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Frogs Out – Malaysia Bans Party Hopping


Don’t you dare hopping over to another party!

Partyforumseasia: Party hopping banned at last in Malaysia! Reforms of parliamentary rules tend to be especially difficult because they can be game changers, and for laws and rules we know by experience that not all results and consequences can be foreseen. They may influence the power structure within the house and give advantages to one of the factions, even to the opposition, which the majority group would, of course, try to prevent. On 28 July, the Malaysian parliament passed a landmark law which will ban the all-too-common habit of MPs to switch party, challenge the power balance or even change the government. The law is called Anti-Party-Hopping Law (AHL) and will prevent party and aisle switching in future. It was passed unanimously by the 209 attending members and praised by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob as “a law to ensure continuous and lasting political stability”. Since 2018, the party hopping of 39 MPs, called “frogs” in the media and by the voters, had toppled the first coalition government under veteran Prime Minister Mahathir in 2020 and endangered the two subsequent governments with their fragile majority, political instability has always threatened the paper thin majority of the coalitions in power. (See our post from September 2020 on Malaysia’s “Katak”-Parliament (Katak meaning frog in Malay): Malaysia’s “Katak” Parliament | Political Party Forum Southeast Asia (partyforumseasia.org) With the rare unanimity, the legislation was passed via a series of constitutional amendments, instead of a new Parliamentary Act. It is noteworthy, though, that the consensus was due to the confidence-and-supply agreement (CSA) between government and opposition for upholding the governability of the country and prevent the premature dissolution of parliament and snap elections. According to the AHL, the “frogs” lose their seat, except MPs who are fired by their party, but en bloc defections are still possible, a tribute to the required consensus in the highly fragmented party landscape in Malaysia. An additional factor was the looming early election, due only in September 2023, which might bring UMNO back to power.

Are there any lessons to be learned from this remarkable effort to prevent party hopping in Malaysia? The first, we suggest, is the danger of instability in more and more fragmented party systems. It is a widespread development worldwide, especially in many countries in Europe. Due to electoral fairness, even not so serious small parties like “Flying Yogis” or “Motorist Parties” are registered and even co-funded with taxpayers’ money if they reach a certain percentage of votes. Traditionally dominant mass parties have lost their positions and are far from a chance to win an absolute majority like in the old days. Malaysia is a special case because of the ethnic mix of the population and race-based electoral politics which created ethnically oriented parties for more than half a century. This leads to the second lesson, the blatant lack of ideological or programmatic distinction between the competing parties. Consequently, the electability depends at the end on the attractiveness of the candidates and, even more decisive, the magnitude of their campaign budgets, which in many countries in Southeast Asia predetermine election success. The third lesson, regional but very typical in Malaysia, is the prominent role of money politics. If a seat in parliament or a leadership role in the party is also a passport to lucrative deals in government-owned companies, the monetary aspect of a candidacy becomes the dominant motive and the common weal of the country and service to the citizens, against all campaign promises, may be secondary or even less. Especially if party hopping is being rewarded by the receiving party with financial compensation, the purpose of political activity is being perverted.
With the multitude of the ongoing challenges, from pandemics, economic and trade disruption to military threats, one can only wish Malaysia more political stability.

Malaysia’s party landscape:

“Family Values” in Thailand – The Shinawatra Dynasty again?


Partyforumseasia: Nearly forty years ago, the Asian values debate confronted liberal democratic values, often perceived as “Western”, with supposedly authoritarian and restrictive Asian views on society and political participation. What Western observers and scholars often missed, especially for Southeast Asia, was the governability problem in the complex multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious societies. Thus, the debate was hardly a dialogue leading to better mutual understanding but was perceived in Asia much more as a sort of missionary endeavour by Americans and Western Europeans. Maybe the politically most irrelevant confrontation was on “family values”, whereby the lack of them in permissive and promiscuous Western societies was declared as undesirable in Asia, despite quite a long list of less responsible and rather debatable traditions concerning the role of women. The value debate has fizzled out in the 1990s already, though for a special variety of “values”, namely the formation of political dynasties, there should be more debate than the usual smirk in the media comments.

After the “rising sons” in Cambodia and the Philippines, Hun Manet and Ferdinand Marcos Jun., there seems to be a “rising daughter” in Thailand. Paetongtarn Shinawatra (35) is the youngest daughter of Thaksin Shinawatra who was Prime Minister from 2001 to 2006. His domestic policies and reforms were mainly successful, especially in poverty alleviation and infrastructure development, but controversial for the military-monarchist elite. This led to Thaksin’s ouster by a military coup in 2006, and later to the ouster of his sister Yingluck, who was Prime Minister from 2011 to 2014. The political vehicle for brother and sister Shinawatra was the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party, which first brought Thaksin to power. In the 2006 election, Thaksin won 460 of the 500 parliamentary seats, which led to the military coup and the dissolution of the party by a Constitutional Tribunal. The People’s Power Party (PPP) became the de facto reincarnation of the TRT but was also banned in 2008. Yingluck’s vehicle to power was the next reincarnation, the Pheu Thai Party, which is today the biggest faction in Thailand’s parliament. Now the next Thaksin generation, Paetongtarn, marketing herself as “Thaksin’s little girl”, will probably be nominated as PM candidate by the Pheu Thai Party, trying to cash in on the consistently high popularity of her father. The party’s strongholds are still in rural and poor areas, especially in the Northeast, where millions of ethnically Laotian Thai citizens resent the contempt of the true Thais and the gap in development and infrastructure. As Thaksin’s little girl, Paetongtarn has a big advantage there for the 2023 elections. In an indirect attack on the increasingly unpopular and economically unsuccessful Prime Minister, General Prayut, she recently showed her ambition in an interview with AFP, saying “We can transform Thailand from a country that is riddled with debt, filled with misery, with no future in sight, into a country filled with opportunity and hope for us and future generations.” In a recent poll, she led the race for PM with 25.28% before PM Prayut Chan-ocha with 11.68 on third place. Politically, and in terms of votes, Paetongtarn and the Pheu Thai Party could win, but the formal hurdles are high. A victory in the Parliament, according to the rules established by the military coalition, would not be enough. As in the 2019 election, the handpicked military-loyal Senate could allow a coalition of losers to form the next government.

