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How the Pro-Democracy Election Victory Could Calm Hong Kong

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.

Nearly 3 million of Hong Kong’s 4 million registered voters expressed their disapproval of the city’s current government in a decisive local election on Nov. 24 that reduces the Hong Kong authorities’ political potency and also gives the opposition and protest movement a mandate to push against Beijing’s control. In theory, the huge electoral victory gives only a marginal political boost to the opposition in an institution that is otherwise heavily tilted in favor of the pro-establishment forces and ultimately controlled by Beijing. Nevertheless, the opposition now has much stronger backing to promote its pro-democracy agenda.


The Big Picture

Hong Kong voters went to the polls for the first time since the city’s latest political crisis began in an election to select local representatives. The vote, coming six months into a protest movement that has gripped Hong Kong, amounted to a referendum of the city’s Beijing-backed leadership. An overwhelming victory for pro-democracy candidates significantly altered Hong Kong’s political landscape and dealt the current government a blow, weakening the key pillar Beijing relies upon to exercise control.

See China in Transition


According to Hong Kong’s Registration and Electoral Office, opposition pro-democracy parties won 77 percent of the 452 total seats up for grabs, giving them control of 17 of the city’s 18 districts. This is a sharp reversal of the pro-establishment’s near-dominance of the district councils (those groups held 70 percent of total seats and controlled all districts since 2015). The record-high turnout of 71 percent, compared with the 40 percent average for previous district council elections, reflects high political awareness among the city’s residents, who were energized by the protest movement and undeterred by street battles between protesters and the police leading up to the election and the strong security presence during Hong Kong’s only direct and democratic election.

A Symbolic Landslide

The district councils traditionally hold little political power beyond decisions over local community affairs. But six months of persistent — and increasingly violent — protests effectively transformed this year’s election into a proxy battle along partisan lines, with the defeat of the pro-establishment camp apparently weakening a key pillar of governance supporting Beijing’s control in the city. The result also energizes the opposition, boosting its prospects in next year’s Legislative Council elections and could give it as many as 117 additional seats on the 1,200-member election committee that will choose Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2022. Even with the momentum from the district council vote, it’s unlikely the opposition will be able to capture a majority in either the Legislative Council or on the election committee.

But the results do send a clear measure of the strength of societal approval for it to pursue pro-democracy measures. Ultimately this means the central government will be forced to address opposition demands in some fashion or risk drawing an even stronger reaction on the streets as well as more international scrutiny. The number of opposition candidates who take seats in the local councils, however, will also lead to political impasses with the Beijing-friendly city administration over community affairs, likely leading to gridlock over local enforcement for years to come.

Despite the strong performance by opposition candidates, the raw vote totals do not necessarily translate into a sweeping popular endorsement of the protest movement, especially its more violent elements. The opposition candidates won 57 percent of the total popular vote, an improvement from their average 40 percent share of vote totals in the previous two district elections in 2011 and 2015, but not a dramatic one. Critically, this year’s election outcome will not appease the city’s more radical protesters, whose confrontations with authorities have persisted largely irrespective of the city’s political process. But the strong performance of pan-democracy politicians could restore the prominence of the protest movement’s more moderate voices.

What Could Happen Next

The local election results could effectively infuse the city’s political institutions with the spirit of Hong Kong’s street battles. The election may also provide a window of temporary respite in Hong Kong, but it likely will not last much more than a matter of days or weeks. Several major developments in the near future could signal whether the election result will lead to spikes in protest activity or whether the opposition’s demands will be channeled into political action, even as the broader protest movement is set to stay. Here are the signs to watch.

What the Protest Movement Does Next: Protest-related violence notably ebbed on election day, reflecting a degree of unity in the protest movement. One test of that unity will be whether the opposition’s electoral gains will help moderate protest groups and pan-democracy leaders discourage the more radical elements in the movement from resuming their violent tactics. It also raises the question of how the election results will be used as leverage to push forward the protesters’ demands. In particular, a scheduled protest on Dec. 8 by the Civil Human Rights Front will be important to monitor. What happens surrounding that protest will show whether protesters of all stripes can maintain a collective front on the pro-democracy demands. Another key question is whether the radical wing of the movement will maintain the peace as it did over election weekend or whether there is a quick return to disruptive action.

The loss of legitimacy suffered by its ally at the Admiralty will effectively force Beijing to choose between offering concessions to Hong Kong’s moderates or taking the risk of energizing the radicals.

