Why Are Asia’s Democratic Leaders So Popular?

Compared to Western politicians, these leaders are doing something right.

James Crabtree | 24 February 2024
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Prabowo Subianto secured a thumping victory in Indonesia’s presidential election following a hard-fought three-way campaign. Polls going into the Feb. 14 contest suggested his likely victory, but many analysts had predicted a second-round runoff. Instead, the defense minister soared past his opponents on the first try, delivering an unexpected landslide with around 58 percent of the votes.

Prabowo’s triumph had many causes. But its scale points to a wider trend, namely the surprising popularity of political leaders in many of Asia’s emerging market democracies. Heads of government in rich Western nations are almost universally reviled—and in many parliamentary systems, their dwindling parties often find it increasingly difficult even to cobble together ruling coalitions.

In Indonesia, by contrast, Prabowo will now replace the even more popular President Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, who ends his term in office with an 80percent  approval rating. In the Philippines, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is almost as well liked, as was his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. And in India’s election, which is expected to begin in April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi looks all but certain to produce his third overwhelming win in a row.

It is tempting to label such leaders as populists. And some, such as Duterte, do fit that term. So does former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose fiery anti-establishment rhetoric propelled independents associated with his party to unexpected successes in Pakistan’s recent polls. Yet many do not. Prabowo’s campaign featured plenty of gimmicks but little of the assailing of elites that might typically be expected from a populist campaigner. The label certainly doesn’t fit Jokowi, a circumspect politician whom Indonesian voters admire for his focus on development, infrastructure, and social services, along with a reputation for clean governance.

Each leader is also clearly the product of their own national circumstances. The scale of Prabowo’s victory in part came down to support from Jokowi himself, which in turn followed an elite stitch-up in which Prabowo picked Jokowi’s son as his running mate. In the Philippines, voters have warmed to Marcos’s calm governing style, partly for its contrast to Duterte’s madcap antics. In India, Modi’s popularity stems partly from his religious nationalist appeal, a factor that helps him vie with Jokowi for the title of the most popular leader of any major global democracy.

All that said, three factors do help explain why Asia’s democrats often sustain approval levels far beyond those of Western politicians, beginning with smart communication. U.S. President Joe Biden made a debut TikTok appearance during the recent Super Bowl. But his Asian counterparts have long made such platforms the centerpiece of their campaigns. Prabowo, a former army general, used TikTok to soften his military hardman image, running clips portraying him as a cartoonish, baby-faced grandfather. Modi’s reelection effort is already up and running with another highly sophisticated digital campaign. All of this is important in countries with youthful populations. Roughly half of Indonesia’s 200 million voters are below 40; India’s voters are younger still.

A distinctive approach to economic management provides a second linking factor. Often, this involves politicians handing out freebies. Prabowo’s campaign promised free lunches and milk for students. Marcos’s victorious campaign in 2022 was helped along by promises of a price cap on rice. Modi’s electoral support has been bolstered in the past by policies such as handing out cooking stoves or building toilets.

Arvind Subramanian, a former chief economic advisor to the Indian government, describes this as a form of “new welfarism,” in which politicians provide or subsidize tangible goods and services that otherwise would be provided by the private sector. This strategy is unlikely to win over voters if economic management is a mess. But when combined with strong growth and leaders who are perceived to be largely free of corruption, it provides a recipe for widespread voter appeal.

The third and final issue is security. Just as in the West, voters in Asia can sense the world around them growing more dangerous in an age of heightened geopolitical risk. In turn, they appear to be rewarding leaders who project international credibility. The appeal here is less that of the traditional “strongman” leader—and more of one who can plausibly claim to keep their country safe on the world stage. In the Philippines, voters have responded well to Marcos’s willingness to stand up to China following a series of military clashes in the South China Sea. Modi played cannily on his role as host of last year’s G-20 summit to buttress his image as global statesman.

None of this is to suggest that such soaring levels of popularity can be sustained indefinitely, especially in the face of economic setbacks. Marcos’s approval ratings dipped somewhat in late 2023, for instance, because of an inflation spike—albeit falling from a lofty 80 percent to a mere 65 percent, according to one poll. Nor are popular politicians entirely an Asian phenomenon. In Mexico, left-wing incumbent President Andrés Manuel LópezObrador consistently maintains approval ratings of 60 percent or more as he approaches the end of his six-year term in office. His protege and successor, Claudia Sheinbaum, now leads her opponents by as many as 25 points ahead of national elections on June 2.

Recognizing the popularity of many Asian leaders also doesn’t mean underplaying concerns about the state of their democracies. India, Indonesia, and the Philippines all grew more autocratic in the decade to 2022, according to a report from the V-Dem Institute at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg. Prabowo’s questionable record as a military leader, which saw him banned from entering the United States for alleged human rights abuses, raises plenty of worries about Indonesia’s democratic trajectory, as does his backroom deal to install Jokowi’s son as his running mate. Modi’s Hindu nationalist policies are watched with increasing alarm by his country’s minorities, not least its 200 million-strong Muslim population.

Yet the popularity of Asia’s democrats does, at least, suggest a more positive signal about the health of global democracy. In the West, reports of so-called democratic backsliding portray a dire tableau of populism, nationalism, and independent institutions hollowed out by reckless leaders. But the reality is not always quite so grim. Prabowo’s victory will not see Indonesia’s democracy collapse. The return of the Marcos dynasty in Manila has not augured a return to the dictatorship the family once led.

Asia’s democratic leaders are, of course, far from perfect, but voters are happy with their performance. And if democracy is indeed to sustain itself around the world, having a few popular democrats in high office might not be a bad way to start.

James Crabtree is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a former executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia, and the author of The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age. 

This article was originally published on Foreign Policy.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.