Myanmar’s Democracy Icon: Still up to Expectations?

Partyforumseasia: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is campaigning hard for the upcoming elections. But strategic shortcomings of the NLD campaign threaten to damage her aura as democracy icon. Like many politicians who have suffered under authoritarian governments for so long she feels entitled to lead the nation. But she might miss the right timing and see the political development bypass her. Without diminishing her merit and service to the nation by keeping up democratic hope against the military regime, a sad end to her political career is not excluded.
San Suu KyiSee the analysis by Nicholas Farrely in the Myanmar Times (Link)

Hopefuls and Presidentiables in the Philippines

Partyforumseasia: The United States of America and the Philippines have quite a few things in common.One feature they share rather visibly at the moment is the long preparation for the next presidential election, due in the US in November 2016 and in the Philippines in May. Since President Aquino‘s term has boosted the Liberal Party, they understandably try to continue with a liberal candidate and field interior secretary Manuel Roxas. His hopes to get popular senator Grace Poe as team mate have failed since Grace Poe seems to run increasingly away in all polls and “offers herself” for the post. The Philippine Daily Enquirer praises her sensible stand on many raging issues which has earned her Poe Escuderoplaudits from the public, her clean persona and intimate connections with show biz royalty, another similarity with the USA. But with Francis Escudero, a fellow senator, as her choice of running mate she may undermine her “presidentiable” image. Escudero has a record of supporting former president Estrada who was impeached for corruption but resurfaced as mayor of Manila.
Another quite popular team of candidates is formed by vice president Jejomar Binay Binay Marcoswho is facing a corruption probe and Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. , son of ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos who allegedly syphoned away between five and ten billion US$ during his terms in office.
Voters in the Philippines, either a forgiving lot or cynical about their political class or both, seem to enjoy the presidential race and its entertaining aspects and don’t mind the expenses, like the American voters.

Historical links between the US and the Philippines:
The USA indirectly supported the Philippine Revolution which ended about 350 years of Spanish colonial rule by their own war against Spain in 1898.  Spain ceded the Philippines to the US for 200 million $. One of the leaders against the Spanish occupation, Emilio Aguinaldo, born in 1869 was the first president of the Philippines from 1899 to 1901.
Aguinaldo voll

The contemporary illustration in a French journal (1901) shows Aguinaldo’s capture by US forces:

But the US quickly ended the dream of independent statehood by establishing her own colonialism in 1901. Limited self-rule granted in 1935 under president Quezon was soon interrupted by the Japanese invasion, full independence came only in 1946.
The Spanish heritage is still visible in the family names and many Spanish words in the national language Tagalog. What persists from the US-rule is widespread English with local pronunciation, the presidential system and many other legal features, the education system, close military cooperation, and 3.4 million Philippinos in the US.

The Split of Parti Islam Se-Malysia (PAS)

Partyforumseasia: Founded in November 1951, PAS was itself splitting from the United Malay National Organization UMNO, but allowed dual membership in the beginning. It championed Malay and Muslim rights and the recognition of Islam as state religion which was somewhat contradicting the founding principle of Malaysia as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country with full citizenship for the massive Chinese and Indian immigration under the British colonial rule. The contradiction has festered until today and generated a party system along racial lines with UMNO and PAS competing for the Malay Muslim vote, especially in the more conservative rural areas.
The opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat or People’s Alliance consisting of Anwar Ibrahim‘s racially open Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), PAS and the Chinese dominated DAP seemed to blur the ideological divisions until PAS president Abdul Hadi‘s push to introduce Hudud (Muslim penal code regulations) in Kelantan exposed the internal fault lines in PAS and triggered the break-up of the Pakatan Rakyat.
But not all PAS members are following the hard-line Muslim clerics under Hadi Awang, the so called “ulama” faction. A minority formed the “Erdogan” faction, when the Turkish president was still considered a moderate Muslim leader, but lost all leadership posts in internal party elections earlier this year.
Splitting from PAS in big numbers now, the moderates have founded a new party under the name of “Parti Amanah Negara” (in short “Amanah” = trust or fulfilling one’s obligations in Arabic). Mat Sabu
The new party’s president Mohamad Sabu aka Mat Sabu was a deputy president of PAS since 2011 and moderate challenger of the clerical hardliners. In a statement during the launching of the party he said the new political platform is committed to continue the legacy of political Islam, but realizing that Malaysia is a country of people from diverse social and religious backgrounds, Amanah interprets Islam in a more holistic and inclusive manner. In an era of increasing Arab influence in the country a shift to moderate and more open alternatives should be welcome.

Amanah was officially launched on 17 September
with thousands of supporters attending and claiming that more than 30,000 members are  already joining, including non-Muslims and over a hundred lawyers.