How Hong Kong Authorities Respond: Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she and her government would “seriously reflect” on the Nov. 24 results, but ultimately, Beijing will determine how she and her government respond. As happened in 2003, when mass protests led to a similar defeat of pro-establishment forces and the resignation of several key officials, the election results will almost certainly cause more fissures within the administration and possibly prompt a few officials to resign. There is also a possibility that Lam’s administration could make political concessions to try to appease moderate protesters. Anything short of those gestures, however, will only deepen the political crisis.

What Beijing Does Next: The Chinese central government has issued no official responses to the election outcome beyond making convenient accusations, blaming “outside interference” for the result. Nonetheless, the loss of legitimacy suffered by its ally at the Admiralty will effectively force Beijing to choose between offering concessions to Hong Kong’s moderates or taking the risk of energizing the radicals. Thus, it may find the more expedient course of action will be to isolate itself from the mess by scapegoating the Hong Kong authorities and forcing the resignation of some Cabinet officials — and possibly even Lam herself. Beijing may even go as far as to influence the Hong Kong authority to pursue an inquiry of police actions during earlier protests — a key demand of protesters that the Admiralty rejected out of hand. Beijing certainly doesn’t want whatever concessions it grants to further embolden the protesters and the pro-democracy movement. But its more hard-line alternatives — especially the disqualification of a few of the recently elected pro-democracy candidates — would immediately inflame protests and push a resolution of the city’s crisis even further away.


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Battle for the Throne: Indonesia Votes

As the ballots trickle in from the most complicated single-day election in history, Indonesia catches its breath and prepares for a tumultuous start to the second term of President Joko Widodo, known popularly as Jokowi. Though the election was held on April 17th, the Indonesian Election Committee (KPU) is still counting ballots from remote areas of the archipelago and will not announce the official result until May 22nd. In the meantime, the Indonesian Association for Public Opinion, a group of eight reputable pollsters, conducted a “quick count” that predicts Jokowi and his running mate, Ma’ruf Amin, will be victorious over ex-General Prabowo Subianto with a margin of 55.71% to 44.29% respectively. Though Jokowi encouraged the population to remain calm and await the official results, Prabowo dismissed the quick count and claimed victory. He eventually accepted defeat but blamed election fraud for his loss in an indication the battle may be just beginning.

Indonesia holds elections every five years, but this one was especially large and complicated. The KPU claimed the largest voter turnout in Indonesian history with 192,828,520 voters, approximately 80% of the electorate. Female voters were a majority, and 40% overall were millennials. This was also the first election in Indonesian history to combine the presidential election with the election for the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR). The MPR consists of two houses, the People’s Representative Council (DPR), and the Regional Representative Council (DPD) with a colossal 711 seats up for grabs between them (575 and 136 respectively). According to the KPU, the complexity and intensity of the electoral process and the long travel distances between polling sites contributed to the deaths of 456 of its members. Indonesians take their democracy very seriously indeed.

Party vs. Interest

In a reversal from the 2014 election, Jokowi’s 2019 success is due largely to the Islamic “Green Factor”, i.e. the support of the National Awakening Party (PKB), the United Development Party (PPP), Golkar, and his own Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). Jokowi’s controversial nomination of influential Islamic politician Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate attracted the support of Islamist parties, but the move came with great risks. Ma’ruf’s age (he’s 76) and history of political flip-flopping are concerns. In addition, while Ma’ruf was a renowned part of the 212 Movement to bring down then-candidate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) in his bid for Jakarta Governor, the movement was cited for intolerance. The risks of nominating Ma’ruf were borne out by the negative response of pollsters after his selection, even in Ma’ruf’s own province of West Java.

Green Factor in Indonesia's Election
The Green Factor: In the 2019 election, Islamic parties came out in support of Jokowi. Many also supported the religiously charged “212 Movement” to oust popular Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. Photo Credit: https://jakartaglobe.id/context/peaceful-election-suggests-exaggerated-fears-of-a-country-split-in-two

Ma’ruf’s issues aside, there is real concern about the appeal of Islamic parties in Indonesian politics. Though Islamic parties play an influential role in Indonesian politics, none has ever won the presidency, perhaps because their political interests tend to be more pronounced than their political ideology. There is a perception they sway with the political winds and as a result, they have difficulties developing a firm political base. In most cases, prominent Islamic leaders lead the Islamic parties. Changes in leadership cause friction and leave internal divisions that can result in abandonment of their main political goals. PPP for example, fully supported Prabowo’s coalition on an ideological basis in 2014. In January 2019, after a long internal battle, the party pledged its support to Jokowi instead. This decision had less to do with PPP’s philosophy and more to do with its evaluation of Jokowi’s likelihood of winning the election.