Transborder Party Contacts in Southeast Asia


Partyforumseasia: In Europe, there are regular contacts between political parties, usually along the ideological lines in the so called political families, like conservatives, liberals, social democrats, and greens. In the European parliament they form groupings and try to coordinate political initiatives. In Southeast Asia there is only one political family group active over the last 29 years. Members are the Democrat Party of Thailand, the Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan, the Liberal Party of the Philippines, the  Singapore Democratic Party, the Liberal Party of  Sri Lanka, the Cambodia National Rescue Party ,the Civil Will Green Party of Mongolia, the Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia, the Indonesia Democratic Party Struggle (PDI-P), and the Liberal Forum Pakistan is an associate member. The National League for Democracy of Myanmar, the National Awakening Party of Indonesia, and the Democratic Party of Japan are observer parties.

On this background, the following article from the fulcrum series of the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute about the recent cross-border activities of the Chinese CCP is very interesting.

China’s Pragmatic Party Diplomacy in Southeast Asia PUBLISHED 22 JUN 2022

WANG ZHENG

The Chinese Communist Party’s outreach to political parties in Southeast Asia, regardless of ideology, underscores the pragmatism in President Xi Jinping’s plan for regional influence.

The recent return of ideology to China’s domestic politics and Beijing’s increasing confidence in the Chinese model of politics have elicited growing attention to how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) conducts its outreach abroad. Given Southeast Asia’s critical role in China’s neighbourhood diplomacy, party-to-party exchanges have featured prominently in Beijing’s approach towards the region, especially since President Xi Jinping assumed power. The CCP has engaged with political parties in Southeast Asia through high-level conferences and summits, seminars and forums, and training sessions. The growing prominence of China’s party diplomacy in the region begs the question of whether it is driven by ideological zeal — harking back to its export of communist revolutionary ideology to Southeast Asia in the 1950s-1970s — or pragmatism.

Due to the blurred line between party and state under China’s one-party system, the International Liaison Department (ILD) of the CCP, founded in 1951, complements the role of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in managing China’s external affairs. China’s party diplomacy is considered an indispensable component of President Xi’s Major Country Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics plan.

On its part, the ILD claims to have connections with over 600 political parties and organisations from more than 160 countries and regions. According to its website, in the past two years, the CCP has sought to strengthen its fraternity with the communist parties of Vietnam and Laos, and to forge ties with non-communist secular and religious parties across Southeast Asia despite the Covid-19 pandemic (see Table 1). The authoritarian turn in politics in Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines over the past decade provided a golden opportunity for the CCP to enhance ties with their ruling parties, which helped China to further consolidate its political and economic influence in the region. Yet China continues to maintain relations with parties in most Southeast Asian countries, reflecting its pragmatic approach to party diplomacy, which is aimed at ‘transcending differences in ideology and political systems’ and ‘building a global political party partnership network.’

Table 1: CCP’s Contacts with Political Party by Country, January 2020 to May 2022

Source: Website of the International Liaison Department (ILD), https://www.idcpc.org.cn/english/

The pragmatism of China’s party diplomacy is also manifest in the key messages it conveys to Southeast Asian political parties. First, instead of preaching communist doctrine, China promotes its governance experience in party building, economic development, pandemic prevention and poverty alleviation. These were attributed to the strong leadership of the CCP with President Xi as its core. The ILD has introduced Xi Jinping: The Governance of China — a collection of Xi’s speeches and writings on state governance — in its meetings with Southeast Asian leaders, launching vernacular versions of Xi’s book in Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. China’s Xinhua News Agency touted that the book launch drew ‘scores of readers from the Senate, the National Assembly and all ministries’ in Cambodia. Nop Kuch, head of the Cambodian Senate’s Human Resources Development Department, said that learning about China’s experience would enable Cambodia to synthesise its development strategy with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Thailand’s prime minister General Prayut Chan-ocha is also reported to have asked his cabinet to read the book.

Second, the CCP regards its interactions with political parties in Southeast Asia as a crucial channel for promoting its economic agenda, especially the BRI. Between January 2020 and May 2022, the CCP established BRI Political Parties Joint Consultation Mechanisms with parties in Indonesiathe Philippines, and Thailand; and convened the BRI Joint Consultation Conference to engage parties in South Asian and Southeast Asian countries collectively. What is the added value of these consultation mechanisms? The CCP’s understanding of the difference between ‘state diplomacy’ and ‘party diplomacy’ means that while governments must abide by diplomatic protocols in state-to-state exchanges, inter-party contacts are not constrained by such protocols and are more flexible. Establishing such mechanisms thus allows the CCP to promote normative aspects of the BRI such as open regionalism, multilateralism, developmentalism and win-win cooperation.

Particularly for illiberal leaders who have engineered democratic backsliding in their own countries and have incurred criticism from Western governments, the CCP’s diplomatic and economic support could provide resources for political survival.

Third, the CCP has sought to rally moral support from Southeast Asia to buffer itself against Western criticisms of China’s handling of sensitive political issues such as Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Covid-19 origin-tracing. Portraying China as friendly and benign, the CCP has criticised Western narratives as groundless ‘accusations’ that discredit China’s achievements and interfere with China’s internal affairs. The ILD’s coverage of meetings with political parties in Cambodia and the Philippines underscored the latter’s firm support of China’s stance on these issues. From China’s perspective, such moves serve to cement its solidarity with Southeast Asian political parties and enhance its reputation.

China’s governance model, rooted in the one-party system, is certainly not an attractive example for all the Southeast Asian nation-states. However, the CCP’s success in tightening its political grip through party-building and digital surveillance, while alleviating poverty and achieving economic growth, likely holds significant appeal for some regimes which are eager to entrench their political control while stirring economic recovery post-pandemic. Particularly for illiberal leaders who have engineered democratic backsliding in their own countries and have incurred criticism from Western governments, the CCP’s diplomatic and economic support could provide resources for political survival. Ultimately, the efficacy of China’s party diplomacy in Southeast Asia is contingent on the tangible benefits it can deliver. 2022/186

LINK: https://fulcrum.sg/chinas-pragmatic-party-diplomacy-in-southeast-asia/?fbclid=IwAR1gHaMqDUZE8eXWnx8cSyVTCSLNUWrX2nDXoCBZkRmuz_5Nhjbni7rrVXM

Dynastic Succession, New Opposition in Cambodia and the Upcoming Commune Elections


Partyforumseasia: The recent accession of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to the presidency of the Philippines, 36 years after his father was ousted, did not come as a surprise to many in the country and to their friends abroad. It had been prepared since the return of the clan from exile in 1991, and it had been planned with political skills and lots of money, obviously remaining from the billions plundered by the late dictator.

