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Strongmen of Asia

Authoritarian leadership is an increasingly dominant style in South and Southeast Asian democracies. Why is that?

A political meeting in Asia.

Election meeting for Duterte. Photo: Duncan McCargo

About the project

In the Strongmen of Asia project, we closely investigate a set of more or less democratically elected strongmen – including presently ruling, fledgling, or former strongmen.

There is Duterte, Modi, the Rajapaksa brothers, Hun Sen, Sheikh Hasina... They are authoritarian, populist, some dictatorial, but not necessarily unpopular. Then there are the local ones, such as the many in Indonesia or India -- all elected, adulated by their own crowd, master manipulators or local autocrats? And former strongmen (again, some may be female). And perhaps the unsuccessful ones. Is Malaysia's PM Muhyiddin perhaps a strongman-wannebe who failed? Why would that be?

The aim is to compare and understand a political style increasingly dominant in South and Southeast Asian electoral democracies.  

The strongmen style will be explored through a number of methodologies, including

  • fieldwork including surveys
  • online ethnography including films
  • media analysis of original language sources
  • historical/archival work

The style will be explored through cross-cutting themes, including media dynamics like new media, fake news, social media, conspiracy theories. We will also pay close attention to 'vernacular history' telling, popular myths and narratives of rulership, including notions of masculinity and nationhood, and to the use of laws, force, surveillance to suppress opponents and election manipulation.

Furthermore, we will examine ideas of 

  • popular sovereignty like religious authority 
  • nationalism 
  • identity politics or sense of crisis like alienation 
  • resentment 
  • threat for instance from abroad


The Research Council of Norway. Grant nr. 31849.


  • University of Canberra
  • Copenhagen University


01.11.21 - 31.10.25

Published June 24, 2021 2:38 PM - Last modified Aug. 10, 2021 11:51 AM