Jokowi’s Future Challenges

During the campaign Jokowi ran on his record as President, claiming to have lowered the percentage of Indonesians living in poverty to 9.84% – and the unemployment rate to 5.3%. Though these are complex issues, it is obvious Indonesia became economically stable during that time. The country enjoys a 5% economic growth rate and became a G-20 member state. Despite the excellent results, Jokowi knows his task is not complete and will face three primary challenges in his second term.

In the previous five years, Indonesia’s economy grew at a respectable rate between 4.88% and 5.00% but fell short of Jokowi’s stated 7% goal. Furthermore, Chinese investment and Jokowi’s ambitious effort to physically connect Indonesia’s 17,000 islands fueled most of the growth the country did achieve. Not only is this type of investment unsustainable, it benefits a tiny percentage – less than 1% – of new middle-class Indonesians. The gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” in Indonesia is still large. Jokowi needs to continue to boost economic growth and invest more in young Indonesians, especially in the area of education. This will help Indonesia’s future development and prevent a reliance on Chinese or other foreign workers at the expense of young Indonesians.

Despite a strong commitment to building infrastructure, Jokowi needs to invest more in security. This includes not only fighting terrorism, but quelling unrest after official announcement of the election results. The potential for violence is serious. In 2018, Indonesia arrested 396 people linked to ISIS, Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) on terrorism charges and Prabowo received massive support from many fundamentalist groups. They have proven capable of mobilizing popular unrest in the past, bringing down Ahok, the popular Jakarta mayor, over allegations of anti-Islamic sentiment. Jokowi must preserve the harmony and image of Indonesia’s secular Muslims amidst threats of intolerance and attacks in the name of religion. Though there are no longer strong terrorist organizations in Indonesia, the country remains a place for massive recruitment by various radical organizations and their capacity for violent persists.

Apart from the Islamic “Green Factor” votes, Jokowi’s second term success will depend heavily on women and the poor. He must keep his campaign promises to issue welfare cards for education, basic needs, and vocational training programs. He needs to provide more opportunities for women, especially for the many mothers whose children disappeared during the Semanggi battle in 1998, a shameful event that is becoming a public cause. Finally, Jokowi needs to fulfill his promise of greater governmental transparency and a better system of checks and balances by bringing justice to those that have been wrongly imprisoned by corrupt officials.  

All these challenges and more will occupy Jokowi as he takes charge of a new and unfamiliar coalition next month. His ability to leverage the “Green Factor” in order to win the 2019 presidential election will not make it easy to appease his new supporter base and maintain his coalition. He must keep the promises he made while campaigning even when they run counter to the impulses of his new allies. The relationship between Jokowi and the Islamists adds a new dynamic to Indonesian politics, and in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, the Battle for the Throne is just the beginning of the war.


Viana GearyMefi Ruthviana Geary, PhD, has a scholarly interest in Countering Violent Extremism and deradicalization of terrorists. Her expertise is in Southeast Asian foreign policy analysis and open source intelligence (OSINT).

Paraguay: Voting Away Freedom

Dictatorship and socio-economic bias have left Latin America home to some of the most corrupt nations in the world. Despite the continent’s recent relative success in economic development and securing regional trade agreements, 20th century political scourges still haunt many Latin American nations and Paraguay is no exception. For 35 years the nation endured a period in which popular peaceful dissent was met with the strong-arm of the military. Extralegal arrests and humans rights abuses were commonplace, and the housing of Nazi war criminals was an accepted practice. Paraguayan President Horatio Cartes’ renewed bid last week for re-election risks forfeiting the strides made towards real democracy over the past decade and may force the government back into political crisis.

While Paraguay’s political future remains in doubt, the facts surrounding the events of the 31 March are not in dispute. A majority group from the Senate and a hand-full of opposition senators met secretly to cast a majority vote to put into motion the first steps necessary to amend the Paraguayan constitution. The amendment would enable President Cartes to seek a second term in contravention of the single-term limit originally imposed to bolster Paraguay’s democratic processes. The proposition could further entrench Cartes’ Colorado Party that has enjoyed a majority in the legislature for 66 of the last 70 years.  After 35 years of despotic rule by dictator Alfredo Stroessner, the people of Paraguay were outraged by this legislative “coup d’etat” which sparked a protest at the Congressional building in Asunción.

