Asia This Week: March 24, 2023

March 24, 2023

A weekly review of key news and analysis of elections in Asia and the Indo-Pacific, usually posted on Fridays and occasionally updated throughout the week.

The Drum House at the Red Fort in Delhi, India. Photo credit:
Wikimedia/Vssun (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Upcoming Asia Elections

Australia, New South Wales Elections: March 25, 2023

Reuters (March 23, 2023): Australia’s Biggest State to Vote in Close-Run Election

Japan Unified Local Elections and Parliamentary By-Elections: April 9, 2023 (next national elections due in 2025)

Kyodo News notes: “Official campaigning for a series of local elections started across Japan on Thursday, with the results likely to determine whether Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will decide to dissolve the Lower House for a snap general election amid sluggish support ratings.”

Kyodo News (March 23, 2023): Official campaigning for nationwide local elections begins in Japan

Sri Lanka Local Elections: April 25, 2023 (additional delays possible)

Sri Lanka had planned to hold local elections on March 9, 2023, its first elections since major protests over inflation, shortages, and a general economic crisis began in March 2022. However, the government called them off. A court subsequently ordered that they be held, and the election commission has announced the they will take place on April 25. 

The protests last year led to the resignation of then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and members of his family. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the former opposition leader, became president.

Sri Lanka is a hotspot for geopolitical competition between China and India. The Rajapaksa moved the country closer to China.

PTI (March 23, 2023): Citing funds crunch, Sri Lanka’s Election Commission postpones postal voting for next month’s local body polls

PTI (March 21, 2023): Sri Lanka to be first country in Asia to come under IMF’s governance diagnostic exercise

Reuters (March 21, 2023): Sri Lanka’s economic crisis: From protests to IMF bailout

Thailand General Elections: May 14, 2023

Thailand has been led by Prayuth Chan-ocha since 2014. Prayuth initially came to power in a coup, and then became prime minister following elections in 2019. Prayuth is running for another term, but so is his mentor, fellow royalist military officer Prawit Wongsuwan. They will face the populist faction of exiled former billionaire prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra is running. 

Prayuth’s coup in 2014 removed the government of Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra. 

As Reuters notes: “Administrations loyal to Shinawatras have each been removed by the military or judicial rulings, adding fuel to a seemingly intractable political crisis that has ebbed and flowed in Thailand for over 17 years.”

Reuters (March 21, 2023): Thailand to hold general election on May 14, poll body says

Dominic Oo and Thompson Chau, Al Jazeera (March 21, 2023): Myanmar’s democratic struggle at stake in Thailand’s election: Myanmar people in Thailand hope a new government in Bangkok will take a tougher line on the coup leaders in Naypyidaw.

Robin Vochelet, The Diplomat (March 21, 2023): From the Streets to the Ballot Box: Ex-Student Protesters Prepare for Thailand’s Election

Rebecca Ratcliffe, The Guardian (March 20, 2023): Thailand: Paetongtarn Shinawatra leads polls as country heads towards election

Tam Tam Mei, Straits Times (March 20, 2023): Thailand’s pro-military party fashions itself as a peacemaker ahead of general election

India, State Elections in Karnataka: May 2023 (due), then State Elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Mizoram: November 2023 (due), and General Elections: 2024 (Following state elections in Tripura, Nagaland, and Meghalaya in February 2023)

India’s states have their own elected governments that have significant devolved power. Roughly one-third of them hold elections in 2023. First up: the northeastern states of Tripura, Nagaland, and Meghalaya, followed by votes in Karnataka, Mizoram, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Telangana (and possibly Jammu & Kashmir) later this year.

These state elections will set the tone for next year’s Lok Sabha (parliamentary) polls, which determine who runs the government. Narendra Modi’s BJP is campaigning for a history-making third term.

Manveena Suri and Rhea Mogul, CNN, (March 24, 2023): India’s parliament strips Rahul Gandhi of lawmaker status after defamation conviction

Cherylann Mollan and Soutik Biswas, BBC (March 24, 2023): Rahul Gandhi: India’s Congress leader sentenced to jail for Modi ‘thieves’ remark

Graham Lanktree, Politico (March 18, 2023): Crunch time for multibillion UK-India deal as elections loom

Cambodia Parliamentary Elections: July 23, 2023

Although Cambodia has held elections in the past that have had some element of competition, the 2018 elections – neither free nor fair – signified the closing of Cambodia’s political space. They have been called “the death of democracy.”

The main pro-democracy opposition, Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), was dissolved and banned from fielding candidates, and its leader, Sam Rainsy, was sent into exile, so its supporters boycotted the polls, resulting in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) taking 58 out of 62 seats in parliament, and allowing Prime Minister Hun Sen to consolidate even more power while extending his three decades in power.

However, in early 2022, the opposition began gaining ground, reorganizing itself into the Candlelight Party. In the June local elections, the party made some gains, winning around 22 percent of the vote. Opposition activists hope that will translate into a stronger result in the 2023 elections.

