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Neither Fair Nor Free: Elections in Southeast Asia Require ASEAN Intervention

Camille Luchs | Indo-Pacific Fellow

Singapore will have a new president in September, but the successful candidate may claim the position without an election. Across Southeast Asia, trust in democratic institutions, including the electoral system, is weakening. Singapore will need a contest in the upcoming presidential election to maintain the credibility of the presidency.

Presidential contest in Singapore remains uncertain

As the Head of State, the role of Singapore’s president is largely ceremonial. However, the president still performs functions including holding discretionary power over use of national reserves and safeguarding objectivity in the civil administration. As the president holds key executive powers, the ability of citizens to elect their preferred candidate is paramount.

Presidential candidates must be issued a Certificate of Eligibility, ensuring they meet Singapore’s strict criteria to qualify for nomination. This requirement was established in 1991 and since then only two out of five presidential elections have been contested – once in 1993 and again in 2011. In the most recent 2017 Presidential Election, President Halimah Yacob was the only candidate to successfully secure a Certificate of Eligibility and meet the election’s Malay racial requirement. She was appointed without contest.

The absence of a contest in majority of Singapore’s presidential elections since the establishment of the Certificate of Eligibility requirement threatens to undermine the credibility of the presidency and its role in providing a representative voice in government. This is compounded by a history of successful candidates’ close ties to the dominant People’s Action Party, diminishing the public's belief in the President’s impartiality. Another uncontested election could reaffirm a growing belief of democratic backsliding in Singapore.

Elections marred by weakened institutions

Controversy has surrounded Southeast Asia’s 2023 elections and trust in government is dwindling amongst voters. In Thailand, the success of the Move Forward Party (MFP) in May’s election reflected voters’ desire for the end of military-influenced leadership. However, MFP’s party leader Pita Limjaroenrat’s bid to become prime minister has been blocked by the Thai Parliament.

Thailand’s military appointed Senate has historically voted for pro-military candidates. Pita failed to win the 376 seats needed to form government, leaving a coup-weary public uncertain about the pro-democracy political party’s future and Thailand without a prime minister.

Bangladesh, marked by a history of controversial elections, elected a new President earlier this year after only one candidate was nominated. The country will hold a general election in early 2024, a contest that will need to be accepted as legitimate by all sides of the opposition if Bangladesh is to avoid another five years of violent and polarised political competition.

Cambodia’s election in July will struggle to define itself as a political contest. The opposing Candlelight Party lost its appeal against disqualification in the upcoming election, meaning Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held office since 1998, will be unchallenged. He is expected to pass the leadership onto his son.

Myanmar declared a general election to be held in August, however the ruling junta delayed the election for another six months, citing increasing violence. Elections in Southeast Asia are proving to be neither fair nor free, leaving the region to continue its legacy of eroding credibility in the electoral process.

Cambodian PM Hun Sen taking photos with a supporter on the campaign trail. Image: Tang Chhin Sothy via Getty

ASEAN needs a call to action

A contest in Singapore’s upcoming presidential election provides an opportunity for the government to reaffirm Singaporeans’ democratic choice, setting an example for unbiased elections in Southeast Asia. With private-sector hopeful George Goh drawing significant interest as he applies for nomination, Singapore also has the opportunity to dispel a belief of the People’s Action Party’s close influence on the president and reaffirm the legitimacy of the presidency.

Elections in 2023 could be an opportunity for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to become more vocal about preserving democratic principles within its member states. ASEAN has historically taken a non-interventionist approach to collaboration with member states. This has limited its promotion of democracy, demonstrated by a weak and uncoordinated response to human rights abuses in Myanmar.

Whilst ASEAN cannot directly intervene in member state elections, they can set the standard for fair and free elections in domestic affairs. ASEAN requires an enshrinement of democratic principles into the organisation's charter and a unified, interventionist approach to upholding these principles.

Without a unified approach to preserving the democratic integrity of elections, Southeast Asia is at risk of further violations of human rights. Singapore, with an upcoming election, has the ability to shift ASEAN away from primarily autocratic governance and lead by example.

Camille Luchs is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She is currently completing a double degree in Justice and Business at Queensland University of Technology. As a 2022 Westpac Asian Exchange Scholar and New Colombo Plan Scholar, Camille has completed studies in Japan and Singapore. Camille is passionate about exploring the region’s security challenges, with a specific focus on women’s leadership. She is currently completing an internship in leadership development in Fiji, before travelling to Taiwan to complete another internship in security policy.


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