Another dynastic succession is in the making, so far without much attention from the international media. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is in power for 37 years by now, has been grooming his son Hun Manet for the succession for many years already. The 44-year-old is the eldest son and lieutenant general as well as commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces since 2018. Western educated at Westpoint and Bristol University, he is also a member of the Standing Committee of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the party’s top decision-making body, and the head of its youth wing. Already in December 2021, the Central Committee of the CPP has unanimously voted for Hun Manet to be the candidate for the next prime minister. The succession is somewhat on the backburner, though, since his father Hun Sen wants to run for another term in the 2023 election and let his son take over the chairmanship of the party first.

Even though most Cambodians have got used to the idea of dynastic succession, it did not come as a surprise that senior opposition leader Sam Rainsy criticised it from his exile in France immediately after the Central Committee decision as “clan-based succession” with the danger that other CPP leaders would follow suit with their own children.

As the saying goes, there is no smoke without fire. The somewhat suspicious smoke is that on 30 May, the CPP spokesman Sok Eysan felt it necessary to defend the succession decision as democratic and the good right of the party. He added that successions in other countries have not been uncommon as well, the Bush father and son in the USA, the Prime Minister of Japan, Nobusuke Kishi, and his grandson Shinzo Abe in Japan, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Singapore.  Prime Minister Hun Sen himself spoke about the career of his son in the Nikkei Future of Asia Conference two weeks ago. The Khmer Times (31 May) quotes him as saying to journalists: “There is nothing illegal because I taught my children not to become thieves. Who does not want to see their children succeed, get rich and want them to become a country leader?” The three words, thieves and get rich, especially in the regional context, sound somewhat bizarre, since the Hun family is well known for a number of successful investments.

So, why did they feel compelled to comment just now? The answer is simple, on 5 June there will be communal elections and the CPP is probably not too sure that it will have a clean sweep, despite its control of Cambodia’s 1,652 communes, which was well engineered. In the 2017 elections, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) had won 40 per cent of the communes, and it took a Supreme Court mandated dissolution of the party to regain control and take over all the mandates. What has developed during the last six months is a rebirth of the opposition under the name of Candlelight Party with many members and leaders from the former CNRP. The burning candle was already the logo when Sam Rainsy founded the Khmer Nation Party in 1995, which was renamed as Sam Rainsy Party three years later, and the candle was used as well after the merger with the Human Rights Party as CNRP. Obviously, the reborn opposition has attracted young and low-income voters with a balanced social program and promises to protect Cambodians against forced evictions at the hands of real estate, mining, or agricultural corporations. This is a real fear of many Cambodians and it was the special concern of the Human Rights Party and its former chairman Kem Sokha, who is still being silenced by a prolonged lawsuit for alleged treason and attempts to topple the government. Kem Sokha’s daughter, Kem Monovithya, is not too happy with the Candlelight Party, saying that it plays into the hands of the CPP. The results of the election next week will show how strong the opposition party really is.

The Marcos Clan:  Back to power after 36 years


An electoral triumph with a professional social media campaign

For the late dictator’s wife, Imelda Marcos (92), her eldest son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the new president of the Philippines, is close to a reincarnation of her husband. In an interview in 1991, when she and her children were allowed to come back to Manila from their exile in Hawaii, she said: “He sounds like his father. I listen to Bongbong, it’s eerie. Like Ferdinand was there. Even in his mannerisms. His voice. His movements. His hand movements.  When he walks. I surely feel Ferdinand the First was born again in Ferdinand the Second.” (Asia Times)

For the generation of Philippinos which ousted Marcos the First in 1986, the feelings of Imelda might be very similar or even the same, only negative and bitter. After the triumph of the people power movement and the widespread euphoria for freedom and democracy, the return to power of the Marcos clan and the resounding victory of Ferdinand the Second, nicknamed Bongbong, must be more than disappointing. Already disappointed with the last few presidents, they fear the worst for the struggling democracy. The triumph with 31 million votes, more than double of challenger Leni Robredo, the outgoing vice-president, was not a surprise, though, because the pollsters were quite accurate this time and had predicted the victory long before election day. There are as usual, allegations of election irregularities but in terms of organisation, counting, and transmission of the local results to Manila, which were outsourced to a private logistics company, the election commission (COMELEC) fares better than the regional average, especially in view of the difficult geography of the archipelago and the social conditions of the poor parts of the population. However, what happens on the ground in constituencies dominated by political families and their influence on “their” voters is a different story. Families and family clans dominate the political scene in many ways, in the regions often enough with private armies, and on the national level with money. Many of the billions plundered by the new president’s late father are still at large, and the protection of these treasures, according to many commentators, will be a central task of Ferdinand the Second in the coming six years. But the extended clan is in a good position. Apart from Ferdinand, eight of his relatives, six Marcoses and two Romualdez, the Imelda clan, have been elected to different positions, while his sister Imee is already a senator. And the cooperation with the clan of outgoing president Duterte, via the latter’s daughter, vice-president elect Sara Duterte-Carpio, is as useful for Marcos as it reflects the importance of family ties and clan structures in the country’s politics.

Bongbong Marcos has been nominated by the Partido Federal ng Pilipinas (PFP or Federal Party of the Philippines), one of the younger political parties in the country. Founded in 2018 by supporters of President Duterte, its membership is supposed to be around 1.5 million. As in most countries in the region, the membership of political parties is rather informal in the Philippines, it comes without or with only nominal membership fees and obligations. Do parliamentary or presidential candidates need a political party? That is probably the wrong question, because in all too many situations it works the other way round. The party needs attractive and electable candidates, especially those with deep pockets, and for this crucial quality Ferdinand Bongbong was the ideal candidate. The Marcos family is still being hounded by pending court cases, including outstanding estate taxes, a corruption conviction of mother Imelda, pending on appeal since 2018, and the compensation claims of thousands of victims of the atrocities under martial law during the rule of Ferdinand the First. His son had more than enough money to invest in a sophisticated campaign in the social networks, effectively targeting the younger generations who have no memory of the Marcos dictatorship. With the help of hired influencers and lots of false information the Marcos campaign came up with effective counter-narrative for any accusation and convinced a majority that the son has nothing to do with the sins of his father. One survey found that 72% of voters between 18 and 24 have supported Marcos. But apart from jobs and price control, the main election promise, to unify the country, seems a lot more illusive than realistic. The economic and social fault lines in the country would be a challenge which few would expect the new president to overcome.

