By: A. Lin Neumann

If no one agrees to the rules, it’s hard to play the game. This is increasingly true in Southeast Asia’s various democratic or semi-democratic states, most acutely now in Thailand, but the dynamic is evident in Malaysia, Cambodia and even Indonesia.

The antagonists in Thailand’s intractable political mess have no way out. The main actors in this tragedy will not even talk to each other.

On one side, the opposition Democrat Party and its allied protest movement have unilaterally declared that the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is illegitimate and corrupt and that elections are not the answer. They call her hideous and vulgar names, act as if their crowds represent all of Thailand and try to coax the military into overthrowing the government. The protesters and their backers in the bureaucracy and business community succeeded in muddying the February 2 snap election just enough to delay the results and make it likely that the courts, which seemingly favor the Democrats, will try to unseat Yingluck.

The Democrats are battling what they see as the menacing power of Yingluck’s big brother, ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who redefined Thai politics by using his wealth to build a political machine that was independent of the coalition of business, politicians and the royal family that has held power in Thailand since the absolute monarchy was overthrown in 1932.

Thaksin represents a fundamental threat to the Democrats not because he is corrupt but because he shifted power from the Bangkok status quo to his machine. Rural voters have been empowered by the populist policies he has pushed since he was first elected premier in 2001 and they keep voting for whatever party puts itself forward as the Thaksin party, despite his overthrow by the military in 2006.

In this impasse, neither side is clean. The Democrats, who have ironically abandoned democracy for now, are backed by murky forces funding the expensive protest rallies and manipulating the permanent bureaucracy of government – commissions, agencies, the courts – to their ends.  In the same way, Thaksin defies his court conviction for corruption from self-imposed exile, uses his money to fund – and likely enrich – pro-Thaksin Red Shirt leaders and clings to power through proxies.

In this blind political alley neither side can agree on what constitutes legitimacy. If elections do not work because the opposition refuses to allow them to be carried out successfully, democracy itself may be mortally wounded. The kind of periodic military dictatorships that ruled Thailand until 1992 – and briefly in 2006 – are no longer acceptable to the international or local community. A way forward must be found.

Despite its vibrant economy and position as the economic hub for mainland Southeast Asia, Thailand’s crisis of legitimacy risks doing permanent harm to the country’s future – and indeed to the future of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. What is Asean to make of a key member that has not been able to agree on a government for nearly a decade?

A similar crisis is emerging in Malaysia, where the gerrymandered advantages of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition are fraying at the seams. By clinging to power at all costs, the dominant United Malays National Organization is using dangerous racial politics to make the Chinese and Indian minorities feel like strangers in their own country.

Malaysia cannot move forward politically until the basic one-party rule that has prevailed since independence is finally overturned at the ballot box, which nearly happened in the last two elections despite the incumbent advantages the BN employed. But instead of moving toward a democratic future, the country seems locked in the embrace of name calling and speculation over back-room negotiations for a transition away from the current prime minister in favour of another UMNO crony.

The opposition does not recognize the legitimacy of the BN’s enduring rule because the game is rigged. The UMNO power brokers, mired in the perks of 50+ years of privilege, seem to believe the opposition has no right to power. How does this end, but also in stalemate?

Similarly in Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen has transformed his Cambodian People’s Party into a vehicle for perpetual rule, last July’s elections were declared illegitimate by a rejuvenated opposition that took to the streets, refused to sit in parliament and demanded Hun Sen resign.

Even in Indonesia, a bastion of political calm compared to its neighbours, the emergence of Jakarta Gov. Joko “Jokowi” Widodo as the country’s most popular politician, is also a challenge to the legitimacy of veteran leaders who prefer to hand power back and forth among themselves with little prospect of change.

Jokowi is a true outsider and he now enjoys a 30-point lead in several opinion polls over his closest rival for July’s election. But his position as a candidate is dependent on the most opaque process possible – former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the chairman of the party to which Jokowi belongs,  the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), has the sole power to determine the party’s candidate. Should she decide to run for president for a fourth time (she lost in direct elections in 2004 and 2009 and settled for No. 2 in 1999), she would deny the popular will with no recourse for the public unless Jokowi broke ranks with the PDI-P, which is considered highly unlikely.

For many Indonesians, a presidential election without Jokowi could also be seen as illegitimate, just another exercise by the elite to reshuffle the deck chairs out of fear that a genuine reformer might upset cozy deals and bring a commitment to greater transparency into the opaque world of Indonesian governance.

The challenges posed by the current political dynamics of Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia – not to mention the unsettled future of Myanmar and the dictatorships in Laos and Vietnam – underscore the fragile hold political elites have on political legitimacy in Southeast Asia. Without solid public backing for accepted democratic means of both getting and giving up power, Southeast Asia could find itself facing multiple political crises as a time when Asean is moving to form a genuine economic community by the end of 2015. 

That kind of community will have a much harder time of succeeding if the national communities on which it is based cannot govern legitimately.

A. Lin Neumann is a co-founder of Asia Sentinel. This column first appeared in Edge Review, a digital online magazine covering Southeast Asia.