With DAP veteran Lim Kit Siang also attending the meeting it is clear that the new party is most welcome to replace PAS in the opposition coalition. Amanah, though, states its openness to co-operate with PAS, but president Hadi Awang as leader of the hardliners has immediately excluded any truce with the “traitors”. Nevertheless, discussions on the rejuvenation of the opposition coalition as “Pakatan Rakyat 2.0” are underway with PKR and DAP, because without the massive remaining membership potential of the old PAS there is no chance of ousting UMNO and its coalition partners from their entrenched power position, despite the extreme pressure on prime minister and UMNO-leader Najib Razak with the embarrassing 1MDB financial scandal.

If the break-up of the opposition looked like a timely relief and victory for the government, it is matched by the slow erosion of the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional by the marginalization of smaller component parties which were  kept alive by massive financial support from UMNO  anyway.

Malaysia needs urgently strong and united leadership to get out of the crisis. Unfortunately, the ruling and government coalitions look equally weakened.

For a better understanding of party politics in Malaysia see Kartini Aboo Talib‘s country paper (available at Amazon) in:
Amazon Party Politics SEA

Smiles, Charisma and Political Leadership

Partyforumseasia: Political charisma comes in many different forms. Dictators like Hitler, Stalin or Mao didn’t have to smile because they instilled fear and terror to everyone around them, and they continue to fascinate many people until today. According to Max Weber’s classical definition they are set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional qualities. But Weber also cautions that the recognition on the part of those subject to their authority is decisive for their power. This brutal type of charisma has nothing to do with the ancient Greek meaning of χάρισμα (khárisma) as “gift of grace”.

In democratic systems, even the flawed ones, leaders and candidates have to be attractive in more charming ways. One of the most important tools of anybody who tries to attract others is of course a smile. From sales personal and pick up artists to preachers and politicians all get advice from psychologists and strategy gurus. For all the basics of an attractive and bonding smile the French physician Duchenne has done the groundwork more than 150 years ago. For being convincing it must come from the limbic system, the emotional steering centre of the brain, and most people can detect the difference between a sincere “Duchenne smile” and an artificial looking “cheese smile” by the raised cheeks and crow’s feet around the eyes. They are correct at a rate of sixty per cent, but leave a chance of forty per cent for the fakers to fool their target group.

Many politicians are not sufficiently informed about the difference but could get useful coaching from the more sophisticated sales promotion industry. There is plenty of literature, training seminars and research on how to fake a genuine smile, constant smile exercise in front of your mirror being a must for success in sales. So far the grey zone how convincing “fake sincere smiles” can be is still unknown. And, also in terms of a scientific approach, the genetic roots of smiles are ambivalent enough. Chimpsmile
Apes bare their lower fangs as a warning that they may bite, and chimpanzees differentiate between a submissive “fear face” which resembles already a human smile and a “play face” with corners of the mouth and eyes drawn upwards. According to psychologists the human smile is serving the same purpose, showing that you are not threatening and asking to be accepted on a personal level. Signalling a fake smile is also the baring of the bottom teeth, among primates a clear sign of aggressive attitudes. And if you observe your political candidates, genuine smiles are late-coming, they don’t appear instantly on demand.
Dominant persons like president Putin and his foreign minister Lawrow or Margaret Thatcher and Charles Bronson don’t  smile because they don’t want to be seen as submissive in any way.

On this background the effects of smiling leaders are politically rather interesting. Once the big boss ventures a smile, the whole entourage smiles automatically as well. And even more intense, followers and admirers are so pleased to be close to their idol that their smiles come close to extacy.
TrumpMessianic expectations of voters and supporters can go into unbelievable dimensions, but are frequently matched by overblown self-confidence of politicians. And psychologists (Link) have found out that over-confident leaders are seen as strong, competent and charismatic and not as potentially failing because of their unrealistic self-image. Another study (Link) concludes “When managed well, the social status conferred by overconfidence has an aura just shy of magical, capable of keeping our attention diverted from measurable results. (…) Belief sells, whether it’s true or not. In the case of overconfidence, the belief in one’s ability—however out of proportion to reality—generates its own infectious energy. Self-deception is a potent means of convincing the world to see things your way.”
Overconfidence is often very close or overlapping with narcissism, one of the motivations for self-styled candidates. A study on “Narcissistic Personality and Politics: Smiling while Insulting” (Link) states that “Personality disorders are represented in politics to a larger degree than the general population” and concludes that politicians  “require excessive admiration. Just take a look at the rallies and gatherings they experience on a regular basis with people holding signs and calling their name. Politicians and actors are the only people who experience that kind of adulation. It certainly isn’t unique to see actors becoming politicians and politicians becoming actors. They have very similar personalities.”

