STRONGMEN OF ASIA: DEMOCRATIC BOSSES AND HOW TO UNDERSTAND THEM
The number of so-called strongman leaders in Asian democracies is increasing, but our concepts for understanding the phenomenon are all developed from a Western context. Strongmen leaders in Asian democracies is an Asian phenomenon and even if global trends also affect Asian countries we must understand the local political culture in order to understand how democracy is weakened.
Report after report indicate that democracy as a form of government is under pressure in large parts of the world, and particularly so in the large and populous regions of South and Southeast Asia. Even if people strongly value democracy, they also value strong leaders who tend to limit what is often associated with democracy, such as minority rights, free speech or general rule of law. They also often have a boss style, visible in their language, public performance, or decision making.
We will investigate a number of strongmen. Noe are contemporary national leaders, others are former leaders, and some are leaders at provincial levels. We will investigate how they build their positions, how they use social media, how their boss style appeals locally.
We seek to substantially develop understanding of South and Southeast Asian politics and to develop theoretical concepts that help understand the strengthening of strongman politics in democratic countries. We proceed from the position that political leadership – variously conceptualised as legitimacy, authority, or representation – is a cultural construct and that perception plays a crucial role its construction. We therefore seek culturally sensitive understanding of strongman leadership and style.
The 2020 Freedom House report declares that globally, ‘Democracy and pluralism are under assault’. This is particularly marked and disconcerting with respect to the large and populous regions of South and Southeast Asia where today there is no ‘full democracy’ (Democracy Index 2019). In fact, popular support for non-democratic rule in these two regions ranges from 75 to 85 percent, higher than in any other world region (Pew research 2017). Several significant electoral democracies in these regions are now ruled by ‘strongman’ leaders who are often portrayed as authoritarian or populist, or both—India’s Narendra Modi, Sri Lanka’s ruling Rajapaksa brothers, Thailand’s Prayut Cha-o-Cha, Cambodia’s Hun Sen, and the Philippines’ Duterte, for example. The region is also rife with former strongmen, strongman challengers to current leaders, and local strongmen, including political dynasts.
We seek to substantially develop an understanding of South and Southeast Asian politics and to develop theoretical concepts that help understand a hitherto underresearched political phenomenon: strengthening of strongman politics in democratic countries. We proceed from the position that political leadership – variously conceptualised as legitimacy, authority, or representation – is a cultural construct and that perception plays a crucial role its construction.
Our hypotheses are, first, that contemporary strongman leaders in South and Southeast Asia seek to distinguish themselves from technocratic leaders and instead, second, seek to establish authority through imagery that is based on culturally sensitive notions. These notions include, we hypothesise, a masculine ‘boss’ personalisation of power and authority, which may included transgression of moral or unwritten rules; an imagery of communitas, the uniqueness of the nation and the superiority of its morale and culture; and a culturally sensitive and often religious imagery of sacrifice, selflessness and service.