Lee Kuan Yew And His PAP: A Party Like No Other

With eulogies from all over the world pouring in and Singaporeans queuing by the tens of thousands every day for hours to pay their last respect to the island nation’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew was already a legend greater than life before he died on 23 March at the age of 91. Lee KYAs he is being described as “mellowed a lot” during the last few years, nearly all comments are positive and remind only discreetly of the former iron fist of the outstanding leader, the aristotelien “zoon politikon” (or political animal) par excellence. His vision and foresight as political leader and motivator have made Singapore’s transformation miracle possible. Nevertheless, the universal recognition for this life achievement is remarkable after decades of international criticism of his leadership as heavy-handed, authoritarian, and undemocratic.
Partyforumseasia will not add another eulogy but a short reflection on the party leadership Lee Kuan Yew style: Political power is a prerequisite for the implementation of policies, but in most democracies it is limited by regular elections, thus limiting the time for implementation. Fast changes of political personnel have a positive side, of course, bad leaders disappear sooner, but in most democratic systems the survival rates tend to be rather low. Governments with different concepts follow each other, institutions are being changed and laws reversed. Some leaders survive somewhat longer with changing coalitions, but the “reign” of Lee Kuan Yew is beating democratic and autocratic systems by far. Being re-elected and keeping his constituency for 60 (sixty!!!) years is a world record, even on the background of uncontested “walkovers” due to his advantages as incumbent, prime minister and party leader. Similarly unique is his tenure of 31 years as prime minister (1959 – 1990), ending with a voluntary resignation after carefully organizing his succession, and his handover as party leader after 38 years in 1992 without giving up his influence in the party’s policy formulation. There was also a strong fear factor in this dominant role, often dubbed as “no-nonsense-style”, but Lee Kuan Yew and his team managed to avoid outright condemnation as dictatorial by delivering the economic goods domestically and finding smart ways to sell limitations to political rights and press freedom as necessary for stability and progress.
Controlling a political party and keeping it dominant with more than absolute majorities like Lee did with the PAP over five decades is an exception many party leaders world-wide would probably dream of. Descriptions of the PAP with its estimated membership of no more than 20.000 as a Leninist-style cadre party are certainly outdated. The roughly 2000 cadres have only a minor role in decision making. But screening office holders and election candidates the rigorous way LKY practiced it, would certainly do many parties in the region good. Another remarkable feature is the weekly meet the people sessions, compulsory for members of parliament. The MPs are forced to be closer to the ground and the problems of the common people. That is easier to organize in a city state but maybe a useful example to MPs in bigger countries and their widespread aloofness.
Lee Kuan Yew once said that it cannot be his role as prime minister to make it easier for the opposition, and he really made it difficult with all legal means. This created a lot of latent resentment against the PAP and increasing numbers of protest votes recently. His son Lee Hsien Loong, successful as prime minister with a more relaxed leadership style since 2004, will most probably manage to maintain the dominant role of the party. He says the next election due latest by early 2017 will be tight, but the opposition is splintered and weak. In this party political perspective the Lee Kuan Yew era does not seem to be over yet.
Singaporeans queuing for up to eight hours in the tropical heat to pay their last respect.
Queue 1

Malaysia: Politics for God, for the People, or for the Party?

Partyforumseasia: During the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Christian Democrats have been strong in several Western European countries. With over 40% they are still the dominant force in Germany, though the Christian element (the “C”) in its name does not play a big role in practical politics because under a secular constitution religion is considered to be private.
Hadi 2PAS president Hadi Awang has some reason for concern