Sebastian Strangio, The Diplomat (March 22, 2023): Cambodia Arrests Opposition Activists for Posts About Country’s King

Radio Free Asia (March 21, 2023): Hun Sen says Cambodia doesn’t need EU trade preference to succeed: The EU has threatened to raise tariffs if Cambodia doesn’t release Kem Sokha, improve rights record

Malaysia, State Elections in Six States: Due in 2023 (could be held in July)

Six of Malaysia’s 13 states are due to hold elections in 2023. Under Malaysia’s federal system, significant powers are devolved to state governments.

On the national scene, Malaysia held general elections in November 2022 that produced a hung parliament – the first time in the country’s history that no coalition succeeded in securing a majority. The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) won the most seats in a historic result, but two dominant coalitions – the Malay-dominated conservative Barisan Nasional (the country’s dominant party since independence) and Anwar Ibrahaim’s liberal Pakatan Harapan put aside major differences to form a secularist unity government. 

In addition, UMNO – Malaysia’s oldest political party and the dominant member of the Barisan Barisan Nasional coalition – is holding a leadership election this year which could be very vigorously contested.

Malaysia’s location on the Strait of Malacca and straddling the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean makes it crucial to the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. 

JD Supra (March 23, 2023): In Transition: Malaysia after the 15th General Elections

Norman Goh, Nikkei Asia (March 22, 2023): Malaysia’s Anwar seeks to mend Saudi ties cooled by 1MDB

Malay Mail/New Straits Times (March 19, 2023): Malaysia PM Anwar Ibrahim vows crackdown on those who use religion and race to sow dissension

Burma Parliamentary Elections: August 2023 (proposed – post-coup, widely considered likely to be a sham)

Burma, also called Myanmar, held general elections on November 8, 2020. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide. However, on February 1, 2021 the military staged a coup, claiming election fraud (despite a lack of evidence).

Burma is of geopolitical importance because of its location on the Indian Ocean. China has sought to cultivate ties in order to get more access to the Indian Ocean, and simultaneously, western governments have at times pursued warmer relations with the regime.

Igor Blazevic, The Irrawaddy (March 22, 2023): China ‘Increasingly Concerned’ About Instability in Post-Coup Myanmar: US Expert

Maldives Presidential Election: September 9, 2023

Maldives is due to hold a presidential election in September 2023. The idyllic archipelago was under a brutal dictatorship for decades, but began a remarkable transition to democracy in 2008. The road to democracy has been somewhat rocky and the former dictator and his family remain involved in politics.

On January 28, the pro-democracy, center-right Maldivian Democratic Party (currently in power) held a primary to decide its presidential candidate. Incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih defeated former president Mohamed Nasheed. However, the campaign was bitter and Nasheed has not yet accepted the results or endorsed Solih, which threatens to split the pro-democracy vote ahead of the general election.

Meanwhile, another former president, Abdulla Yameen, who is also brother-in-law of the former dictator, will be the candidate for the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). Former defense minister Mohamed Nazim is also running. 

The country, in the strategically-important Indian Ocean, has been part of geopolitical competition between India and the democratic world on the one hand and China on the other hand. MDP is broadly pro-India while PPM is broadly pro-China.

The Diplomat (March 25, 2023): China-India Choice Splits Maldives Presidential Politics: As Maldives looks to parliamentary and presidential elections in September 2023, the China-India choice maps neatly on to domestic political divides

N Saatiya Moorthy, Observer Research Foundation (March 24, 2023): Maldives: How ‘swing voters’ matter in presidential polls

New Zealand General Elections: October 14, 2023

New Zealand’s October general elections got a bit more interesting following the surprise resignation of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, considered a star on the global stage but under increasing pressure in New Zealand due to her authoritarian tendencies and failure to deliver on basic campaign promises. 

Ardern cited personal reasons for her resignation, but under her leadership, the Labour Party lost a lot of support. Currently, the center-right Nationals are favored to win the elections, but a lot can happen in a few months.

Chris Hipkins succeeded Ardern as prime minister and immediately began rolling back some of her restrictions on speech and other authoritarian policies, saying instead that the Labour Party should focus on bread-and-butter issues.

Tess McClure, The Guardian (March 20, 2023): Coalition creaks as New Zealand Greens watch Labour dump climate policies

Bangladesh Parliamentary Elections: December 2023 (due)

In recent years, Bangladesh has emerged as a bigger player in regional and global politics. Under the government of Sheikh Hasina Wazed and her Awami League (AL) party, the economy has really taken off. But she and the AL have governed in an increasingly authoritarian manner. 

Freedom House notes: “Sheikh Hasina was sworn in for her third term as prime minister in early 2019 following the AL’s overwhelming victory in the 2018 elections, which were marked by violence, intimidation of opposition candidates and supporters, allegations of fraud benefiting the ruling party, and the exclusion of nonpartisan election monitors.”

Hasina’s bitter political rival (and the only other person to serve as prime minister since 1991) is Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader Khaleda Zia, who was jailed for a time and is currently effectively barred from participating in politics. Hasina and Zia come from rival families that each played a key role in Bangladesh’s early days as a country. 

