If you ask politicians to assess the voters, the answers, of course, depend on whether they lose or win an election. And the losers, of course, may use much more negative labels for the voters who did not appreciate their promises and their selfless work for the country. That is universal in competitive electoral systems. Aggravating the problem are two widespread developments over the last few decades, the lackluster results of polling agencies in assessing the real strength of parties and predicting election outcomes, and the confusingly growing numbers of competing parties, even in first-past-the-post systems.
Two events in Southeast Asia, a by-election in Malaysia’s Johor state on 12 March and the upcoming presidential election in the Philippines on 9 May, are interesting case studies and may be good illustrations for the often fickle and probably contagious mood changes in the electorate.
The Malaysian case is a remarkable example for at least two phenomena. One is the survival instinct of a political party after losing power, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and the other is that an ousted political leader, former Prime Minister Najib Razak, can politically survive and attract voter support even after being convicted of corruption.
UMNO had been continuously in power from 1957 till its surprise defeat in the 2018 general election. With an impressive organizational machinery, as the champion for the rights and privileges of the Malay majority, some tricky gerrymandering in its rural vote banks with predominantly Malay voters, and with a close grip on the state coffers, UMNO was the epitome of a dominant party. This collapsed in 2018 with a financial scandal of epic dimensions when the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund collapsed like a house of cards after billions of dollars had disappeared, substantial parts of them in the private accounts of party chief and Prime Minister Najib Razak. In 2020, he was convicted to a jail term of 12 years but is still out on bail pending his appeal. While most people thought that his political career had ended, Najib has managed in the meantime to work tirelessly for his comeback. And the comeback, as some observers have noted, might help him to defang the pending lawsuits and save him from prison.
His party, UMNO, traditionally based on extensive networks oiled with money even long before the 1MDB scandal, did not waste much time licking its wounds. It managed to overcome the divisions of leadership infighting after the shock defeat, eventually join the ruling government coalition, and, in August 2021, even install their vice-president Ismail as Prime Minister. The upbeat mood of UMNO is based on two triumphant state election wins, end of 2021 in Malacca and just recently in Johor. In both campaigns, convicted former PM Najib was most actively involved and pulling huge crowds. This seems to prove that his support on the ground is surviving despite the odds of the financial scandal and the negative image created by revelations about his and his wife’s extravagant lifestyle with lavish spending on property and luxury paraphernalia. As Dr Serena Rahman from the Yusof Ishak Institute of Southeast Asian Studies explains at Channelnewsasia (Link):
“Najib Razak has successfully reinvented himself”.
The variations in assessing the voters of UMNO and Najib are easy to guess. They range from faithful, reliable, and intelligent in the UMNO camp to all imaginable negative connotations among the losers. Now UMNO, no surprise, is urging the Prime Minister and the cabinet to plan for snap elections at the earliest convenience. It may bring UMNO and the associated minor parties back from the paper thin and precarious balance in parliament back to a comfortable majority.
The Filipino Case is similar in a way but rather different. When the world was observing how a popular movement, dubbed the Edsa-Revolution, was toppling the country’s long term dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, nobody could imagine that his son, Ferdinand Marcos Junior, could ever run for President after the clan fled to Hawaii. The estimated 5-10 billion $ which Marcos and his wife Imelda had pilfered, and of most of which the whereabouts are still unknown today, seemed to make a return to power of the family unthinkable. In the widespread narrative of the Third Wave of Democratization of the era, the revolution was interpreted as the irrevocable triumph of democracy in a predominantly authoritarian Southeast Asian region.
Enough voters remained loyal to the Marcos clan, though, when they returned during the 1990s. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., nicknamed Bongbong, was elected as a member of Parliament (2007-2010), succeeded by his mother Imelda (2010-2019), and as a Senator (2010-2016). In 2016, he narrowly lost the vice-presidential race against Leni Robredo who is now running for President. Bongbong may be her nemesis this time, because his running mate as vice-president is the popular daughter of the outgoing President, Sara Duterte-Carpio. In practically all opinion polls the Marcos-Duterte team is far ahead of Leni Robredo (60% for Marcos and 15% for Robredo), heading for a landslide victory – unless Bongbong is disqualified. Though his father died in 1989, the inheritance is not yet settled and the taxes due on the father’s estate are said to be piling up to stunning amounts. Bongbong calls that fake news, and his lawyer says that the tax payment has been delayed because of an agreement about the search of the disappeared billions. Petitions to the country’s election commission, COMELEC, to bar Marcos from running because of his tax problems, have been dismissed so far as “not a crime involving moral turpitude” but more petitions are pending. The race may end as a duel between Marcos and Robredo, while the 95 other candidates, among them the popular boxer Manni Pacquaio, won’t have a serious chance. In the Constitution of 1987, the election applies the first-past-the-post system with a simple majority, so the candidate with the highest number of votes wins. The election is more complex than in most other countries because on top of president, vice-president, and senators, there are also local mayors, vice-mayors, and councillors up for grabs. More than half of the population is registered for the election, among them 4.5 million new voters and 1.6 million overseas Filipinos. In the 2016 elections, the COMELEC has managed to organise the logistically difficult geography (7000 islands) with an electronic counting and transmission system better than some much richer countries.
The possible return to office and power of “impossible” political figures like Najib and Bongbong Marcos might seduce outside observers to believe in authoritarian undercurrents in Southeast Asia. They can easily be cured with the shortest list of authoritarian leaders worldwide. The likes of Berlusconi, Orban, Erdogan, Putin, and Trump are everywhere, not to speak of Africa and Latin America.