Faithful, Forgetful, Forgiving? The Voter Enigma in Malaysia and the Philippines


If you ask politicians to assess the voters, the answers, of course, depend on whether they lose or win an election. And the losers, of course, may use much more negative labels for the voters who did not appreciate their promises and their selfless work for the country. That is universal in competitive electoral systems. Aggravating the problem are two widespread developments over the last few decades, the lackluster results of polling agencies in assessing the real strength of parties and predicting election outcomes, and the confusingly growing numbers of competing parties, even in first-past-the-post systems.

Two events in Southeast Asia, a by-election in Malaysia’s Johor state on 12 March and the upcoming presidential election in the Philippines on 9 May, are interesting case studies and may be good illustrations for the often fickle and probably contagious mood changes in the electorate.   

The Malaysian case is a remarkable example for at least two phenomena. One is the survival instinct of a political party after losing power, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and the other is that an ousted political leader, former Prime Minister Najib Razak, can politically survive and attract voter support even after being convicted of corruption.

UMNO had been continuously in power from 1957 till its surprise defeat in the 2018 general election. With an impressive organizational machinery, as the champion for the rights and privileges of the Malay majority, some tricky gerrymandering in its rural vote banks with predominantly Malay voters, and with a close grip on the state coffers, UMNO was the epitome of a dominant party. This collapsed in 2018 with a financial scandal of epic dimensions when the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund collapsed like a house of cards after billions of dollars had disappeared, substantial parts of them in the private accounts of party chief and Prime Minister Najib Razak. In 2020, he was convicted to a jail term of 12 years but is still out on bail pending his appeal. While most people thought that his political career had ended, Najib has managed in the meantime to work tirelessly for his comeback. And the comeback, as some observers have noted, might help him to defang the pending lawsuits and save him from prison.

His party, UMNO, traditionally based on extensive networks oiled with money even long before the 1MDB scandal, did not waste much time licking its wounds. It managed to overcome the divisions of leadership infighting after the shock defeat, eventually join the ruling government coalition, and, in August 2021, even install their vice-president Ismail as Prime Minister. The upbeat mood of UMNO is based on two triumphant state election wins, end of 2021 in Malacca and just recently in Johor. In both campaigns, convicted former PM Najib was most actively involved and pulling huge crowds. This seems to prove that his support on the ground is surviving despite the odds of the financial scandal and the negative image created by revelations about his and his wife’s extravagant lifestyle with lavish spending on property and luxury paraphernalia. As Dr Serena Rahman from the Yusof Ishak Institute of Southeast Asian Studies explains at Channelnewsasia (Link):

Najib Razak has successfully reinvented himself”.   

The variations in assessing the voters of UMNO and Najib are easy to guess. They range from faithful, reliable, and intelligent in the UMNO camp to all imaginable negative connotations among the losers. Now UMNO, no surprise, is urging the Prime Minister and the cabinet to plan for snap elections at the earliest convenience. It may bring UMNO and the associated minor parties back from the paper thin and precarious balance in parliament back to a comfortable majority.


The Filipino Case is similar in a way but rather different. When the world was observing how a popular movement, dubbed the Edsa-Revolution, was toppling the country’s long term dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, nobody could imagine that his son, Ferdinand Marcos Junior, could ever run for President after the clan fled to Hawaii. The estimated 5-10 billion $ which Marcos and his wife Imelda had pilfered, and of most of which the whereabouts are still unknown today, seemed to make a return to power of the family unthinkable. In the widespread narrative of the Third Wave of Democratization of the era, the revolution was interpreted as the irrevocable triumph of democracy in a predominantly authoritarian Southeast Asian region.


Enough voters remained loyal to the Marcos clan, though, when they returned during the 1990s. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., nicknamed Bongbong, was elected as a member of Parliament (2007-2010), succeeded by his mother Imelda (2010-2019), and as a Senator (2010-2016). In 2016, he narrowly lost the vice-presidential race against Leni Robredo who is now running for President. Bongbong may be her nemesis this time, because his running mate as vice-president is the popular daughter of the outgoing President, Sara Duterte-Carpio. In practically all opinion polls the Marcos-Duterte team is far ahead of Leni Robredo (60% for Marcos and 15% for Robredo), heading for a landslide victory – unless Bongbong is disqualified. Though his father died in 1989, the inheritance is not yet settled and the taxes due on the father’s estate are said to be piling up to stunning amounts. Bongbong calls that fake news, and his lawyer says that the tax payment has been delayed because of an agreement about the search of the disappeared billions. Petitions to the country’s election commission, COMELEC, to bar Marcos from running because of his tax problems, have been dismissed so far as “not a crime involving moral turpitude” but more petitions are pending. The race may end as a duel between Marcos and Robredo, while the 95 other candidates, among them the popular boxer Manni Pacquaio, won’t have a serious chance. In the Constitution of 1987, the election applies the first-past-the-post system with a simple majority, so the candidate with the highest number of votes wins. The election is more complex than in most other countries because on top of president, vice-president, and senators, there are also local mayors, vice-mayors, and councillors up for grabs. More than half of the population is registered for the election, among them 4.5 million new voters and 1.6 million overseas Filipinos. In the 2016 elections, the COMELEC has managed to organise the logistically difficult geography (7000 islands) with an electronic counting and transmission system better than some much richer countries.

The possible return to office and power of “impossible” political figures like Najib and Bongbong Marcos might seduce outside observers to believe in authoritarian undercurrents in Southeast Asia. They can easily be cured with the shortest list of authoritarian leaders worldwide. The likes of Berlusconi, Orban, Erdogan, Putin, and Trump are everywhere, not to speak of Africa and Latin America.  

Southeast Asia’s Biggest Democracy


Partyforumseasia: An excellent and timely analysis by John McBeth

A subversive game of thrones in Indonesia

Politically powerful forces are aligning to push for President Joko Widodo to stay on beyond his 2024 two-term limit By JOHN MCBETH MARCH 7, 2022

JAKARTA – With popular President Joko Widodo staying mostly silent, powerful political figures around him appear to be persisting in their efforts to extend his term beyond scheduled elections in 2024, despite one recent poll showing the majority of Indonesian voters are dead set against it.

A recent poll by Lembaga Survei Indonesia (LSI) saw more than 70% of respondents reject a term extension, yet another signal to the country’s political elite that Indonesians would regard such a move as a significant setback for democracy.

Some critics have gone beyond that, with commentator Endy Bayuni warning that “dangerously subversive” minds were behind the move, which arose as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic setting back a second-term agenda that would have capped Widodo’s legacy.

See the whole article here: https://asiatimes.com/2022/03/a-subversive-game-of-thrones-in-indonesia/

Multi-Party-Systems and Too-Many-Party-Systems


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.

