Not just left vs right: Political spectrums in Asia

More than half a billion people in Asia were eligible to vote in elections this year. What informs their decisions at the ballot box? In many places, it's not quite so simple as left or right. The Asia Media Centre asked six experts about different political spectrums in Asia.


Hindu nationalism drives the fight for the soul of India, says Sekhar Bandyopadhyay:

Since the first election in 1952, Indian voters used to identify the Indian National Congress, under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, as the ‘centre left’, with the Communist Party of India constituting the ‘extreme left’. Congress stood for socialism or more precisely a controlled mixed economy, with roles for both public and private sectors, welfare policies for the poor, and of course, secularism. On the ‘right’, there was the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which was still a minor party, and stood for Hindu nationalism and ‘indigenous’ modes of economic development. For decades, Congress and Nehruvian socialism and secularism dominated Indian politics. But from the 1980s, we witnessed the emergence of the right wing in a big way, in the form of its latest avatar, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

But the distinction between Congress and BJP has gradually become blurred as Congress embraced economic liberalism and initiated market reforms, and the BJP too accepted the same economic philosophy. The difference is now reduced to their relative emphasis on Hindu nationalism. Recently, the BJP has managed to shift the narrative of Hindu nationalism so much to the centre of political discourse that Congress feels compelled to adopt more overtly a soft form of Hindu nationalism.

So now the real fault line in Indian politics is between ‘soft’ Hindu nationalism, which still respects India’s social pluralism, and ‘hard’ Hindu nationalism, which prefers to see a Hindu majoritarian state. In the election campaign of 2019, leaders rarely talked about economic policies or performance. It became a fight for the ‘soul of India’ — the choice was between the notion of a Hindu India that will still recognise its pluralism, and a powerful authoritarian Hindu rashtra (state). 


Indonesian politics are driven by religion and rising inequality, says Claire Achmad

Contemporary Indonesian politics are not easily characterised or understood along a ‘left’ and ‘right’ divide. The 2019 Indonesian general election showed that despite their many differences, both presidential candidates were on the conservative side of politics in a number of ways. Prabowo Subianto, a former army general, and his Partai Gerakan Indonesia Raya (Great Indonesia Movement Party) stand for Indonesian nationalism, and can generally be said to be politically conservative. However, incumbent President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo, despite not coming from a military or political elite background (indeed, the first president in Indonesia’s history not to) and despite being a member of the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle), is pro-death penalty, and has not addressed past grave violations of human rights committed during the Suharto era.

This speaks to the often significant role of religion in the political landscape in Indonesia, which is the world’s fourth-most populous country and home to the world’s largest Muslim population. Alongside Islam, the country also recognises five other official religions.

A further political divide in Indonesia is that between political elites or representatives of the establishment, and everyday Indonesian people. For many, the fact that Jokowi came from a family of furniture-makers and had a career as a businessman added to his appeal when he first ran for president in 2014. Rising inequality between rich and poor is another powerful division in the Indonesian political landscape. 


Filipinos vote for personalities and promises, says Chloe Wong:

In the Philippines with its multi-party system, people do not associate political candidates with their parties. Filipinos do not vote based on the principles and policies of the party that a candidate belongs to. Instead, they vote based on the candidates’ personalities and promises.

In a personality-based political culture, Filipinos typically vote for famous personalities with name-recall (newscasters, celebrities, and members of political families), whom they feel are sympathetic to their needs. Thus, it is no surprise that film actor Joseph Estrada became president and then served as Manila mayor, boxing legend Manny Pacquiao is elected senator, and the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Jr is making a political comeback. Thus, political campaigns are dominated by questions of character rather than assessments of policy.

In a patronage-driven political environment, poor Filipinos vote for national candidates based on their promises of economic benefits. At the local level, voters choose candidates whom they can extract financial support or gain preferential treatment for public services. Thus, parties and policies are trumped by personalities and patronage in the Philippines. While it holds regular elections in its vibrant democracy, the country’s political development is stunted by these factors resulting in a weak state and slow economic growth.


