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Commentary: End of centrist democracy and Asia’s unconventional systems

04 Jun Commentary: End of centrist democracy and Asia’s unconventional systems

By Simon Tay
For The Straits Times

As centrist parties falter in Western democracies, Asian countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and India offer lessons on how political systems can bring stability

Last month, the world witnessed its two largest democratic votes – in India and across Europe – and elections have also been held in the key Asean countries of Thailand and Indonesia.

Beyond the question of who won or lost, a trend in too many countries is that the political middle ground is fragmenting, and more extreme voices are gathering strength on the left and right.

Take the European Parliament elections. Many hopes and traditional ideas about democracy began in the old Europe, but today, a new reality has emerged from the European Parliament polls.

The centre-right alliance – the European People’s Party – is diminished. So too is the alliance on the centre-left, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats.

Results swing towards populist parties on the left and right. Similar trends showed in earlier national elections, even within the larger European economies such as Germany, France and Italy.

To be sure, centrist parties continue to be active and some newer political parties may move to the centre, like the Greens. But centrist parties are no longer dominant, even when they seek alliances. The centre is not holding.

This trend is also evident in Anglo-American democracies. In the US, it is hard for Republicans and Democrats to find a middle ground. Even within each party, divergences are growing.

Politics in the United Kingdom and Australia has changed too, and not for the better. Once, their two-party systems oscillated with usually competent leadership and workable continuity. Today, the governments struggle and contestation is not just between parties but – perhaps even more – within each party.

The Conservatives in Britain are internally divided over Brexit and Prime Minister Theresa May has announced her resignation. In Australia, a centre-right Liberal-National coalition unexpectedly squeaked to a narrow victory, but this is unlikely to end recent years of a revolving-door leadership without sufficient majority and tenure.

The ideal of a two-party system and centrist politics could be past.


Global factors are splintering politics and social cohesion. Globalisation and the post-World War II international order are weakening, with the loss of belief that opening and integration bring us benefits. More voters now focus on the costs of globalisation. They blame it for inequality and national weakness, and turn to a narrow nationalism and “me first” policies.

Racial and religious differences are rising. In politics, this is often wrapped in the colours of the flag and complaints about injustice. A typical rallying call is that “we” – however this is defined – are being threatened by foreigners, or those of a different colour or creed. The acceptance of diversity and the sense of solidarity are becoming endangered.

Technology and social media amplify these trends. Social media platforms have few effective safeguards and enable extreme views to be shared virulently. A new political dynamic favours extreme views and anger over rationality, compromise and hope. These express themselves not only online but resound through voting and even spill over onto the streets.

Such factors affect Asia too, perhaps even more intensely. In most of the region, the ideas of liberal and diverse democracy, and the practice of two-party systems, have not taken root. Elections tend to centre on personalities, not party platforms and policies.

In some countries, certain parties have maintained power for decades, but these are often derided as “autocratic”. Western criticism of China’s one-party state has grown ever sharper with concerns that a “Beijing consensus” will actively promote its influence.

Recent elections in Asia, too, have been criticised. For instance, commentaries question the legitimacy of the Thai elections and even predict instability and uncertainty. Questions have been raised about India’s elections too. To some, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sealed its victory by appealing to Hindu-centric nationalism – anathema to the ideals of a secular, liberal democracy.

Yet, as democratic politics struggles to find a stable centre, there should be other ways to interpret these Asian examples. A case can be made that Asian countries are simply facing up to the same global factors that tend to splinter politics and are trying to find alternative, workable solutions.

While criticised by many proponents of liberal democracy, these unconventional efforts bear closer consideration.


Take India’s recent elections, which returned Mr Modi and the BJP to power. Some fear that the BJP has married itself to ultra-nationalist Hindu voices, while others hope to see reforms make India the next engine for global growth. It remains to be seen what emerges.

But India’s vote – the world’s largest – exemplifies global trends with sharp divisions between “us and them”. Extreme parties from the left or right may not win, but the issues they champion will exercise greater influence over the political centre. The charismatic leader gambles by adopting some of the fire and energy of what might seem populist rhetoric.

There is danger in this. Yet there is also hope that the same strong leader, once in office, will not be captive to an extreme agenda. He can instead steer towards and govern from the middle.

Consider also Indonesia, where President Joko Widodo has just won a second term. The popular President’s decision to choose conservative Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate had been controversial.