The New People’s Power Party in Malaysia: Cui bono?



Malaysia’s political landscape is volatile enough and the parliamentary majority of the ruling coalition under Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob is wafer thin at best. A truce agreement with the opposition is due to the Covid-related problems which are affecting the Malaysian economy and result in sufferings of large groups of the population.

Parti Kuasa Rakyat, in short Kuasa or People’s Power Party, was launched on 10 October 2021, chaired by Kamarazaman Yaakob, a former member of the Parti Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia who happens to be the elder brother of Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob.
In the actual parliamentary cliff-hanger situation, the formation of a new party invites questions about the intentions of the founders and what they expect to change and what their target groups are. The two millennia-old classical Latin form of this question is cui bono?, or to whom is it a benefit? in English. It was used by top lawyers like Cicero to identify the possible motives of crime suspects. Now, setting up a political party is not a crime at all, but the founders must expect that their motives will be scrutinized by the political competitors and political observers.

An analysis published by the Malay Mail on 13th October sums it up in the headline ‘Left-leaning’ but govt-friendly, pundits predict new party Kuasa to split urban Malay votes from Pakatan. Chairman Kamarazaman claims that the new party will be friendly to the government, but insisted that it has no links to Prime Minister Ismail Sabri and the ruling UMNO. Political observers interviewed by Malay Mail see its role as more divisive, as vote-splitters in favor of the ruling coalition and viable alternative for opposition voters. Political science professor Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid from the Universiti Sains Malaysia, thinks that Kuasa is an attempt to snatch urban middle-class Malay votes away from the opposition and expose the latter as ultimately a coalition dominated by non-Malays. Setting up a splitting-party is not illegal. Its purpose, though, will be judged depending on the political standpoint of the observer. It will be seen as a dirty trick by the losing target group and on the other side as a fabulous strategy. That is political contestation and common in competitive party systems.

See the Malay Mail article here



The “Frogs” of Southeast Asia


Partyforumseasia:

Frogs for 32 million Ringgit Malaysia ( 7.5 m USD or 6.4 m Euros ) ?

Apart from the diminutive of frog, froggy in the English language is an ethnic slur against the French. But frog meat is not only popular in France, it is a delicacy all over Asia. And in Southeast Asia, especially in Malaysia, it is also a widespread name, not a compliment, though, for opportunistic politicians who jump from one political party to the other. Since few parties here have a distinctive program or ideology, this special political flexibility is rather widespread. But it is not that easy to explain it to the voters who suspect that there are financial considerations behind such a move.

The wafer thin parliamentary majority of the Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has been questioned from the beginning of his term which in turn encouraged the opponents of his premiership outside and even inside his coalition. The biggest faction of this coalition has been the former long-term ruling party UMNO, the United Malays National Organization, and threats to leave it and thereby force the Prime Minister to step down are going on for a while already. Party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi thought the time was ripe when he announced the withdrawal of eleven UMNO MPs earlier this week. But the situation remains unclear because his grip on the party discipline looks as shaky as never before, and Muhyiddin managed to convince the King that a confidence vote should be postponed to September. Time enough for many Malaysian observers to allow him to buy over enough members of parliament for the maintenance of his majority.

And here comes a rather interesting and intriguing contribution from a man who probably knows best how to buy over parliamentarians, Zahid Hamidi, the experienced UMNO leader. It is not that much the fact that financial transactions are part of the frogging procedure but the price tag suggested by Zahid. In a Facebook post he describes the per kg price range of different meats in the Malaysian marketplace as follows:

  • Chicken 7 RM (Ringgit Malaysia)
  • Goat 35 RM
  • Beef 32 RM
  • Frog 32 million RM

UMNO was for decades a master of money politics where even support for internal leadership positions had to be “facilitated” with cash on hand. Publishing the putative price tag for frog meat this way on Facebook can be seen as a blow to Muhyiddin, but for a man who is facing a long list of corruption charges like Zahid is is quite daring on top.

Malaysia’s Covid and Political Crisis


Partyforumseasia:

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (left) meeting Malaysia’s King, Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah, last November. PHOTO: ISTANA NEGARA, MALAYSIA

When Muhyiddin Yassin, a 74-year-old veteran politician from Johor, took over the prime ministership from Dr. Mahathir Mohamad on 1 March 2020, he started with a double burden and both being rather challenging. The Covid-19 pandemic had already reached Malaysia and has since increased dramatically. According to a Nikkei survey, published 7 July, the country ranks 114 out of 120 surveyed nations in terms of infection management and vaccine rollout. In the regional comparison only Thailand trails Malaysia as no. 118.

The direct political handicap for Muhyiddin is similarly challenging. He was not elected by parliament but nominated after the King conducted interviews with all MPs to gauge the candidate’s parliamentary support. As the parliament is more divided than ever, the legitimacy of Muhyiddin and his fragile Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance) coalition has constantly been questioned. As if the Prime Minister was not sure about that himself, he has avoided a formal vote so far, using the Covid crisis as a suitable justification. This break without the 222 member parliament sitting at all is ending right now. The King is urging Muhyiddin to reconvene the parliament which is now likely to happen on 26 July.

The Prime Minister’s tenure and his political survival skills may come to an end after that. On 8 July, the former long-term ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has announced that it will no longer support Muhyiddin. His shortcomings of the handling of the Covid crisis is the upfront argument. With 38 MPs, UMNO can easily topple the Prime Minister, though it is not clear so far how many of its parliamentarians will follow the leadership of party president Zahid Hamidi. Zahid, after Umno was voted out of power in May 2018, is himself under heavy pressure and no longer the power center beside former Prime Minister Najib Razak. Both are political animals of sorts, but they are both facing long lists of corruption charges. Surprisingly enough they are still out of jail.

UMNO seems to be going the way which other older political parties in the region have experienced before. After being for decades one of the richest parties in the world, behind, if not even richer than the Guomindang (KMT) of Taiwan, the 1MDB scandal has exposed the dubious financial tricks of the party and discredited its internal and external money politics. Even if the funding of political parties is predominantly dubious in Southeast Asia, UMNO under Najib Razak has exaggerated it. The well known fact that already relatively moderate leadership positions in UMNO had to be bought by the candidates with payments to the respective electors has made it necessary for the winners to recoup their expenditure within the system and finally at a loss for the taxpayers. Together with a gerrymandering scheme, biased in favor of the conservative rural areas, the grip on funds had cemented the dominance of the party for decades – until May 2018. With the fractious format since then it is not very probable that they can be expected back on top.

