How Many Parties???

Partyforumseasia: The last edition of the British News Magazine “The Economist“, January 14th, runs two articles on the ideal number of parties in a parliament. The first one comes with the headline “More choice is a good thing, but within limits”, the second one focuses on the ever more splintered party landscapes in Europe with the headline “That means better representation but clunkier governance”. (LINK)
econoIn contrast to the widespread proportional systems on the European continent, the UK has had little experience with coalitions (conservatives and LibDems under PM Cameron after 2010 are not a good example). The British First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) majoritarian system is probably no longer reflecting the cleavages in the society, and the successful years of ideological parties like Labour and other Socialists are even more outdated.

Now, what does the number of political parties mean in Southeast Asia? And does it have an impact on good or bad governance?
For a start, here is a comparison of the numbers:







In general, the electoral processes reduce the number of political parties in the parliaments of Southeast Asia but don’t prevent smaller parties or independent candidates to enter. With the maturation of the political systems and the better informed electorate, parties everywhere feel some pressure to accommodate competition and opposition one way or the other.

The “other” way can be seen in Cambodia, where a ruling party under strongman Hun Sen feels threatened by a more united opposition or in Malaysia under similar circumstances. Since the old ways of buying over the voters are not safe enough, the strategy at hand is simply destroying the opposition leaders by physical intimidation and series of dubious lawsuits.

Indonesia has made regulatory efforts to keep the number of parties manageable. In a political culture where leaders, and especially rich ones for that matter, are more important than ideologies or party programs, that is quite an achievement. The enormous flexibility of parties and politicians in this country helps to bridge differences and create sufficient support for the president, who, of course, has jobs and positions to offer in return.

Laos and Vietnam are the remaining Communist one-party-systems, but they are increasingly forced to accommodate dissent for economic reasons. Vietnam is more advanced than Laos, a more open system to observe as paradigm for slowly growing pluralism.

Malaysia has many parties but too many among them are mere component parties, 12 of them are subsidiaries of the dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which is seen by a majority of Malaysians as abusing money politics to stay in power. The ongoing scandal about  vanished billions involving the Prime Minister underlines the suspicions.

Myanmar struggles with her ethnic division and cleavages and is in the beginning of her democratic self-finding process, but the towering popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi has solved the party problem in the parliament by giving her National League for Democracy an absolute  majority of nearly 60%.

The Philippines has a vibrant party scene which does not play a big role, though, because in the presidential system the elected president can count on more than enough party hopping MPs to join him.

Singapore is an interesting case insofar as founding a party is relatively easy, but winning a seat in parliament is rather difficult. Decades of a dominant People’s Action Party (PAP) rule with good results for most citizens have left little space for opposition parties which have no chance to prove that they have administrative skills. Since only the Worker’s Party has made it into the parliament, the PAP-government has introduced a pseudo or ersatz opposition in the form of “nominated MPs” to enrich the debates, and “Non-constituency MPs” as consolation prize for the best losers among opposition candidates.

Thailand has not yet found her balance between democratic aspirations, traditional money politics and military interventionism. Many doubt that the coming new constitution, supervised by the army, will bring at last political stability to the country.

Comparing the increasing fragmentation of the European party scenes with the situation in Southeast Asia yields rather ambivalent assessments:

1. Voter turnout higher in representative systems? The level of politicization and polarization, as well as parties or candidates seem to be more important.

2. Big parties more disciplined than coalitions? Depends probably more on leadership and availability of lucrative positions and funding.

3. Splintering can foster graft? No difference between one-party systems and coalitions, the Southeast Asian way of mixing politics and business is too conducive to corruption.

4. Coalition governments more expensive because they have more mouths to feed? In Malaysia certainly, but all governments have to stay in power and pay to satisfy their clientele.

5. Strange bedfellows in coalitions? Sure, but bigger parties are anything but close to homogeneous.

6. Party membership on the decline? That depends very much on what membership can offer. 3 1/2 million members in Malaysia’s UMNO alone show that members join if they can expect rewards.

7. New policies need new parties to champion them? Not really a successful model in Southeast Asia. New parties normally cannot promise much and deliver even less.

Conclusion: There is not much to learn from European party concepts in Southeast Asia where they were adopted only superficially. Level playing fields are rare and voters are realistically going for governments who can be expected to deliver more.

Ideologies and party programs have lost their appeal in Europe but were never important in Southeast Asia.

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