In predominantly Muslim countries like Malaysia religion plays a bigger role, and at least for the Friday prayers mosque attendance is much more subject to peer-group control, in rural communities more than in bigger cities. Religious credentials are important factors for political careers and open support for Islam is a must for Malay candidates in election campaigns. The competition for Malay Muslim votes between two big mainstream parties, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) has triggered even more importance on religious issues for a couple of decades. Both are targeting the same Malay constituencies, especially in the rural areas, because of the relatively small number of voters per precinct and the better chances to get elected.
With the “holier than thou”- competition the nation has changed from a more relaxed religious atmosphere only two or three decades ago to much more peer-group pressure on the Muslims with elements spilling over to the minority religions. Restaurants have to be halal, alcohol is no longer flowing so freely, and gender relations are getting more difficult. The world-wide Muslim resurgence including fundamentalist currents are finding a lot of open doors in the country.
In the last few months, but festering for much longer in the background, the introduction of Muslim criminal law elements (or hudud), especially corporal punishment, has highlighted the fault lines in Malaysia’s society, though the constitution is giving equal rights to the strong minorities and their religions, and the British-inherited legal system is basically secular.
The PAS-controlled federal state of Kelantan has passed a law on the implementation of HUDUD in the local parliament on 18 March, and UMNO had no choice but to support the motion. For its final implementation the law needs approval from the national parliament, and many politicians and lawyers think it is unconstitutional.
Though the requirements for male (!) witnesses are high, the punishments are harsh in the 21st century. For theft (2 witnesses) a hand or both have to be amputated. For extramarital sex (4 witnesses!!!??) it is 100 lashes for unmarried and stoning to death for married persons. Drinking of intoxication substances (2 witnesses) costs 40 to 80 lashes. If this sounds archaic for modern Muslims already, the reaction of non-Muslims is also strong, though hudud is supposed to apply only to Muslims. In a multi-religious society like the Malaysian there a many mixed families and many non-Muslims can be affected.

Strategy-wise:   In this complex situation there a rather different outcomes for the Malaysian political parties:

1. PAS is proud of higher religious standards than UMNO anyway. Stating it again is not providing much additional mileage. But they have a leadership problem after their spiritual leader Nik Aziz passed away. Party chairman Hadi Awang, also a Muslim scholar, is not uncontested internally. His dogmatic attitude and his alleged openness for cooperation with UMNO are criticized by the so called “Erdogan faction”. Hadi is heading the more conservative “ulama faction” and may face a grassroots revolt. More than half of the party’s committee in its Batu branch has resigned in protest a few days ago.

2. UMNO has been leading a coalition of 18 parties, maximizing its votes with the help of the Chinese, Indian and indigenous ethnic component parties. These allies are against the hudud implementation, though they know that UMNO cannot be seen to be against it in the Malay constituencies in more conservative rural areas on whose support UMNO’s survival depends. But the threat of being voted out is only there as long as the opposition coalition is united and strong. Its leader Anwar Ibrahim neutralized in prison for the next five years, dividing the opposition and maybe even splitting PAS would mean practically ending the threat. But strategies often backfire, and the hudud dilemma could add to the pressure on Prime Minister Najib by Dr. Mahathir and his friends.

3. Pakatan Rakyat, the opposition coalition composed of PAS, Chinese dominated DAP, and Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, is actually close to breaking up. All non-Muslim members are against hudud and have suspected PAS of secretly dealing with UMNO for quite some time already. With Anwar in prison the “coalition of strange bedfellows”, united only by its fight against the government, is more unstable than ever.

4. The greater public: Non-Muslims anyway, but also Muslims with doubts about the more than creeping religious intolerance in the country are not fully convinced that the hudud policies are only religiously motivated. Leadership struggles in PAS and UMNO make it rather obvious that the hudud drive is not totally for God or the people but all too visibly party politics. Like in countries like Iran, where the clerics in power are detrimental to the acceptance of Islam, the turmoil created by PAS may turn out to be negative for the political development and the religion alike.

5. The social climate: A presenter at business radio station BFM 89.9 who discussed the question whether the hudud implementation would help to fill the country’s rice bowls in a video published on YouTube received death and rape threats and is under police investigation. She has apologized publicly saying that she regretted her tone and demeanor in the video and that she would never mock or insult any religion, let alone her own. The incident shows the raw nerves in the domestic debate and cast doubts on Malaysia’s  image as a moderate Muslim country.

Indonesia: Golkar’s Ninety-Eight Shades of Gray…

Partyforumseasia: The legendary Indonesian flexibility allows not 50 but up to 98 shades of gray, leaving little space for clear-cut black and white if you take the political reality at 100. But Golkar’s long march from Aburizal Bakrie‘s stubborn sticking to the Prabowo opposition after losing the presidential election to join the Jokowi coalition seems to have come to an
Agung Bakrie

Aburizal Bakrie and Agung Laksono before the leadership struggle.