Under the title “Humble leaders build high-performing companies” a recent (December 2014) study by Arizona State University (Link) the research team found for business leaders: “With top management working together, an empowering organizational climate emerges, prompting middle managers to become more engaged and committed and to perform better at their jobs, according to the model.” The study is also suggesting to study the influence of Confucianism on leadership in Asia. The article is too new to have influenced Singapore’s PAP, but it seems to describe its successful cooperation style in the top management.

Election results world wide seem to confirm the above findings in many ways, but, fortunately, in many places as well, rational and responsible leadership prevails nevertheless…

PAP Singapore: Higher than Expected Victory

Partyforumseasia: Singapore’s dominant and long-term government party PAP has surprised everybody from political observers, journalists and the opposition to its own membership with a sweeping victory of 69.9 % in yesterday’s (11.09) general election.
In a rather colorful nine day official campaign Workers’Party (WP) and Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) especially managed to pull huge crowds and rouse the expectations of their supporters.

Here are the main results, published by Election Commission and Straits Times:
GE2015 Results

And nota bene: These results still look rather mild for the opposition parties because they calculate their percentage on the votes in constituencies they contested. Only the PAP had fielded candidates for all 89 seats. If calculated on the total number of valid votes the two main opposition parties look much more miserable:

Total number of valid votes: 2,257,016                 Invalid/rejected votes: 47,315 (2%)
Voter turnout: 93.56%

Workers’Party (WP) share of all valid votes:                          12.48%
Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) share of all valid votes:  3.75%

The Workers’Party narrowly retained the group constituency in Aljunied and more convincingly one single member constituency, losing one other it had won 2 1/2 years ago in a by-election. All seven other opposition parties did not win any seat but three candidates will be offered a seat as Non Constituency MP as “best losers”.

The media are talking about a two thirds majority which in reality is closer to four fifths. But calling the results “undemocratic” or “reminding of North Korea”, as losing party leaders said in their disappointment, is certainly far from justifiable. The first-past-the-post electoral system is not helpful for small opposition parties, sure, but all in all space of maneuvering, access to mainstream media including TV coverage, allocation of big open spaces for rallies, canvassing, and publication of pamphlets were free and fair enough. The ruling party could bank on its track record of running the country with exceptional and corruption free  success plus the financial means to improve nearly on all practical aspects of the citizens’ lives. Attacking the government for underground train disruptions or increasing prices for food and health care did not resonate with the PAP supporters, nor could criticisms of the compulsory savings fund CPF, which includes in the meantime a lifelong pension scheme after retirement, mobilize a population of (close to 90 %) home owners against the government. The privileges  of citizenship in the city state contrast quite favorably with what most other countries have to offer, including the neighbors in Asia. So the opposition parties tried to harp on the importance and usefulness of opposition voices in parliament as checks and balances but obviously the silent majority does not care too much for more controversial debate. Nearly 70 % seem to think that the PAP government is caring enough and has sufficient foresight to lead Singapore into an even better future.

Winner takes all

First-past-the-post system:

Winner takes all

SDP losers

Loser loses all

Myanmar: What to Expect After the 8 November Election?

Partyforumseasia: Officially launching the NLD election campaign yesterday, 8 September, democracy icon and party leader Aung San Suu Kyi did not sound as confident of a clear victory as most observers predict it to be. Aung peacock
Asking the international community to monitor the election intensely and carefully shows her fears that military and USDP under president Thein Sein will try to manipulate the vote again after NLD’s accusations that the 2010 election was widely rigged. But the NLD had boycotted it anyway. As in other elections in the region before, parachuted international observers will have a limited understanding of the technicalities and equally limited access to remote areas. But an immediate effect of her appeal for international support is the anger of the military which in any outcome will have 25% of the seats in parliament and far reaching veto powers.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s widely criticized silence in the Rohingya issue was followed by a top level decision of her party not to allow Muslim candidates, even in predominantly Muslim areas. This, on the other hand, underlines her fear of antagonizing the Buddhist nationalists and their spearhead organization Ma Ba Tha, or Association for the Protection of Race and Religion.
For a decisive victory the NLD will need support from the parties of the ethnic minorities who may not be too keen to sacrifice their regional interests to the democratic battle cry of the NLD, though they all hate the military. Forging a pro-democracy and anti-military election coalition among the ninety (90) odd parties contesting this election is more than a herculean task for Aung San Suu Kyi.
Many voters are confused anyway, the NLD’s peacockpeacock symbol being used by at least half a dozen other parties as well.

Even with a sweeping victory for the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi will have no chance to sideline the military. Ex-general and president Thein Sein has signaled his interest to run for another term in 2016 and his ouster of USDP party chairman Shwe Mann for being too cozy with Aung San Suu Kyi does not augur well for a viable arrangement between the two big players after the election.
With neighboring Thailand in a potentially explosive limbo between militarily supervised calm and democratic renewal as well as Malaysia with an increasingly shaky UMNO government, a more stable Myanmar would be preferable for the region and the investors.

