asia—one part of a troubling global trend. From long-established democracies like India to newer ones like Indonesia, deep-seated sociopolitical divisions have become increasingly inflamed in recent years, fueling democratic erosion and societal discord. New political and economic strains caused by the coronavirus pandemic are only reinforcing this worrisome trend.
This report focuses on six key countries: India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Behind the tremendous diversity of these cases lie illuminating commonalities, alongside revealing differences, in the roots, trajectories, drivers, and consequences of polarization, as well as in the attempted remedies different actors have pursued.
The roots of polarization in South and Southeast Asian democracies run deep, usually dating back to at least the first half of the twentieth century and their formation as modern nation-states. Divisions also tend to be anchored in one or more of three powerful types of societal fissures: ethnic, religious, or ideological. These findings underscore how fundamental political divides are and how hard they are to bridge. Only one of the six case studies, the Philippines, is not suffering from intense polarization, despite the rise of a populist president in a context of ethnolinguistic and regional diversity. Yet the forces mitigating divisions in Philippine politics have been decidedly antidemocratic.
The roots of polarization in South and Southeast Asian democracies run deep.
Troublingly, long-standing divides have burst to the forefront of political life in many parts of South and Southeast Asia over the past two decades. In India, the Hindu right’s stunning success in the 2014 and 2019 elections has intensified polarization over the role of Hindu nationalism in sociopolitical life. In Indonesia, fierce competition between Islamist and more pluralist forces since 2014 has sharply divided the country. In Thailand, polarization over the legitimacy of monarchical rule and existing social hierarchies erupted after 2001, leading to years of clashing street protests and two military coups.
The drivers behind this wave of polarization are potent and diverse. As in other regions, political leaders often play a critical role in intensifying divisions, not just by employing polarizing rhetoric but more fundamentally by seeking radical changes to the status quo. Opposition forces, too, can escalate polarization by weaponizing mass protests or reciprocating with divisive tactics. Yet political leadership is just one factor amplifying divisions. Deeper, structural forces—including sociopolitical mobilization around religion, the Global War on Terrorism, economic transformation, the design of political systems, and changes involving traditional and social media—have undergirded the rise of polarization across South and Southeast Asia.
The consequences of polarization, from executive abuse of power to the politicization of the military, pose distinct risks for all institutions in a democracy. What is more, political conflicts often reverberate throughout society, fueling intolerance toward and even violence against minority groups. In some countries, these negative effects have proven significant enough to shatter the constitutional order: Polarization culminated in democratic breakdowns in Thailand and a twenty-six-year civil war in Sri Lanka. In other places, such as India, Indonesia, and Malaysia, the democratic erosion caused by harsh political conflict is not yet so serious, but the warning signs are disquieting.
Despite these adverse trends, domestic and transnational actors have responded with efforts to counteract or at least limit the problem. Divisive leaders have at times performed an about-face; opposition politicians have built diverse coalitions; and civil society groups have launched initiatives to reform the media landscape, foster dialogue, and bridge divides. The different remedial efforts examined in this report suggest four overarching guidelines for actors seeking to counter polarization: They should limit objectives and lengthen timelines, develop in-depth local expertise, focus on systemic changes that foster sociopolitical inclusion, and purposefully cultivate credibility across the political divide. The report also distills specific recommendations for supporting inclusive leadership, media reform, and dialogue and bridging efforts.
Attempted remedies have failed thus far to overcome the powerful forces behind rising polarization, but these initial shortcomings should not be cause for resignation. Domestic and transnational actors will need to learn from the limitations of previous efforts and think systematically about countering polarization if they are to come to grips with the gravity of the challenge it presents.
This research project was made possible by support from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Ford Foundation, and the UK Department for International Development. The authors and editors are indebted to Mathus Anuvatudom, Edward Aspinall, Nicole Curato, Usman Hamid, Paul D. Kenny, and Benjamin Schonthal for their valuable input on the case study chapters. They also wish to thank William J. Burns, Laura Lucas Magnuson, and David Timberman for their thoughtful feedback on the report, as well as Ryan DeVries, Shannon Granville, Amy Mellon, and Jocelyn Soly for their excellent design and editorial assistance. Finally, they are grateful to Maria Koomen and to colleagues at the Australian National University for their help in organizing a workshop there in March 2020 to advance this research. Although public health considerations prevented the workshop from taking place, their efforts contributed nevertheless to the overall project.