In Thailand, both Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha’s ruling Palang Pracharat party, and an alliance of centrist opposition parties, have claimed victory in the first elections since the military coup in 2013. Although Palang Pracharat won fewer seats than its rivals, it overwhelmingly controls the upper house of the legislature, which also has a say in voting in the country’s Prime Minister. The government has announced they gill defer coalition talks until after the coronation of a new King next month.
Palang Pracharat espouses a right-wing Buddhist nationalist ideology and is seen as close to the military junta and the monarchy. Prayut, the Prime Minister, is a retired army general. The opposition, led by the liberal Pheu Thai party of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, have criticized Palang Pracharat for curtailing democracy, although the opposition parties themselves have been accused of deep-seated corruption.
Similarly, in Indonesia, both President Joko Widodo (also known as Jokowi), of the progressive Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle and right-wing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto claim to have won the race, although exit polls suggest a victory for Jokowi. Prabowo has vowed not to concede and has suggested challenging challenge the results in court if he loses, arguing that widespread rigging took place. The final results will not be released until late May.
Prabowo, the leader of the populist-nationalist Great Indonesia Movement Party, is a former general who served under Suharto, the right-wing military strongman who suppressed communist and Islamist movements in Indonesia for much of the country’s history. During his campaign, Prabowo has welcomed comparisons between himself and President Trump, and endorsed a Duterte-style crackdown against criminal elements in his country. Jokowi, on the other hand, has frequently drawn comparisons to President Obama, due to similar physical appearance, progressive policies and political messaging. Though both candidates present themselves as secularists and emphasize support they receive from non-Muslims, they have also both courted the rising bloc of Islamist voters in their country, with Jokowi picking an Islamist cleric as his running mate, while two Islamist parties have endorsed Prabowo’s candidacy.
The region remains central to US efforts to counter China. Both Thailand and Indonesia are seen as US partners and historic Cold War-era allies. However, the Thai nationalists are strongly pro-China, while the Indonesian nationalists have railed against growing Chinese economic influence and condemned threatening incursions by China into Indonesian fishing waters in the South China Sea. The ongoing political uncertainty in the Indochina region is sure to present challenges for US officials in effectively building a coalition of states to contain China’s rise.