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Next year looks to be a critical year for Southeast Asia with prominent presidential elections potentially deciding the future of democracy in the Philippines; politics heating up in Malaysia, Thailand and other countries; the region battling COVID-19 and its economic effects; and ASEAN trying to grapple with the chaos in Myanmar and its impact on the region.

Big elections

The biggest election in Southeast Asia in 2022, of course, will be the Philippine presidential vote, one that already has attracted a ream of contenders. Since Philippine presidents serve one, six-year term and often work with compliant legislatures and weak party systems, they often possess far more power once they are elected than peers in many other presidential systems.

Next year’s presidential election is already turning into a free-for-all. Outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter and mayor of the southern city Davao, Sara Duterte-Carpio, is seeking the vice presidency and running alongside presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the former dictator. Many other viable contenders are running for president as well, including boxing celebrity Manny Pacquaio, currently a senator.

Ultimately, however, the election may be a referendum on whether Philippine citizens are satisfied enough with the type of illiberal democracy that Duterte has adopted over the past six years to elect potentially similar illiberal democrat candidates in Marcos Jr. and Duterte-Carpio — leaders who may undermine institutions, skirt laws and continue to attack the free press. (For his part, Duterte has reportedly overseen the jailing of opponents, a bloody and extrajudicial drug war and the undermining of the free press.) Alternatively, will voters gravitate to an opposition — itself divided between current Vice President Leni Robredo and others — that promises a fuller restoration of democracy?

Robredo is also running for the presidency, but she does not enjoy the support of other politicians opposed to the Marcoses and Dutertes. Given that Duterte has remained popular for much of his six-year term; that polls suggest Marcos Jr. is the frontrunner for the presidency; and that illiberal democracy is sweeping much of the globe; the smart money is probably on the Marcos Jr. and Duterte-Carpio ticket.

In Thailand, meanwhile, protest movements are building against the government. The increasingly bitter situation may ultimately lead to a broader crackdown in the streets and also the creation of a more unified, anti-military opposition political party in advance of elections that must be held by early 2023.

For its part, the Malaysian government of Ismail Yaakob will simply try to hang on next year, preventing no-confidence maneuvers from taking it down. Already, after just a short time in office, rifts are forming in the ruling coalition. Besides healing these rifts, Ismail’s coalition must demonstrate it can actually govern in the run-up to what likely will be national elections in early 2023.

On COVID-19

By the end of December, Southeast Asia — earlier a laggard in vaccination rates compared to many other regions — was making significant progress toward vaccinating its people. As I noted in a prior contribution, Malaysia has been an outright vaccination success story, especially for a middle-income country. But several other Southeast Asian states, including Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand and Brunei, are making significant progress in getting their populations fully vaccinated as well.

Rising COVID-19 vaccination rates in Southeast Asia are important to the regional and global economy. The more fully vaccinated Southeast Asian workers can head back to their jobs, the more they can ease the global supply chain crunch as factories get back up to speed in major manufacturing hubs such as Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. In places such as Vietnam, the worker shortage that emerged after summer lockdowns and outbreaks in many parts of the country has damaged global industries such as textiles, footwear and consumer electronics.

Still, the virus has left the region with major economic scars, which it will struggle to mend in 2022. It may do so in part by boosting regional economic integration and possibly in part through modest new stimulus measures or social welfare spending. But growth in a region highly dependent on trade with wealthy nations and visitors spending cash on vacation will ultimately not return to normal until the virus truly ebbs in the largest economies. When these factors change, they will boost global consumption and allow large-scale tourism from wealthy countries to resume to Southeast Asian states such as Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia.

ASEAN discontent

ASEAN was chaired by Brunei in 2021. This year, the coup in Myanmar exposed deep divisions within the organization over the handling of the junta. It also made ASEAN look weak, with Myanmar stonewalling the organization’s special envoy for months and refusing to let him visit the country and meet a range of leaders. Nevertheless, the organization took a significant step in October by disinviting Myanmar’s junta leader, Min Aung Hlaing, from the annual ASEAN summit.

In 2022, chairmanship of ASEAN rotates to Cambodia and it is unlikely that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government will take a tough approach toward Myanmar’s military rulers, no matter how chaotic the situation becomes inside that country. Hun Sen is an entrenched autocrat with little interest in setting a precedent for applying pressure on other Southeast Asian authoritarians.

In addition, Cambodian leaders have few close contacts with their Myanmar counterparts of the type that might help broker some kind of deal. And Cambodia remains closely aligned to Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and China, all of which do not want to pressure Myanmar’s military leaders. All five nations opposed moves to disinvite Min Aung Hlaing to the October summit.

The Myanmar crisis

This year has been an annus horribilis for Myanmar. Following the February 2021 coup; the country’s economy and banking system collapsed; COVID-19 spread widely; cash became hard to access; the military cracked down on the press and civil society; and civil conflict increased between the armed forces, ethnic armed organizations and people’s defense militias. Poverty in Myanmar could double by 2022, malnutrition is rising precipitously and refugees are flowing across borders into India, Bangladesh and Thailand. With the anti-government militias making some headway in attacking military units and convincing some soldiers to defect, the junta seems ready to increase military operations in many parts of the country — even if those offensives mean simply leveling areas of Myanmar and committing grave rights abuses. Indeed, if the situation for Myanmar in 2021 was grim, 2022 could be even grimmer.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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