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ASEAN leaders must look beyond US primaries chaos

Here's my latest piece for Nikkei Asian Review, written before the January 28 debate in Des Moines.  Just three days to go before the Iowa caucuses, so we will see if all the pundits and predictions are proven correct.  It's been a primary season like no other -- and I'm eager to here your thoughts, in the comments section below.

©Nikkei Asian Review

Before the winter of Donald Trump, it must have seemed like a good idea to hold the first ever summit between the United States and the 10 countries of Southeast Asia in mid-February, amidst America’s primary election season. Sandwiched between the start of voting in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the crucial South Carolina primary later in the month, the Southeast Asian leaders were to be treated to a display of democracy in action.

But now it appears likely that the Asian visitors will not get a firsthand view of democracy at its best, but a chaotic, unpredictable electoral process dominated in the early contests by a self-avowed 74-year-old socialist on the Democratic side, and a bombastic billionaire real estate developer and showman who is leading the Republican race.

Aspirations and reality

The summit was supposed to be a chance for President Barack Obama to highlight the importance of this growing region, collectively now the seventh biggest economy in the world and the fourth largest export market for the U.S. The summit was set to underscore Obama’s “pivot” to Asia after a decade and a half of wars in the Middle East, and highlight the new Trans-Pacific Partnership, the ambitious trade pact that would further anchor the U.S. to the region’s economies.

The summit might also have been a chance for Obama to push for more democracy, free elections and human rights in the region, where democracy faces myriad challenges, or in some cases has stalled. And what better way than to showcase America’s own robust democratic tradition?

Now, the Pacific trade pact is stalled, with Congressional leaders opting not to bring it up for a vote until after the presidential and congressional elections in November, as the deal is regularly lambasted on the campaign trail. Also, coming after the Jan. 14 attacks in Jakarta, for which the Islamic State terrorist group claims responsibility, the summit agenda looks to be overshadowed by talks on terrorism.

Increasingly, the U.S. primary campaign has come to resemble nothing more than a circus-like television reality show, with Trump defying all expectations and leading the Republicans both nationally and in early state polls. The so-called sober, establishment choices — the ones with serious thoughts about foreign policy, free trade, Asia, and America’s place in the world — have either been dispatched, or are languishing near single-digits in national opinion polls.

Trump’s closest rival at this point is first term Texas Senator Ted Cruz, an uncompromising conservative who mixes harsh rhetoric with apocalyptically Biblical exhortations. Cruz is so toxic to his party’s establishment and elected officials that many of them are now grudgingly lining up behind Trump, even though most believe the real estate mogul would be a disastrous general election candidate. “It’s like being shot or poisoned,” said South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, who recently withdrew from the race.

For the Democrats, former first lady, senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was supposed to be on an easy path to the nomination. But she has fallen behind Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, where he is a regional favorite from a neighboring state. Clinton could possibly suffer a humiliating loss in Iowa, or allow Sanders to come uncomfortably close. For now, the energy and the crowds are with Sanders.

Asia as spectator

What should Asians make of this most unusual of American election contests? Does the current campaign chaos mean that the American system is broken? Some will inevitably conclude that democracy itself is flawed — and Asia’s authoritarians might well use the U.S. election turmoil to justify their own continued hold on power.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III should feel instantly at home, landing in the U.S. in the midst of the frenetic primary spectacle. Celebrity and politics have long been interchangeable in the Philippines, and political rallies typically seem part variety show and part singing competition. Filipinos will elect a new president on May 9 from a list that includes some colorful personalities.

But most Southeast Asian leaders prize order, stability, continuity and consensus — everything the U.S. system at the moment does not have.

Hun Sen has been running Cambodia as a strongman for three decades, and appears to be grooming his two sons as successors. Laos — which holds the rotating ASEAN chairmanship — and neighboring Vietnam are run by closed, secretive Leninist-style communist parties with abhorrent human rights records. The Sultan of Brunei has presided over increasing restrictions on civil liberties and the implementation of sharia law. Malaysia’s Najib Razak, combatting mounting corruption allegations, has used colonial-era sedition laws to mount a crackdown on his opponents and the press.

