South and Southeast Asia have demonstrated mixed results in combating the coronavirus pandemic, yet COVID-19 has been a political boon for illiberal leaders in the region. In fact, South and Southeast Asia have had some of the most extreme COVID-19-related democratic regressions in the world. But it is not irreversible. The COVID-19-era consolidation of political influence should be countered to ensure that politicians cannot use the pandemic to permanently amass more power. Across South and Southeast Asia, defenders of democratic norms and institutions should support safe elections and work to ensure that, even if leaders have amassed extensive powers to fight the pandemic, these powers are time-limited and that plans for returning to political normality are in place. In countries where the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths have been relatively low, supporters of democratic rights and institutions should use street protests, parliamentary sessions, and social media, with appropriate health precautions, to pressure governments. In states that have failed to handle COVID-19 effectively, opponents should highlight these mistakes and show that limiting political freedoms does not guarantee better public health outcomes.
For more on the region’s democratic regression in the COVID-19 era, and how to combat it, see my new CFR Discussion Paper, Addressing the Effect of COVID-19 on Democracy in South and Southeast Asia.