The Myanmar Impasse


Partyforumseasia: While most of the international media give the impression that there is a way to democracy by supporting the opposition and the demonstrators, the bloodshed continues. Bilahari Kausikan, a retired top diplomat from Singapore, has a more sober and probably more realistic view of the impasse. We publish here an interview he just granted to our partner organization Global Review from Germany:

Global Review had the honor to have an interview with Bilahari Kausikan about Myanmar and Asia. Bilahari Kausikan is currently Chairman of the Middle East Institute, an autonomous institute of the National University of Singapore. He has spent his entire career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During his 37 years in the Ministry, he served in a variety of appointments at home and abroad, including as Ambassador to the Russian Federation, Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, and as the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry. Raffles Institution, the University of Singapore and Columbia University in New York all attempted to educate him.

Global Review: Mr. Kausikan, you claim that the West approached Myanmar through a misplaced sense of moral superiority, rather than through strategic calculation ad that an accurate appreciation of the strategic context must be the basis of policy goalsWhat do you think are the strategic interests of the West, if there is one West? Is the Sino-American conflict the strategic context alone?

Bilahari Kausikan: US-China relations are the core issue in contemporary international relations and no issue is more important.By ‘West” I mean the US and its Asian allies and partners – Japan, Australia, South Korea, India and some ASEAN member states and some European states, primarily France and the UK.  Germany is inching in that direction too but is not yet there.

The EU as EU is too strategically incoherent to play any meaningful role in Asia or Myanmar. I think what you are hinting at is that standing up for values is also a strategic interest. I don’t entirely disagree, but any strategy must be informed by a sense of priority and that sense of prioritization is missing from the EU. If the EU stresses values, it is because it is incapable of agreeing on anything else as far as Asia is concerned – on Myanmar the EU only wants to feel good and look good because it is incapable of doing any good.

By the way,  why do you insist on insistence on using ‘Burma’ to refer to Myanmar?  That is a perfect illustration of the European attitude. The United Nations recognises the official name of the country as The Republic of the Union of Myanmar. To pretend otherwise, is only to give yourself a warm feeling of being virtuous without achieving anything. It impresses no one but yourself.

Global Review: You think that the goal should be restoration of some form or semblance of civilian and constitutional rule which  is not the same thing as the restoration of ‘democracy’.However, the Burmese opposition rejects the 2008 constitution, demands the return of Aung San Suu Kyi to power and democracy, while the Burmese military doesn´t want that or even the status quo ante. How could such a civilian or constitutional rule look like? Are the Burmese militaries thinking about the Thai option, that a general becomes a civilian president?

Bilahari Kausikan: The Burmese opposition better grow up and accept the bitter reality that bravery is not enough; Idealism is not enough.

 The Tatmadaw is a central reality that must be part of any solution. I think after the Tatmadaw is absolutely certain that they have politically neutered Aung San Suu Kyi, they will have some form of elections under the constitution they drafted, perhaps with additional safeguards for its own position – something like the Thai option but not identical to it – the Tatmadaw’s role will be clearer than the military’s role is in Thailand. It is not a subtle institution.

The sooner the opposition and everybody else recognises that there is no solution that goes against the Tatmadaw’s interests the better. It is cruelly irresponsible to give the opposition false hope by allowing them to believe that anyone is going to intervene in Myanmar on their behalf to fight the Tatmadaw and put Aung San Suu Kyi back into power. That is only going to prolong the killings.

And the long-term damage to the economy will be disastrous. The economy has already reached a state of near collapse. The Tatmadaw has no understanding of how to run the economy. The protestors have no understanding of the damage they are doing for a futile cause either.  Its truly a tragic situation.  Between the two of them, the Myanmar economy is going to take many years – perhaps decades — to recover and while demonstrators being shot down in the streets is horrific, the long-term impact in terms of malnutrition, increased infant mortality, disease and all the consequences of economic collapse, may well be worse. This is yet another reason to try to stabilize the situation as quickly as possible, even at the cost of accepting a less than idea and morally ambiguous accommodation with the Tatmadaw.

Global Review: Parts of the opposition call for a revolution, even for  a people´s army and armed struggle. Do you think this realistic? Is the Burmese military such a monolithic bloc or do you think it could disintegrate? However, you think that such a scenario could lead to the disintegration of Myanmar, even a new Syria and failed state in South East Asia. How big is the danger that things will develop like that? Would China or other foreign powers intervene to restore stability or fight a proxy war?

Bilahari Kausikan: I think those parts of the opposition that think so should be disabused of that delusion as soon as possible.  The Tatmadaw is incompetent at governance but it is a formidable fighting force and if the opposition takes up arms against it, they will massacred. All an armed struggle will achieve is to prolong instability and make it more difficult to reach any sort of resolution.

I don’t think it is very probable that the Tatmadaw will split, fortunately so because but if it splits, the danger of Myanmar fragmenting as the armed ethnic groups try to take advantage of the situation. There will be a bloody and confused internal conflict.

I don’t think China or any of Myanmar’s neighbours will intervene. Intervention cannot be surgical or limited in time. If you intervene, you’ll have to stay engaged, probably for decades, to try and stabilize the situation. After the examples of Iraq, Syria and Libya who is daft enough to do that? It is more likely that China and other neighbouring countries will just try to seal their borders. They won’t succeed, or at least not entirely, but that is a less bad option than intervention.

It is possible, but again not very probable, that Senior General Min Aung Hliang could be eased out by other generals. But that will not materially change the situation as the Tatmadaw will still be in charge.

Global Review: You claim that the Tatmadaw is not just the problem, but an irreplaceable part of any solution.However, how do you think you could influence the Burmese generals?

Bilahari Kausikan: The Tatmadaw has to be reassured that their institutional interests will not be ignored and individual officers and soldiers will not be prosecuted.

Global Review: You think that Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) is not without responsibility for the current imbroglio and that ASSK and the Tatmadaw are too much alike in fundamental ways to make working together comfortable for either side. Should new leaders on both sides replace them, e.g Man Win Khaing Than, acting vice president and try to find a compromise while both get an amnesty?

Bilahari Kausikan: I don’t think any amnesty that leaves Aung San Suu Kyi with a political role will be accepted by any set of Tatmadaw leaders. We – the opposition and outside powers – should focus on securing her personal safety.

Mind you I don’t think it is very likely that they will physically harm her because of who her father  was as Aung San is widely respected in the Tatmadaw. Besides they did not physically harm her during all the years she was under house arrest. But no harm seeking assurances for her personal safety. That gives the Tatmadaw something that they can agree to.