Dhaka Tribune (March 22, 2023): US envoy discusses free, fair elections in Bangladesh with Awami League leaders

Taiwan Presidential and Legislative Elections: January 13, 2024

Taiwan’s governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had a poor showing in last year’s local elections, leading to President Tsai Ing-Wen stepping down as party leader.

The DPP is generally seen as more pro-independence than the opposition Kuomintang (KMT). Recently, various high-level KMT officials, including former president Ma Ying-Jeoh, have traveled to the mainland. Ma’s visit marks the first time a president of Taiwan has visited the mainland since the end of the civil war in 1949.

Jeff Pao, Asia Times (March 21, 2023): KMT ex-Taiwan president’s mainland visit means what?

Eric Cheung and Kathleen Magramo, CNN (March 20, 2023): Former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou to make historic visit to mainland China

Thompson Chau, Nikkei Asia (March 20, 2023): Taiwan to strengthen wartime mobilization amid rising China threat

Indonesia General Elections: February 14, 2024

Indonesia has scheduled presidential and legislative elections for February 14, 2024, followed by provincial elections on November 27, 2024, ending speculation that President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) would seek to delay the election and extend his term.

In Indonesia’s April 2019 elections – the biggest single day of voting in the history of the world – Joko Widodo (Jokowi), widely seen as a reformer, was re-elected, defeating challenger Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo initially refused to accept the results, and rioting subsequently ensued. Prabowo ultimately did accept the results, but tensions remain, particularly regarding the role of religion in politics

As researcher Evan A. Laksmana notes: “Indonesia could tilt the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific. It’s the largest archipelagic state in the world and sits at the heart of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The country’s growing economic power, tradition of regional leadership, and control over critical sea lanes seem to predestine it to be a strategic fulcrum in the era of U.S.-Chinese great-power competition.” However, Indonesia has not yet taken a side, instead maintaining “pragmatic equidistance” between the U.S. and China.

Amy Chew, Nikkei Asia (March 21, 2023): IS-linked extremists infiltrate ASEAN, eyeing Indonesia 2024 polls

Solomon Islands: 2024 (delayed from 2023)

Caitlin McFall, Fox News (March 22, 2023): China secures another South Pacific win in Solomon Islands port bid

Stephen Wright, Radio Free Asia (March 17, 2023): US Indo-Pacific commander: China’s play for Solomon Islands woke up officials

Past Asia/Pacific Elections

Nepal Indirect Presidential Election (by parliament): March 9, 2023

Following general elections in November 2022, Nepal’s two main communist parties formed a government headed by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, a former Maoist insurgent leader. Prachanda replaced Sher Bahadur Deuba from the social democratic Nepali Congress as prime minister (Nepal’s political parties are mostly various flavors of leftist). Deuba had sought to move Nepal farther away from China and closer to India, but the various communist parties now in power all have strong ties to Beijing.

Nepal’s politics remain unstable, with citizens broadly unsatisfied by the performance of elected officials. 

Gopal Sharma at Reuters notes: “Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal won a vote of confidence in parliament on Monday after securing the support of the opposition centrist Nepali Congress party and other smaller groups who are now expected to join his new cabinet.”

Gopal Sharma, Reuters (March 20, 2023): Nepal’s PM Dahal wins confidence vote, set to form new coalition

Pacific Geopolitics

Reuters (March 23, 2023): U.S. aims for over $7 billion in aid for 20-year Pacific islands compacts

Asia/Pacific Elections Coming Up in 2023

Australia, New South Wales State Elections: March 25, 2023

Japan Unified Local Elections (first stage), plus various gubernatorial elections: April 9, 2023

Bhutan Upper House Elections: April 20, 2023

Japan, Unified Local Elections, Second Stage: April 23, 2023

Sri Lanka Local Elections: April 25, 2023 (additional delays possible)

Thailand General Elections: May 14, 2023

Timor-Leste Parliamentary Elections: May 21, 2023

New Zealand, Niue General Elections: May 2023 (due)

India, State Elections in Karnataka: May 2023 (due)

Hong Kong District Council Elections: June 2023 (due)

Tonga Local Elections: June 2023 (due)

Cambodia Parliamentary Elections: July 23, 2023

Burma Parliamentary Elections: August 2023 (proposed – tentative, post-coup, widely considered likely to be a sham)

Maldives Presidential Election: September 9, 2023

Tuvalu General Elections: September 2023 (due)

Singapore Presidential Election (largely ceremonial role): September 2023 (due)

New Zealand General Elections: October 14, 2023

Philippines Village Elections: October 30, 2023

Bhutan Parliamentary Elections: October 2023 (due)

Marshall Islands Parliamentary Elections: November 2023 (due)

India, State Elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Mizoram: November 2023 (due)

Bangladesh Parliamentary Elections: December 2023 (due)

India, State Elections in Rajasthan and Telangana: December 2023 (due)

Philippines Village Elections: December 2023 (due)

India, Elections in Jammu and Kashmir: Proposed for 2023

Malaysia, State Elections in Six States: Due in 2023 (could be held in July)

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