DEMOCRACY’S worldwide retreat makes no exception for South-East Asia. In the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has thrown the law to the wind in his war on drugs. Many innocents are among thousands killed. He has imposed martial law in Mindanao in the south. And in early May he cheered on the sacking of the chief justice, a critic. In Cambodia, in anticipation of elections in July, the strongman, Hun Sen, has snuffed out the last of the free press and abolished the opposition. And in Myanmar the government of Aung San Suu Kyi turns a blind eye to an army-led campaign of rape and slaughter of the Rohingya minority, some 670,000 of whom have fled the country.

The question is how much of a retreat from democracy this really amounts to. For in the dozen or so countries that make up South-East Asia, liberal democracy has long struggled in the face of authoritarianism, bolstered by monarchism, nationalism and ethnic chauvinism. A political map of the region put out by Freedom House, a think-tank, makes stark viewing. It shows only tiny East Timor as wholly free in its political arrangements, and that only since last year, when Freedom House promoted it from the “partly free” category after open elections and a smooth transfer of power. All the rest of the region is classified as either partly free (eg, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore) or not free at all (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam). Just this week Thailand’s military junta quelled protests marking the fourth anniversary of its seizure of power. No wonder liberals exulted so at Malaysia’s general election on May 9th, in which the party in power since independence in 1957, UMNO, was peacefully ousted.

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Even before that signal victory, things were not as bad as at the democratic nadir in the 1970s and early 1980s. Then UMNO’s grip on power was unquestioned, and Ferdinand Marcos had assumed absolute power the better to plunder the Philippines. Daniel Slater of the University of Michigan points out that during that period not a single regime met even minimally democratic standards, excepting Thailand’s brief flirtation with democracy in 1973-76, which soon gave way to military rule. The cold war, as Mr Slater puts it, did not bring about a domino collapse into communism. But it did see a collapse into authoritarianism.

Three subsequent democratic achievements greatly altered the balance-sheet. In 1986 the People Power revolution in the Philippines saw Marcos replaced by a new democratic government under Cory Aquino. Twenty years ago this week, Suharto, Indonesia’s long-serving dictator, resigned, paving the way for the country’s presidents to be chosen at the ballot box. And in 2015, after six decades of army rule, elections brought Aung San Suu Kyi to office on a popular wave, 25 years after her victory at the polls was overturned by the junta. This month’s win by Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan coalition appears, for now at least, to be on a par with those moments.

But caution is needed. There has never been a shortage of elections in South-East Asia, yet they are not sure-fire signs of democratisation. Lee Morgenbesser of Griffith University in Australia and Tom Pepinsky of America’s Cornell University point out that between 1945 and 2015 South-East Asia held no fewer than 110 executive or legislative elections. Singapore leads the regional pack. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has suffered no erosion of power in the 14 parliamentary elections since it came to power in 1959, even if it got a bit of a fright in 2011. Voting is clean. But the PAP wins not just by running the country competently, but also by instituting a favourable electoral system, harassing opposition politicians, cowing the media, threatening to cut spending on districts that vote against it and inculcating the absurd notion that its survival and that of Singapore itself are synonymous.

The Philippine election of 1986, which Marcos had expected to win, proved transformative. But most in South-East Asia are not. Suharto had already fallen before Indonesia’s first proper elections. Ms Suu Kyi’s party was allowed to take office only after the army had ensured that it kept a powerful stake in the state. Even Malaysia’s recent electoral upset may not turn out to be quite the game-changer it seems. When the new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, was last in power in 2003, as head of UMNO, he was emblematic of the strongman rule against which Malaysians have just voted. When the share prices of companies owned by people close to Dr Mahathir jumped after the election, it reflected an assumption that even if the ruling party had changed, the system had not.

A more hopeful trajectory

Two factors help to keep authoritarians in place. One is the strength of the state, which allows rulers to use economic and judicial means, as well as brute force, to crush opposition. The other is ancient habits of patronage to reward supporters. But both have limits. In Malaysia, UMNO’s usual trick of bribing voters did not work this time, since Malaysians saw it as their own money. In Cambodia a political system that exists for no other reason than to distribute profit and privilege may not survive Mr Hun Sen. Even the (Western-educated) offspring of Cambodia’s elites admit to embarrassment.

As for state strength, Malaysia has just shown the region how that can work to democracy’s advantage. For the biggest lesson of the election, argues Michael Vatikiotis of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, is how institutions can still function even after years of abuse. Whatever the misgivings about Dr Mahathir, thanks to the election the press is already freer, parliament will have more oversight, and the courts will be more independent. The election outcome, Mr Vatikiotis argues, surely troubles the junta in Thailand, which endlessly delays promised elections, and Mr Hun Sen in Cambodia, who fears a “colour” revolution. The fact that the authorities in both countries so fiercely squash any hint of dissent suggests that they, at least, do not think their victory over democratic forces is irreversible.

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