It may he marginally easier to reach some sort of accommodation if there are new leaders on both sides, but any realistic accommodation will not materially change the situation as the Tatmadaw will still be in charge.

By the way the CRPH (Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) the parallel civilian government some parliamentarians who either escaped Myanmar before they were arrested or were too insignificant to be arrested, lacks credibility and is making extreme demands. I doubt the Tatmadaw under any leadership will deal with it.

Global Review: The Burmese opposition is teaming up with the armed struggle of the ethnic minorities and also declared that they won´t return to the 2008 constitution, but want not a mainly Bamer nationalistic state, but a federal multicultural state. Hoqw could a further escalation be prevented?

Bilahari Kausikan: The armed ethnic minorities have their own agenda and are taking advantage of international sympathy for the opposition and the Tatmadaw’s distraction to advance their own agenda. Some of these ethnic groups have issued vaguely worded statements that some people have interpreted as support for the opposition. But I see it as more motherhood statements of sympathy.

Recently the spokesman of the Karen National Union, one of the armed ethnic groups, said “the NLD only looked to get along with the military. It did not just ignore ethnic armed organizations  but adopted policies to supress them” The spokesman went on to say, “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi might now understand that she was wrong to think she could change the military and that her national reconciliation efforts have failed.” This does not suggest great trust or confidence in the opposition.

Global Review: Will the Burmese military accept such a federalism or does it perceive it as the beginning of the end of Myanmar as it could strengthen separatist forces? Are there still ethnic minorities who still demand a separate state?

Bilahari Kausikan: They may accept it tactically or as a temporary expedient but probably not as the end-state for Myanmar.

Global Review: You wrote: “Neither the US nor China really want to do more than they have already done on Myanmar. Both have other priorities, and are acutely aware of the strategic context of their rivalry. Neither wishes to do anything that could inadvertently give the other an advantage. Still, both could be pressed by domestic pressures into actions that they know to be strategically imprudent: the US because of the Tatmadaw’s growing human rights abuses; China because the demonstrations have taken an anti-Chinese turn.” How could such an escalation be prevented? Can the ASEAN or India act as a mediator pr is the situation already out of control?

Bilahari Kausikan: Well, stop directly or indirectly encouraging the protestors to sacrifice their lives in vain. To me, minimizing further loss of life should be the immediate priority. That requires restraint on both sides.

ASEAN must keep contact with the junta. It is a very delicate balancing act for ASEAN – it has to be tough enough to maintain international credibility but yet not alienate the Tatmadaw.  At some point the Tatmadaw will feel secure enough to seek a solution and ASEAN has to retain their confidence so that it can help.

I don’t know when that point will come. I know for your own domestic reasons you cannot say or do nothing. That’s understandable.  But outside powers –not just the US and China but Europe too which is always tempted to strike virtuous postures and has seldom resisted that temptation – should do nothing that will increase the Tatmadaw’s insecurity or complicate ASEAN diplomacy. Primum non nocere – first, do no harm – should be the guiding principle.

 Global Review: Is  a solution without Aung San Suu Kyi in power thinkable? Wouldn´t the opposition be decapiatetd and loose a heroic icon and integration figure if she retreated? Or has the opposition in the mid and long term emanicipate itself from her leader and find an appropriate new  charimsatic leader? But is thies possible as Aung San Suu Kyi has her authoirty also to the lineage oto her father who was a national hero. How would the ASEAN react if the Burmese general kill her or imprison her for life time?

Bilahari Kausikan: If you think that a solution without Aung San Suu Kyi is unthinkable, then give up hope of any sort of solution.

As I said in my reply to a previous question, I think it is very unlikely that the Tatmadaw will physically harm Aung San Suu Kyi. But we should nevertheless make our goal securing assurances of her physical safety our priority.

What can anyone do if she is imprisoned or put under house arrest for life? Are you going to shun Myanmar forever if that happens? What will that achieve except to make yourself feel virtuous? If she is imprisoned for life, it is all the more important to engage the Tatmadaw to try and make sure she is treated minimally well – receives medical treatment and so on..

Global Review: The Burmese military fears that Myanmar could become a semicolony of China, but on the other side it could be forced to rely on China. How does the Burmese military perceive the New Silkroad and the RCEP? You also said that China was supporting some ethnic minorities? Whom and for what purpose, if China want to have good relations with the central government?

Bilahari Kausikan: First of all the RCEP is an ASEAN initiative not a Chinese initiative. Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand are members of the RCEP and that makes it unlikely that it will be captured by China. There is no reason why Myanmar should not participate in Belt & Road (BRI) projects and as a matter of fact the Chinese have not found the Myanmar pushovers. Several BRI projects in Myanmar have made minimal progress, to Chinese frustration – the Kyaukphyu Deepsea Port and Special Economic Zone, the China-Myanmar Border Cooperation Zones, the New Yangon City Project, and of course the Myitsone Dam was cancelled by the previous military regime and not reinstated by Aung Suu Kyi’s civilian government despite strong Chinese pressures. Myanmar will only be forced to rely on China if the West gives it no other option.

Global Review: How does the ASEAN perceive the new Biden administration? And the new US foreign policy in the Sino-American conflict? Is there hope that there could be a new TPP? Biden spoke also of a Transatlantic New Silkroad for Eurasia to counter China´s BRI. However, it is not sure who will be next US president 2024, some even fear that Trump might return. Do the ASEAN and most Asians think that the USA is still a reliable power?

Bilahari Kausikan: The US has never been a reliable power – every four years you have to educate a new administration even if the same party remains in power. But the US has always been an indispensable power. There can be no strategic balance in our region, or for that matter in Europe, without the US, and so we have pragmatically worked with the US over many different kinds of administration: We worked with Obama, we worked with Trump and we will work with Biden and who ever comes after. We don’t angst too much – as Europe did with Trump – about convergence of values; we work on the basis of convergence of interests.

I don’t see the Biden administration as fundamentally changing the Trump administration’s policies towards China or fundamentally shifting the trajectory of US-China relations. What I already do see under the Biden administration is policy being decided,. Implemented and communicated in a more orderly and predictable manner and that’s all to the good. I don’t think American domestic politics is conducive to the Biden administration returning to the TPP – its a pity, but that’s just the reality. It does not make the US any less indispensable. But I hope the US under Biden will be less hostile to plurilateral trade agreements.