With the memory of saving its privileged government experience under Suharto well into the democratic era, it is no wonder that Bakrie’s opposition course would face stiff resistance among party members and leaders who prefer to be in power. If old fox Bakrie did not see this trap this may signal the end of his political career. But don’t count him out yet, the shades of gray may give him a second chance.
The internal struggle had developed in rather dramatic form with a party split and the election of two competing leadership teams under outgoing Aburizal Bakrie and new leader Agung Laksono. The Jakarta Globe on 17 March describes the rift as “The war between two rival factions of Indonesia’s oldest party reached a new height on Tuesday, with claims, accusations, lawsuits, threats and sanctions flying between the sides.” (Link here)
After inconclusive attempts to solve the problem with the internal party tribunal or the Central Jakarta District Court, the decision for Agung Laksono has been made by his growing support in the party, defections from the Bakrie camp, and finally by Bakrie dropping his law-suit against Agung last Tuesday, 17 March.
Under the Agung Laksono leadership Golkar will support the Jokowi government  with its 91 members of parliament and finally tip the scale against the so far dominating Red-and-White opposition coalition. A parliamentary majority for the president is certainly good for Indonesia and a smoother legislative process.
But Golkar is not yet part of the ruling coalition. In a meeting with PDI-P chair Megawati this week, neither Agung nor Megawati mentioned the accession to the government coalition. The open question is of course the compensation for the support in terms of government positions, not easy to solve when all the posts are filled already. The shades of gray may help!

Political Parties As They Come and Go…

Partyforumseasia: Three pieces of advice were quite shocking for the editor of this page when he joined a party as an idealistic young student: 1. Former German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s warning about inner-party competition in three steps, “enemy, mortal enemy, party comrade”… 2. Former US President Theodore Roosevelt’s warning that if you need a friend in Washington you better buy a dog, and 3. The claim of a party veteran, “No power in the world can destroy our party, only we ourselves…”
Political parties come and go, some rather fast, some more slowly. Southeast Asia has many of the first kind, but also quite a number of very resilient ones, most of them in power for decades. The self-destruction by infighting and power struggles can be observed in three interesting cases at the moment, namely Golkar and National Mandate Party (PAN) in Indonesia and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).

GolkarGolkar is the oldest party in Indonesia with decades of a very privileged ruling monopoly under President Suharto. Adapting to the democratic era it has survived so far (with 91 out of 560 seats in parliament), but ambitious chairman Aburizal Bakrie‘s failed gamble in the presidential election and sticking to the losing coalition may eventually destroy the party. An anti-Bakrie faction may prefer more flexibility and has elected a rival chairman, former welfare minister Agung Laksono. On 3 March, two of the four judges on the internal party tribunal have voted for him as legitimate leader, two others avoided a decision and want the case to be decided by a court of law instead. The Central Jakarta District Court had already earlier refused to invalidate the party’s Bali congress which re-elected Bakrie. This way Golkar has two competing factions with two chairmen fighting for legitimation. Without a binding decision of the internal party tribunal and the obvious reluctance of the courts to tip the scale, the party risks to break up and become irrelevant without a role in government. A European-style way out would be a ballot including all party members, but the fluidity of party membership in Indonesia might exclude this alternative anyway.

PANThe leadership feud in the National Mandate Party (PAN), with 49 out of 560 parliamentary seats, has similar roots as the one in Golkar. Chairman Hatta Rajasa, who was Probowo Subianto‘s running mate in their unsuccessful candidacy against President Jokowi, was narrowly defeated (292-286 votes) by challenger Zulkifli Hasan. The new chairman’s victory was supported by party stalwart Amien Rais who alleged in the party congress that Hatta Rajasa had secretly met with Jokowi and was not faithful to the Prabowo coalition, known as Red-White Coalition or KMP. Loser Prabowo’s inability to concede defeat after the presidential election in July 2014 is still creating ripples in the political party scene of Indonesia.

MICThe Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) was for many years the useful vote getter among Malaysia’s Indian citizens on behalf of UMNO and its National Front or Barisan Nasional coalition but is down to 4 seats out of 222 in parliament in the 2013 election. The crisis followed a decision of the  Registrar of Societies to nullify the internal elections in November and directing the party to hold fresh elections for the three vice-presidential and 23 Central Working Committee (CWC) posts. Since then members of the CWC are challenging the Registrar of Societies order in court in order to maintain the November results. Once at the courts it looks impossible to find an internal compromise. As usual, voters are disappointed and question the quality of the leadership, a common paradox in democracy, which is about debate over policy solutions and compromise.
Dangerous for the party and its survival is above all a public debate about its relevance for the Indian Malaysians. Not surprisingly, prominent Indians and many letters to the editor of Malaysian newspapers say very clearly that the MIC is not serving the Indian community at all.
Nota bene: Political parties are all and always work in progress and turn easily into endangered species!