Radical Buddhism Meddling in Myanmar’s Politics

Partyforumseasia: The international headlines focus predominantly on radical Islam, sometimes on radical Hinduism in India, from time to time on Christian fundamentalism in the US. Buddhism, all in all, has managed to keep an image of peacefulness, except in Myanmar, where Buddhist monks took part in violent attacks on the Muslim Rohingya minority. Since mid 2013 they are organized in the “Association for the Protection of Race and Religion”, also known under the acronym Ma Ba Tha or “မဘသ” in Burmese.
Ma Ba Tha pic.The organization is being described as nationalistic, fiercely anti-Islam, and well connected to the military. Though article Article 364 of the Constitution prohibits the “abuse of religion for political purposes”, Ma Ba Tha leaders are openly supporting the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). During its second anniversary conference in June, Bhaddamta Vimala, a senior monk and secretary of Ma Ba Tha, criticized the opposition as too inexperienced to rule the country and urged the monks to drum up support for the USDP in the upcoming elections on 8 November. Monks cannot vote but their influence among the population is considerable.
After independence the U Nu government tried to introduce Buddhism as the state religion, but the law was never passed after resistance in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Nevertheless, Ma Ba Tha has celebrated “state religion day” on 30 August to commemorate the 1961 move toward Buddhism as official religion. The day’s religious importance derives from Buddha teaching the Metta Sutta, or discourse on loving kindness which seems to be rather irreconcilable with the militant and violent sides of Ma Ba Tha.
The organization was also more than supportive in legislation concerning religious conversions and interfaith marriages as well as compulsory monogamy and population-control – it actually drafted them. The last of the four laws was signed by president Thein Sein on 31 August, the whole package being criticized by the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi as discriminatory for the minorities. But this may backfire in the elections, because Ma Ba Tha has grown into a very powerful nationalistic force which will certainly use its considerable influence to support the USDP and reduce the chances of the NLD.
Nota bene: Christian groups in the West should not cry foul too easily. The Christian Democratic parties in Europe have enjoyed the churches’ support for many years, and American Evangelicals still wield considerable influence until today.

Myanmar Election: How Free and How Fair?

Partyforumseasia:  Myanmar’s democratic opening has received regional and world-wide attention and praise, and subsequently attracted the interest of all shades of businesses, from the well-known fast-buck-entrepreneurs to long-term investment interests. Especially the latter are vital for the country if it wants to catch up with the neighbors in Southeast Asia. ASSK and Thein
The recent purge within the military dominated Union Solidarity and Development Party and the sacking of rather popular speaker of parliament Shwe Mann are widely interpreted as a step back from the reform drive promised by President Thein Sein.
Now speculations for the upcoming election on 8 November start to get more heated. Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is sure that her party will win “if polls can be free and fair” (Agence France Press). And the country’s army chief, senior general Min Aung Hlaing recently declared:
“We wouldn’t mind even if the National League for Democracy won in the next general election, as long as it is free and fair. The Tatmadaw’s (Army) desire is to see the upcoming elections be held free and fair.” (Straits Times, 26/08/2015)

On the background of heavy-handed interference since the 1990 elections when the military had underestimated the NLD and simply ignored the results, such a statement sounds a bit too good to be true. At least the generals have learned to speak to the international media and the investors who want to see stability. The 2010 ballot was widely seen as rigged and a quarter of the parliamentary seats is reserved for unelected army officers anyway.
But to be fair with struggling Myanmar, organizing free and fair elections with a level playing field is certainly not as easy as in Denmark or Sweden. Ongoing problems with 135 (!!!!) distinct ethnic groups officially recognized by the government, festering and nearly intractable pockets of civil war with some of the minorities, the Rohingya question unsolved, rural underdevelopment and lack of infrastructure wide-spread, all that makes national elections more than a challenge. The definition of free and fair certainly has to be adapted to the local circumstances.
If the NLD wins a decisive majority, we have to take into account that its uncontested leader Aung San Suu Kyi is still full of fighting spirit but already 70 years old. The constitution does not allow her to be president and the president is head of the government. Details of the constitutional set-up are sobering:   “The Commander-in-Chief appoints the Ministers of Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs, selecting candidates from within the Defence Services (Tatmadaw), while the President appoints the remainder. The President also appoints the Deputy Ministers of the respective ministries, following the same qualifications as those of Union Ministers, with the exception of age (35 years, instead of 40).” Source:Wikipedia, Cabinet of Myanmar.
On this background it may be easy for the military to look good with free-and-fair statements and that they don’t mind if the NLD wins…