March 2024

The power of compromise

In two significant Asian elections last month, Pakistanis gave a kicking to their military and Indonesians delivered a huge thumbs up to a leader with a history of human rights abuse and strongman practices.

Voting in both countries was marked by allegations of rigging, corruption and violence, Pakistan far more than Indonesia.

Both elections were far removed from the cleaner processes of the West and of Asia’s developed economies, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

But, together with other recent regional ballots, Indo-Pacific voters are showing their clear preference for the type of people they want to run their governments. 

Pakistan and Indonesia – with a combined population of more than half a billion –are predominantly Muslim and critically placed in the Sino-American strategic rivalry for global influence. 

China and the United States, therefore, need to take note.

Pakistan lies at a sensitive crossroads encompassing Afghanistan, Iran, India and China. Indonesia sits on the choke points of trade between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Indonesia is adeveloping democracy, its people spread over a sprawling archipelago where ballot boxes are delivered on ox-drawn carts and canoes on remote lakes. Pakistan has been a failed or broken democracy for decades, with the military’s writ destructively embedded in its institutions. Both Washington and Beijing have exploited this weakness.

In their droves, Pakistani voters gave support to candidates backing a jailed underdog, the former ousted prime minister and ex-cricketer Imran Khan. They torpedoed the shady status quo between the military and entrenched political dynasties.

Khan’s Movement for Justice Party (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI) was banned from standing. Yet candidates affiliated to Khan won the largest number of national assembly seats – 93 out of 265.

The voters’ message smashed the myth that the military is the guardian of the Pakistani nation.

Far from it. Incompetent generals have kept the country in a constant state of war with a crippled economy.It is time they backed off.

Indonesia’s tapestry is very different. With generally peaceful transfers of power, it has shown itself to be more democratically mature. The hugely popular President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo is stepping down after serving two five-year terms. But there has been substantive backroom horse-trading, which saw his son run on the vice-presidential winning ticket. 

Jokowi’s defence minister, Prabowo Subianto, took a clear majority on a platform pledging policy continuity that focuses on infrastructure and development.

Yet the former general, who used horrific violence to get his way during Indonesia’s era of Cold War dictatorship, is accused of murder and kidnap to an extent that the US implemented a visa ban which was only lifted in 2019, when Prabowo became defence minister.

Indonesia’s choice resembles that of the neighbouring Philippines archipelago.

In 2022, voters opted for the son of former president Ferdinand Marcos, whose dictatorial repression is legendary. In a similar compromise and horse-trading, the daughter of his predecessor, the populist Rodrigo Duterte, is Marcos’ vice president.

There is a trend here of voters ignoring leaders’ bad records in favour of strongman reputations and a belief that these are the best candidates to get things done and reform systems from within.

Another emerging trend is the popularity of Asia’s democratically elected leaders compared to their colleagues in the West. 

Jokowi, Prabowo, Duterte and Marcos enjoy remarkable popularity ratings. They are joined in South Asia by Narendra Modi in India, who is expected to win by a wide margin the upcoming general election, and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh, who was easily returned to office in January’s poll.

Pakistan, on the other hand, is more aligned to Myanmar, where not very bright generals continue to claim they can run their countries better than leaders held to account by the ballot box.

Now, Pakistan’s two main parties, representing the antagonistic Bhutto and Sharif families, have agreed to a coalition. Khan’s supporters do not get to form a government, but they nevertheless stand as a powerful voice that needs to be heeded for the country to move on.

There are some similarities here, also, to Taiwan’s recent presidential election, in which voters chose the governing party’s policy to stand up to Chinese interference and bullying.

But, again, with compromise. They do not want to cross any line that risks pushing Beijing into a corner towards war.

Asia’s emerging electoral pattern is a far cry from the more uncompromising Western-backed attempts to embed democracy in the Middle East and North Africa.

Catastrophes in Iraq and Afghanistan and the broken dreams of the Arab uprisings have shown that sudden regime change does not work. It is far better and less risky to ride with compromise and slow reform from within.