PS: To be continued…

Coming Clean? New Election Law in Cambodia Controversial

Partyforumseasia: Election outcomes depend to a rather high degree on the electoral law applied. But the law, if it is fair, must be applied and respected, competing parties must campaign with a minimum of fairness, and there must be a mechanism to detect and punish fraud. Sufficiently free and fair elections are by no means international or Southeast Asian standard or common practice, and Cambodia’s last parliamentary election in July 2013 turned out to be one of the most controversial elections after the country’s return to parliamentary rule. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) felt cheated of a majority it thought it had won and boycotted the new parliament for the ten following months. The boycott ended in July 2014 with a compromise, the main agreement being the implementation of a new electoral law and a bipartisan and neutral National Election Commission (NEC). After seven months of drafting the new law has been presented to the public by Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin and CNRP official Kuoy Bunroeun on 9 March. The unusual Wahlbetrugsituation now is that ruling party and opposition have come to a compromise but have to defend it now against a number of NGOs, among them the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel), Transparency International Cambodia, the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy believes that the law can be passed by end this month together with a new law for the National Election Committee (NEC). The NGOs want more consultations concerning their doubts about a number of details. They criticize among others articles 156 and 162 which could lead to the disqualification of a party from contesting if one of their officials violates articles of the law. According to articles 68 and 72 violations of the restricted time and number of rallies during the 21-day official campaign could also lead to disqualification. The same is stated in article 152 for insulting or instigating discrimination on “an ethnic person, or a group of a nation or race, or any religion”. Disqualification and hefty fines of 10 to 30 million Riel (about $2,470 to $7,410) seem to aim at the anti-Vietnamese rhetoric used by the opposition against the CPP before the compromise.

In regional and international comparison the Cambodian debate is very unusual. A certainly difficult compromise between CPP and CNRP to level the playing field for the next elections comes under pressure from NGOs, the politically more aware and outspoken part of the Cambodian society. But they do have a reason to worry because their role in the campaigns and election process is also regulated and reduced. The new law includes hefty $2,500 to $5,000 fines for those who insult parties (sic!).
NGO staff can be fined for direct or indirect speech or texts that insult a party or a candidate, or support them in a partisan way. Publishing opinion polls in support of parties or candidates is banned as well.
CNRP leader Sam Rainsy promises to keep the last version of the law open to fine-tuning after debate. But shoulder to shoulder with the CPP he has to defend the compromise.
The National Election Commission will have four members each from the two parties (who have to give up their party membership, though) and an even more neutral ninth member who can decide in case of stalemates. Both parties would like to see the president of respected NGO Licadho, Ms Pung Chhiv Kek, as the ninth member. But she has her own preconditions and may refuse the position and embarrass the politicians.

By mere coincidence, “Coca-Cola and David Puttnam, the producer of the 1984 film “The Killing Fields,” have been recruited by the government to help shift the world’s image of Cambodia away from land mines and corruption and toward one of a booming economy and easy business, the commerce minister said Thursday.”
(The Cambodia Daily, 6 March 2015))

Political Funding by Private Donations and Party Preferences

Partyforumseasia strategy-wise: In Southeast Asia private campaign and party donations are certainly not coming in smaller amounts from millions of citizens. The millions here are more investments by cronies and businesses interested in government contacts and contracts. Nevertheless, an article titled “Live together, vote together” in The Economist, November 22d, page 33, is interesting in the way it shows that peer groups can be rather influential on political choices: “Americans who live and work together are often politically like-minded, according to The Economist’s analysis of more than 1.7m individual contributions of $200 or more made during the 2014 election cycle. The analysis also reveals which cities and companies are most politically engaged, financially speaking.” The survey does not correlate its findings with the election results, but at least the more one-sided results are indicators.
Economist Nov.

In systems with only two parties like the US it is certainly easier to define the areas with better election chances than in splintered multi-party systems. But for political parties in Southeast Asia, apart from the traditional rural – urban divide, it may be useful to study possible partisan clusters in more detail.
One interesting case in point is a pocket of opposition stronghold in the North-East of Singapore, where the Workers’ Party has managed to surf a wave of anti-establishment and anti-PAP feelings and conquer a five seat group representation constituency (GRC) in 2011 plus a single member constituency in a by-election in 2013. The losing PAP normally has a very good grassroots system and its MPs get a feel of the ground in their meet the people sessions every Monday night. Both camps will be trying hard to gauge the voters preferences for the next election which is due by January 2017 latest.