The leader of Thailand’s military junta, Prayuth Chan-Ocha, a former general who seized power in a May 2014 coup, has repeatedly pushed back the timeframe for returning the country to free elections, citing the need for reforms first. Prayuth has said democracy does not mean “unlimited freedom,” and he appears to want a constitution that will guarantee a dominant role for the military and stop politicians disliked by the junta leaders winning power in elections.

In the U.S., Trump’s unexpected rise — more than anything else — evokes the “red shirt” movement of deposed Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which Prayuth’s coup was meant to uproot. Like Thaksin before him, Trump is a self-aggrandizing billionaire who has upended the traditional political order through populist rhetoric, demagoguery and thinly veiled appeals to authoritarianism.

A widely circulated poll of 1,800 respondents, conducted by Matthew MacWilliams for the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, found that the one trait that defined Trump’s supporters was a tendency to favor authoritarianism. And Trump has provided ample evidence, with his calls for rounding up and deporting 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., and his warm words of praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump has praised as “a leader,” and “a man highly respected within his own country and beyond.”

The liberal commentator Dana Milbank and prominent libertarian David Boaz have compared Trump to the World War II Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Reinforcing that view, a New York Times quantitative analysis of a week’s worth of Trump’s speeches in December, totaling 95,000 words, concluded: “The most striking hallmark was Mr. Trump’s constant repetition of divisive phrases, harsh words and violent imagery that American presidents rarely use.” The newspaper said Trump’s rhetoric was “echoing the appeals of some demagogues of the past century.”

Polar opposites

Such an analysis is accurate, but I believe it captures only one dimension of Trump’s appeal. Far better, I think, to compare Trump’s dominance on the right with the energy and momentum propelling Sanders on the left. While polar opposites on most policy issues, both are appealing to an angry, disaffected portion of the American electorate that feels the political system no longer represents its interests. That anger has grown since the 2008–09 U.S. recession, and a lackluster recovery that many feel has left them behind.

There is more to the comparison; both Trump and Sanders have managed to fill stadiums with energetic crowds by displaying a raw, unscripted authenticity, and saying things that no politician has said since the advent of focus groups, consultants and poll-driven campaigns. They speak in easy-to-understand terms to Americans feeling anxiety about their economic future.

And Trump and Sanders actually overlap on a surprising number of policy issues. For example, both are sharply critical of the TPP and other trade deals that they claim will depress American wages, cost U.S. workers their jobs and flood the country with cheap imports. Both Trump and Sanders accuse China of being a currency manipulator and vow to take putative measures against Beijing.

Cruz, Trump’s nearest competitor in the Republican primary, also stokes the same angry populist base, but with a more right-wing ideological tint. Cruz is appealing more to social conservative voters, the types who fueled former Senator Rick Santorum’s unlikely bid in the 2012 Republican primaries — when Santorum ended up finishing a surprising second to Mitt Romney.

The rise of such populist candidates in the U.S., drawing huge crowds with divisive rhetoric might, for some, argue against untrammeled democracy; better the orderly predictability of Asia’s paternalistic, authoritarian systems. But that would be the wrong lesson to draw.

China has a closed, authoritarian system. And for most of three decades, when China’s economy was booming with double-digit growth, some commentators were praising that system’s ease of decision making and the prowess of its leaders at managing what is now the world’s second largest economy. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in September, 2009. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.”

Recent months have seen a sharper-than-expected slowdown of growth in China, a massive sell-off of stocks, a devaluation of the currency, the yuan — and fears racing through global markets that the Chinese leadership’s once-vaunted economic prowess may have been a mirage. Each attempt by Beijing to prop up the economy or the market has backfired, leading to more capital flight and global uncertainty. China is now being recognized as a black hole, where decision-making is opaque and even the economic numbers are suspect.

The American primaries are messy, unpredictable, raucous and chaotic — and they occasionally throw up a Trump. But the system is open and transparent, its strengths and weaknesses visible for all to see. The American press remains vigorous in its watchdog role of vetting the candidates. And in the end, the winner will have the legitimacy of having emerged through that open system, and the country is stronger for it.

The Southeast Asian leaders will see that vitality on full display — if they can manage to look past the circus.

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