The move can be understood in the context of the elections for Jakarta’s governor two years ago. Then, the favoured candidate and Mr Joko’s former right-hand man, a Chinese Christian Indonesian, was not only defeated but eventually imprisoned for blasphemy against Islam. Political forces arose that emphasised the primacy of Islam. The current turbulence in Jakarta’s streets shows just how flammable these issues are.

Learning from this, Mr Joko’s campaign worked to fend off criticism and the fake news that he lacked Islamic credentials. The President stooped to conquer. The hope now is that he can rein in extreme voices.

This is possible, given Mr Joko’s popular appeal and the broad cross-section of political parties endorsing him. A grand coalition government is expected, and this can provide a political centre to marginalise extreme views. That differs considerably from the textbook two-party democracy, but if this can work, Indonesia will be more stable and centred.


There are examples elsewhere where centrist politics depends not on an individual but an institution.

Look again at Thailand’s recent elections. Consider the deep and decade-long “Yellow-Red” schism between royalists and those who support former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Neither side won a decisive margin in this year’s elections. Instead, a much broader range of parties emerged that ensures the need for multi-party coalitions, whether in forming the government or the opposition. Tensions are felt, and it remains to be seen who will lead the government.

The role of non-elected institutions is now explicit. The Thai Constitution gives a major role to a nominated Senate, and a non-elected person can even be named to lead the government. While above politics, the pre-eminent position of the palace and Thailand’s newly crowned king is evident and broadly accepted by most Thais. True believers in liberal democracy may not like what emerges, but this does not mean that Thailand is doomed to instability, as some critics warn. An opportunity arises to establish a new political centre, under institutions that have long been the enduring backbone of the Thai polity.

There are other Asian countries where one party dominates, whether unelected or after repeated electoral wins. This can maintain cohesion and a political centre.

Yet few will defend, let alone champion, such systems. Few rationally examine what can make for a better or worse one-party system, or consider why some voters consistently return the same party to government.


One such study is Uncommon Democracies, edited by American academic TJ Pempel. Dating back to 1990, this study considered political parties that were then dominant, like the Institutional Revolutionary Party of Mexico, Sweden’s Social Democrats and Italy’s Christian Democrats. These parties have since ebbed. Yet the reasons they were once dominant remain to be considered.

One reason is that the party brings independence or otherwise plays a key founding role.

Another reason is the delivery of economic and social benefits and stability. It also avoids pervasive corruption and division among its leadership. The party in such systems has been able to create and maintain a centre in the nation’s politics. Indeed, the party is intertwined with that centre.

What else needs to be done to maintain and renew legitimate and centrist politics?

Openness is perhaps a key factor – not only transparency and non-corruption, but also a system that incorporates a broad and representative cross-segment of society. The party needs to attract candidates of good quality and then train, test and select its leadership in competitive ways. The party leadership also needs to be open to changes and new stakeholders in society and the economy.

As society shifts, the party’s centrist politics shifts accordingly. Only by listening and responding to their needs and concerns can the party maintain the trust of the broad majority, and keep confidence that a better future is possible.

This does not mean that the party is cowed by populist preferences. On the contrary, to maintain social cohesion, there will be hard choices and instances in which unpopular but deliberate measures will be needed to curb and sanction extreme voices.

In this context, rather than just labelling them as “autocratic”, a different perspective is needed on the positive role of the dominant and centrist parties in countries like China, which does not have popular elections, or Singapore, where elections are held.

Then there is Japan, which not only holds elections but is also proudly democratic. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has returned to power at almost every turn, except for relatively short spells. What has evolved is not a textbook two-party system in which government turnover is accepted as normal. Japanese voters seem to turn to the opposition only in a grave, “break the glass” situation when they judge the LDP to be failing.

This was evident when the opposition enjoyed a brief spell in governing Japan, but only after a decade of short-lived LDP governments. The LDP led by Mr Shinzo Abe, now Prime Minister, has been back in power since 2012.

No one should declare that Asia’s unconventional efforts will succeed. Many once dominant parties have succumbed to corruption and hubris. A charismatic leader who promises reform can be swallowed up by narrow nationalism and identity politics – potent and flammable issues.

But many countries around the world are facing a very real challenge of centrifugal factors that splinter politics and societies. As liberal democracies in the US and Europe struggle, we should be open to the possibilities that emerge from the recent elections and unconventional efforts across Asia.

Only by adapting can we create and maintain cohesive societies and centrist politics.


Associate Professor Simon Tay, a law professor, is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reprinted with permission.

ST Illustration: Miel