Theorising about party systems has kept generations of political scientists busy, and – no surprise – there is still no clear winning theory which system is best. The scholarly debates are influencing the even greater number of journalists and political commentators who try to explain what happens within the governments, coalitions, and political parties. As good and bad examples of political practice develop and erode constantly, the paradigms for theories change as well. The dramatic fallout of the Trump presidency created headlines like “The two-party system is killing our democracy” in the USA, or the increasing fragmentation of the Western European party systems yielded skeptical assessments like “A kaleidoscope of novel political coalitions are taking shape around Europe as old two-party systems crumble.”
Southeast Asia is saddled with a wild mix of most of these problems and more. Two recent developments are worth a debate on the party systems in the region. One is due to the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 in Malaysia, effective since 15 December last year, where four new parties are eying a share of up to 5.8 million first-time voters with many of them supposed to be fed up with the performance and the politicking style of the old parties. While political leaders who have dominated the scene for decades, like Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir Mohamad, Najib Razak, and Lim Kit Siang are slowly fading out of the picture, the bet on younger voters looks reasonable enough. Political Party Forum has already introduced the Parti Kuasa Rakyat, helmed by Mr Kamaruzaman Yaakob, the elder brother of Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob. The second new party is the youth-based Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda), registered by former Cabinet minister Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman. In addition, the multiracial Parti Bangsa Malaysia (PBM) has been set up by two MPs along with a former aide to current federal minister Zuraida Kamaruddin. Parti Warisan Sabah, which previously led the Sabah state government in east Malaysia for two years, has announced that it is expanding to Peninsular Malaysia.
See details in Singapore’s Straits Times HERE
Another case in point is the addition of a new party to the already rather diversified party scene in Thailand by former finance minister Uttama Savanayana. The name and leadership of the party have not yet been revealed but according to Mr. Uttama the registration should be finalized before the end of this month.
For details see the Bangkok Post HERE
Malaysia and Thailand have multi-party systems and changing coalitions among them which are equally confusing for the citizens and observers from outside. Both countries are probably candidates for something like a “Too-many-parties-system”.
The ruling coalition in Kuala Lumpur consists of a leading “sub-coalition”, called Perikatan Nasional or National Alliance, encompassing already five single parties, namely the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (BERSATU), Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), Homeland Solidarity Party (STAR Sabah), Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) and Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (GERAKAN). A second “sub-coalition”, Barisan Nasional, consists of the former ruling party UMNO plus its long-term partners Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), and the United Sabah People’s Party (PBRS), plus the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), the Parti Bangsa Malaysia (PBM), and the Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) as appendix members. With twelve member parties this can be called a world class coalition, only topped in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, and Iraq.
In Thailand, the situation is similar, with the ruling coalition consisting of the following 18 parties: Palang Pracharath, Democrat Party, Bhumjaithai, Chartthaipattana, Action Coalition for Thailand, Chart Pattana, Thai Local Power, Thai Forest Conservation, Thai Nation Power Party, People’s Progressive Party, Thai Civilized Party, Palang Thai Rak Thai Party, Teachers’ for People Party, Prachaniyom Party, Thai People Justice Party, Thai Citizens Power Party, New Democracy Party, New Palangdharma Party.
Coalitions with so many parties are the result of a splintered party landscape and many of the smaller or regional parties contributing only a few elected MPs or only one. They also reveal that the ruling coalition is close to a very slim majority in Parliament and needs every MP to pass its legislation. As in many other and much smaller coalitions worldwide as well, it is difficult to define any ideological cohesion except the determination to govern. What Paul Taylor called “Europe’s Odd Couple Politics”, also known as “strange bedfellows coalitions”, is rather common in Southeast Asia. It does not necessarily delegitimize the democratic system as such but confusing as it is for the voters, it does not strengthen the democracy either. And when it is, as unfortunately rather widespread in the region, saddled with money politics and visible corruption, skepticism and low voter turnout don’t come as a surprise. If politicians, especially former top office holders, are being seen as just fighting to make it back to the spoils of power, they cannot fool the people that they are dying to serve them.