In the melee that followed, a large portion of the building was gutted by fire and Rodrigo Quintana, the leader of the Liberal Party’s youth branch, had been shot dead. The details surrounding the incident are dubious, if not damning. Quintana was shot and killed in a violent police raid on the Liberal Party’s Youth Branch political headquarters. Security footage shows Quintana running away from the police.  After absorbing the deadly shot, an officer now identified as agent Gustavo Florentin approached and stepped on his body. Florentin has since been fired, along with the interior minister and Paraguay’s police commander, Crispulo Sotelo. While these dismissals direct blame towards the police for an inability to protect Congress and the public, the truth is this action by President Cartes was more preventative than altruistic. The calculated move precludes the possible violent reaction from an already agitated opposition but the risk of repeated violence endures until negotiations surrounding the amendment begin and until transparent government investigation of the police raid lifts the perception of impunity.

paraguay protest
Protestors peaceful after a previous night’s clashes left Congress in flames. Photo credit: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/04/paraguay-delays-election-vote-fresh-protests-170404053715500.html

A Vote Against Confidence

The Colorado party will likely argue that the vote was an inadvertent procedural violation of legislative etiquette. The opposition, along with the neighbors and trade partners, will view the covert legislative action as a power grab and a sure indicator that a corrupt polity is leading the small land-locked country backward in already uncertain economic times. A procedural violation can be dealt with within the democratic process, but a substantive and willful disregard for democratic governance spells a disastrous outcome.

To understand the level of risk being taken and the importance of the upcoming events, one needs only to look at who responds and what is said. Immediately after the violence, President Cartes downplayed the events in a letter to the people of Paraguay. In the third paragraph he writes: “Democracy is not conquered or defended with violence and you can be sure this government will continue to put its best effort into maintaining order in the republic…we must not allow a few barbarians to destroy the peace, tranquility and general well-being of the Paraguayan people.” His cavalier statement was met with disdain by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which quickly issued a pointed cautionary statement calling on political leaders “to avoid inciting violence and seek dialogue.” Although innocuous at first glance, the OHCHR statement avoids addressing the protestors or their actions and instead directly engages political leaders for “inciting violence”.

Paraguay protest
President Horacio Cartes tweeted this photo of a letter drafted in response to the protests of 31 March.

The Paraguayan Congress remains shut down while fire inspectors assess the damage. With a populace fighting widespread corruption of government officials, broken promises for rebuilt infrastructure, and frustration over lack of progress, even Asuncion’s own mayoral race was lost to the opposition party. Pope Francis of neighboring Argentina has called for immediate dialogue between opposing parties and President Cartes has heeded the advice, recommending to the lower house (presumably pro-amendment) to delay until the factions could discuss a way forward for the initiative. Opposition leader Efrain Alegre objected, pending a comprehensive investigation into the events surrounding Quintana’s death. The bipartisan call to delay the vote, originally scheduled for April 4th, further obscures the path forward and and tensions continue to rise. Further delay could unravel an uneasy peace maintained since Cartes assumed the Presidency in 2013.

Despite all evidence pointing to the impossibility of withdrawing the proposal and annulling the clandestine senate vote, there is still a chance that diplomacy and influence from neighboring countries could prevail. Since President Cartes’ election, Paraguay has experienced a surge in economic growth, making it one of South America’s fastest growing economies. This glimmer of hope would lead one to believe that the Colorado party should abandon the measure and seek a strong replacement for Cartes in 2018, restoring peace and trust in a nation still racked with fear of a return to despotism. The unfortunate truth is that the prospect of political gain and notoriety is alluring, and the risk to the political certainty of the country is high. The most promising course of action towards maintaining peace would be for Cartes to go against the majority, adhere to the current constitution, and eliminate himself as a candidate in the next election. This also appears the most unlikely scenario, as it would put an end to the right-wing preeminence that the Coloradan majority has enjoyed for decades.

Point of Inflection

In the absence of immediate and powerful diplomatic intervention or reversal by Congress, Paraguay faces a crossroads in which violence and freedom could become interdependent. The lower house will, if allowed to vote, pass the measure and send the constitutional amendment to the President for approval. If the recent violence following the initial vote is any clue to how the opposition will react, the ensuing fear and anger will undoubtedly thrust this tiny nation into a state of complete chaos. The ingredients exist for a violent implosion: a new police commander, a new interior minister, complete right-wing control without term limits, and a populace that has tasted freedom and democracy even if only for a brief period of time.

The upcoming weeks are crucial for determining the future prospect of peace and economic growth, both for Paraguay and for greater Latin America. Absent any legislative reversal on the initiative, the nation is on a collision course. The tragic and too-familiar possibility of a counter-revolutionary dictator rising from the ashes is greater now than at any point since Stroessner’s final days in 1989.


Major Kirby “Fuel” Sanford is a U.S. Air Force F-16 Instructor Pilot with combat experience in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is currently a master’s student in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.