BANGKOK – Rights over land and forests, a push for LGBTQ equality and getting more women on the ballot are some of the top election issues in Thailand, India and Indonesia as more than 1 billion people prepare to go to the polls, including many first-time voters.
The candidates’ platforms reflect a growing concern in those countries over widening economic inequality and the marginalization of minority communities, analysts say.
In Thailand, which will hold a general election Sunday — its first since the military seized control in 2014 — candidates for prime minister include a transgender woman, a former student activist and a human rights campaigner from the rural northeast.
A total of 52 million Thais age 18 and above are eligible to vote, of whom 14 percent will do so for the first time.
The contest broadly pits the party of junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha against populist parties loyal to ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
But there are also several newly formed parties in the race, some of them campaigning for greater rights for farmers and minorities.
Pauline Ngarmpring of the Mahachon Party is Thailand’s first transgender candidate for prime minister, and she has made rights for LGBTQ people and sex workers among her priorities.
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a 40-year-old billionaire who is a favorite with young voters, has spoken about economic inequality in the country, which has the world’s biggest income gap, according to a 2018 report by Swiss investment firm Credit Suisse.
And at the Commoners’ Party, founder Kittichai Ngamchaipisit is a social activist who has campaigned against land acquisitions for industry and a forest reclamation policy that has led to the eviction of indigenous people.
“Our party has its roots among the poor and marginalized communities who have been affected by mining and large dams,” said Kriangsak Teerakowitkajorn, a member of the party’s policy working group. “The interests of ordinary people have been ignored for so long in politics. We felt our voices needed to be heard, and that the only way to do that is to participate in the political process.”
When about 190 million Indonesians go to the polls on April 17, they will be voting in a rerun of the 2014 race, when current President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo went up against retired Gen. Prabowo Subianto.
Surveys in the lead-up to this election show the president holding a double-digit lead over his challenger.
One issue getting more attention this time is the role of women in politics, said Diego Fossati, an assistant professor at the department of Asian and international studies at City University of Hong Kong.
“Candidates from both camps have been very active in appealing directly to women, and female voters have responded, for example by establishing groups of volunteers,” Fossati said.
“However, because party lists rarely feature female candidates in top positions, it appears unlikely that this higher mobilization will translate into more parliamentary seats for women,” he added.
Indonesian women held about a fifth of the seats in the national parliament last year, as compared to about 12 percent in 1990, according to World Bank data.
While that figure is in line with the 20 percent average for Asia, it is lower than the 24 percent global average, and well below Indonesia’s own minimum quota of 30 percent for female political candidates, introduced in 2003.
In India, where the general election will be held in seven stages starting April 11, about 900 million citizens are eligible to vote.
High on the agenda is forest rights, after the Supreme Court last month stayed an earlier ruling ordering the forced evictions of nearly 2 million indigenous people whose land claims were rejected under the Forest Rights Act (FRA).
The 2006 law aimed to improve the lives of impoverished tribes by recognizing their right to inhabit and live off forests where their ancestors had settled. But government data showed that, so far, about half the claims have been rejected.
Forest rights activists say the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has failed to implement the law or defend it in court.
The leader of the main opposition Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, has made land and forest rights a focus of his campaign.
Analysts say that may have helped Congress win recent elections in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
In the same way, the FRA could be a deciding factor in nearly a quarter of the 543 parliamentary constituencies in the upcoming national election, according to the nonprofit network Community Forest Rights-Learning and Advocacy (CFR-LA).
“We saw that FRA was a major issue in the state elections, with many tribal groups insisting that candidates commit to recognizing their forest rights if they are elected,” said Tushar Dash, a researcher at CFR-LA.
“Denial of forest rights will have a major impact on the election across the country,” he said.
In many indigenous areas, communities are clear about their main demand, said Ramesh Sharma, a campaign coordinator at land rights group Ekta Parishad.
“They say: ‘No land, no vote. Give land, get vote.’ “
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