Elections time in Southeast Asia – transition, change, or more of the same

Updated On: May 22, 2007

Southeast Asia just had a series of elections. How did they fare?

The landslide victory (69%) of Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta in East Timor's presidential election is supposed to symbolize unity and reconciliation for the infant state. However, the reality is that PM Ramos Horta faces a tough job of re-uniting a divided nation. In addition, high unemployment rate at 50 percent confronts the nascent state.

"I swear to God, in the name of the people and for the sake of my honour, that I will duly exercise my functions, implement and abide by the constitution and the law and dedicate all my energy and capacity to the defence and consolidation of freedom and national unity," he said.

After a mutiny in 2006 and the response from the government of then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri of the Fretilin party to quash it leading to riots, looting and arson, Mr. Alkatiri resigned in June and was succeeded by Mr. Ramos-Horta. The results of the presidential elections indicate that the people have voted against Fretilin,East Timor's biggest political party, the main force in the independence movement.

Its fate was sealed when Mr. Ramos-Horta and the departing President Xanana Gusmao, who were Fretilin leaders, chose to oppose Fretilin and Mr Alkatiri. The next general election will see President Gusmao’s new party contest against Fretilin. It is up to Mr Ramos-Horta to hold the country together through this process of nationhood and birth pangs.

Other than domestic issues, the new PM will probably face pressures to further ease relations with Indonesia. "Xanana Gusmao`s flexibility in maintaining communication and relations with various elements in Indonesian society was really good and should be emulated by newly-elected President Ramos Horta," Andreas H Pareira, a member of the House of Representatives (DPR) Commission I representing the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), said. "Such a policy should be continued by Ramos Horta if he wants to maintain good relations with Indonesia," Pareira said, adding that Indonesia`s stance in future relations with Timor Leste would depend on the latter`s position.

Indonesia’s government also wants to place footing on a good start. "The President will send Foreign Affairs Minister Wirajuda to represent the Indonesian government," the Indonesian presidential spokesman Dino Patti Djalal said at the presidential office here on Wednesday. Indonesia also wants Horta to visit Jakarta. "We have not yet decided the date of the visit. However, the Indonesian Government has received an indication that Indonesia will be the first foreign country Horta will visit after assuming the presidential office," Djalal said.

"We hope that border problems between the two countries will be dealt with soon. We want people living on both sides of the border to be able to visit and communicate with each other unhindered," he said. Indonesia has high expectations for Horta. President-elect Horta is an internationalist with many ideas, so we would like to discuss how to improve bilateral relations," he said.

Moving from Southeast Asia’s youngest nation to the region’s oldest democracy, another difficult and divisive election took place in the Philippines. 87,000 candidates were contesting nearly 18,000 positions. President Gloria Arroyo declared it as a vote of confidence for her administration in an interview with Wall Street Journal: "I'm very happy that we have a bigger majority in the House now and almost a complete sweep of the local (government officials)". Arroyo allies were leading in many of the more than 17,000 local posts at stake while the opposition appeared likely to take control of the Senate, where they need eight seats of the 12 at stake to get a majority.

"I think the message we can give to the investor community is that the elections were good, peaceful, free and fair, and there is going to be political stability," the beaming president said. Taking it as an endorsement of her economic program, President Arroyo vowed: "We have to bring the economic provisions in the constitution into the 21st century and make them more in keeping with the globalised world…make it easier for foreign investors to invest in the Philippines."

While Arroyo may bask in the seeming victory of her supporters under the banner of “Team Unity”, election observers however were not as sanguine citing voters’ intimidation and electoral frauds in some areas.  The campaign period was also marred by violence with a number of political killings, and at least three people killed on polling day itself.  

Reflecting Southeast Asia’s extreme political diversity, other than the region’s youngest and oldest democracy, the socialist state of Vietnam also had its own elections. Voters went to the polls to elect new members to Vietnam's National Assembly, widely seen as an institution with growing clout over government policy in a mostly Communist Party-controlled election. "The National Assembly is increasingly exerting its influence over government policy," said Jonathan Pincus, chief economist with the United Nations Development Program in Hanoi. "But the election itself is not an important milestone in the process of political change."

The assembly is credited with its initiatives on clamping down on corruption which is seen as a problem that is out of control in the socialist state. Nevertheless, there are limitations to this democracy. 83% (875 candidates for 500 seats include 150 who are not Communist Party members) of the candidates are party members and all the nonparty candidates have been screened by the Fatherland Front, a powerful party umbrella organization and, while 30 self-nominated (independent) candidates screened by the Fatherland Front are running, no other political parties are allowed to join the polls.

Other limitations include the fact that while electoral law calls for all seats in 182 constituencies to be contested, many do not have such competition. Nevertheless, some consider this a bastion of Vietnamese feedback to the state since delegates often question ministers and scrutinise policy more than they did in the past. One reason for this is because there will also be less government candidates (for e.g. the Defence Ministry will reduce its number of candidates from 17 to 15 while the Foreign Ministry will get just two). Conversely, there will be more private sector people like prominent businessmen/entrepreneur Mr Dang Nguyen Vu.


Coin toss decides Philippine poll (BBC News, 20 May 2007)

Market belie claims on massive poll fraud (Manila Standard, 21 May 2007)

Jihad called to stop election cheats (The Philippines Inquirer, 20 May 2007)

Ramos Horta sworn in as East Timor president (Antara, 20 May 2007)

Vietnam Elects Assembly Members (Associated Press, 20 May 2007)

UPDATE 1-Vietnam elects National Assembly in new trade era (Reuters, 19 May 2007)

Vietnam's voters have more choice tomorrow (Straits Times, 19 May 2007)

Horta should emulate Xanana in managing ties with Indonesia (Antara, 18 May 2007)

Healing time for East Timor (Japan Times, 18 May 2007)

President Arroyo to make Philippines more investor-friendly (Channelnewsasia, 17 May 2007)

Minister Wirajuda to attend Horta swearing-in ceremony (Antara, 16 May 2007)