Korean ideological lines divided by anti-communism and anti-authoritarianism, says SungYong Lee:

The main division in Korean politics emerged in the context of post-colonial state reconstruction. For Korea, the end of WWII in 1945 meant independence from 36 years of Japanese colonisation. The conventional power elites who had collaborated with Japan were at high risk of losing their power ground. Hence, they collaborated with the US which was looking for a workforce that could reconstruct the state governance system. In contrast, many people who had participated in the anti-Japanese independence movement had been influenced by socialist ideologies and thought of the US presence as another version of colonialism. Since then, the ‘right-wing’ in the country consolidated its identity by upholding anti-communist ideologies, whereas the ‘left-wing’ proclaimed anti-authoritarianism/colonialism as its central propaganda until the end of the 1980s.

Although this cleavage has become weaker since the 1990s as the space for democratic politics became wider, people’s understanding of ‘right' and 'left’ is still under its influence. ‘Liberalism’ is frequently used in political debates as something equivalent to pro-US, pro-Christian, and anti-communist. In reality, however, all major parties (including left-wing parties) are more conservative than New Zealand's National Party when we look at their policies on social welfare, labour rights, and environmental protection.

Having said this, in the early 2000s, a few left-wing splinter groups were created whose ideological lines are more similar with left-wing parties in the western world. One of these parties managed to gain seats in the national assembly for two decades. The others are still small and politically less significant as they are considered ‘far-left.’ However, again, compared to New Zealand's Green Party, their policies on environment are not radical.


Populism and identity politics overshadow policy in Sri Lanka, says Sanjana Hattotuwa:

There is scant evidence voters in Sri Lanka have exercised their franchise based on what’s in a manifesto. Politicians and political parties predominantly use social media in their political communications, especially during campaigns, to capture and sustain the interest of a young, influential demographic. Telegenics and populism, strategically produced and promoted, undergird political campaigns and personal appeal where democratic institutions are projected as hindrances or marginal to what individuals offer or guarantee as solutions to key challenges. Sri Lanka is always in campaign mode, which impacts the conduct of politics.

There is no ‘left’ or ‘right’ in the manufacture of these personalities through a strictly political science or policy frame. Yet, in a complex, constantly mutating landscape of failed promises and the growing public distrust of electoral processes and who comes to power, franchise — through active exercise or calls to boycott — is weaponised by populists to support their political aspirations. Perceived differences are often petty or personal and almost never principled or ideological. Caste and class play a vital role too. Identity politics remains dominant, where othering and appealing to voters on the basis of race, normalised. Critical engagement with policies, practices or principles remains elusive.  


National identity and ethnicity drive Taiwan’s political divisions, says Alex Tan:

In Taiwan, the political fault lines are informed by its historical experience, specifically the impact of the Chinese Civil War and the exile of the Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party) government to Taiwan.

Taiwan’s political cleavages are mainly on the national identity continuum and the ethnic dimension. The national identity fault line divides citizens and political parties on whether they see Taiwan as part of greater China (part of one China) or as full-fledged independent and separate from China. The ethnic dimension in Taiwan divides citizens along the lines of whether they came to Taiwan from mainland China before or after 1947-1949.  While most Taiwanese are Han Chinese who trace their ancestry mainly to the Fujian province of China, the term ‘mainlander’ in Taiwan describes a person (or the descendants) who came to Taiwan after the WWII as opposed to the ‘islanders’ who have been in Taiwan prior to that. The convergence of these fault lines results in mainlanders generally having a pro-China (one China) position and islanders supporting a Taiwanese independence position.

The two political parties in Taiwan — the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — reflect the national identity and ethnic fault lines. The KMT reflects a more pro-China position and tends to draw support from mainlanders as well as citizens who see Taiwan as part of one-China. The DPP, on the other hand, represents the pro-Taiwan independence islanders. In Taiwan’s popular media, this fault line is also called the blue versus green conflict line — blue from the color of the KMT’s party banner and green from the DPP’s.

Main image: Wikimedia Commons, Indonesian general election 2019

- Asia Media Centre