By the way, its a very good thing that the Biden administration is engaging more and wants to work more with allies and partners. But the corollary to that is that allies and partners will be expected to do more to help the US. Its a less crude form of transactionalism than Trump’s but the expectation is there. America’s Asian allies and partners have always understood this better than Europe who has never pulled its weight commensurate to Europe’s wealth. Unless you do so, sooner or later you will frustrate the Biden administration as you have frustrated many American administrations and not just Trump.

The in-depth analyses of Global Review can be accessed here: http://www.global-review.info

Remarkable Autocrats in Southeast Asia: Hun Sen


Hun Sen before and after 36 years in power

Partyforumseasia: In their bestseller “The 48 Laws of Power”, published in 2000, the authors Robert Greene and Joost Elffers take up an old recommendation for power holders: Be unpredictable! With 36 years in power, Hun Sen is the world’s longest serving prime minister and probably does not need advice how to stay in power. He may need some coaching, though, on how to find the right moment to step down, but the 68-year-old does not seem to be tired of his job at all. After declaring until recently that he might retire after the 2028 general election, he used the occasion of his vaccination against Covid last week to show his unpredictability again:

“I will stop making announcements about stepping down in ten or twenty years. I will rule until a point that I feel I no longer want to rule.”

To continue the confusion game, Hun Sen said last December that Finance Minister Aun Pornmoniroth was a likely successor. Nevertheless, everybody in Cambodia believes that Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manet, is carefully groomed as the heir apparent. Four-star general Hun Manet, 43, is already the commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and also a member of the CCP’s permanent committee as well as leader of its youth wing. 

And before anybody forgets: Hun Sen is also a master in destroying or eliminating his enemies and challengers. Since the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) emerged as an opposition capable of winning a national election, especially its most popular leaders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha had to pay the price. Kem Sokha is still awaiting his final judgement, though getting some relaxation from his long imprisonment and house arrest, and Sam Rainsy, who lives already in exile to avoid detention for several dubious convictions, has just been slapped with a 25-year prison sentence last week.

Can the Tatmadaw keep up its murderous discipline?


After seventy years of practically constant fighting, the Myanmar army is supposed to be in absolute control of the soldiers’ and officers’ unwavering discipline. Realistic commentators think they will shoot without hesitation whenever they are ordered to. One report end of February said that some soldiers were seen with the three fingers up sign of the anti-coup demonstrators.
With Aung San Suu Kyi in prison and facing legal prosecution, her National League of Democracy may not recover in a sort of guided democracy army style. But the big question is whether there might be cracks in the military and the police force. A first resignation could be a sign that this is not impossible.

Myanmar Now, March 1, 2021:

Police major becomes first high-ranking officer to join anti-coup resistance
A police major from the Yangon region police force announced on Sunday that he has resigned his position in a show of solidarity with anti-coup protesters.

Tin Min Tun, an acting major in the force’s Special Branch, revealed the move in a live-stream video on Facebook.

“I don’t want to continue serving under the current military regime. That’s why I have joined the CDM to show that I stand with other government employees,” he said in the video, referring to the civil disobedience movement against the February 1 coup.

He said he had been with the Special Branch—the intelligence wing of the police, which serves mainly to monitor activists and politicians—since 1989 but submitted his letter of resignation on Friday in protest over the return to military rule, which he said would destroy the country’s future.

“If this military regime holds onto power, we won’t achieve what we want in the next 20 or 25 years. We will just lose again,” he said.

As the highest-ranking officer to take part in the anti-coup movement so far, he noted that police who break ranks to join protesters face up to three years in prison under the Myanmar Police Force Maintenance of Discipline Law.

“I also want to tell my fellow officers to do what you believe is right,” he added.

Earlier in the month, police in various parts of the country joined protesters calling for the restoration of the elected civilian government, raising hopes of mass defections by the “people’s police”.

More recently, however, police have been implicated in an increasingly brutal crackdown on protesters that has killed dozens of unarmed civilians, including at least 18 on Sunday.

In the video, Tin Min Tun addressed the deteriorating image of the police force in the face of its role in helping the junta hold onto power against the will of the people.

Speaking to his fellow officers, he said they should consider how they will face future generations, adding that many members of the force are already experiencing “discrimination” from the public for doing the regime’s bidding.

Regarding his own future, he said he would leave that to fate.

“If they decide to send me to jail, so be it. This is my sacrifice for my family and my country,” he said.

“I also want to tell my children and other family members to stay calm. I didn’t discuss this with them. I did it because I couldn’t control my feelings any longer,” he added.

CDM was started by doctors and other healthcare workers in the week after the coup in an effort to hobble the regime’s ability to take control over government functions.

It has since been joined by civil servants from a number of ministries, as well as bank employees.

An official from the Yangon Region Police Department contacted by Myanmar Now has confirmed that a senior Special Branch officer had joined the CDM.

“He is a hero. We have great respect for his decision,” said the officer, who asked to remain anonymous.

He added that he would like to follow suit, but is reluctant to do so because it would not only result in a prison sentence for him, but would also have negative consequences for his immediate family.

Rule by law


Rainsy sentenced to 25 years

The Phnom Penh municipal court on March 1 sentenced Sam Rainsy, the former leader of the now dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to 25 years in prison in-absentia. Rainsy has been living in self-exile abroad for several years.

The former-CNRP officials who served as his accomplices each received sentences from 20 to 22 years in prison on charges of committing an “attack liable to endanger the institutions of the Kingdom of Cambodia or violate the integrity of the national territory” under Article 451 of the Criminal Code.

Phnom Penh municipal court spokesman Y Rin told The Post on March 1 that the trial council had handed down a verdict in Rainsy and eight other officials’ cases on the Article 451 charges they were alleged to have committed in Cambodia in 2019.

“Sam Rainsy was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang were sentenced to 22 years in prison each. Tioulong Saumura, Men Sothavrin, Ou Chanrith, Ho Vann, Long Ry and Nuth Romduol were sentenced to 20 years in prison each,” he said.

“The verdict was announced with lawyers representing the government present and the accused persons have the right to file an appeal if they do so within the period of time established by law,” he said.

Y Rin added that the accused persons had also been deprived of their citizenship rights definitively, disenfranchised for purposes of voting or standing for office in elections and disqualified from working in the [government] framework as civil service officials. They were also ordered to pay the government compensation of 1,800 million riel.

Som Sokong, the defence lawyer of the nine accused persons could not be reached for comment on March 1.

Government lawyer Koun Saroeun told The Post on March 1 that for an Article 451 offence the law is defines how many years the sentence will be and that the maximum sentence is 30 years. So, the meting out of the sentence in this case was within the statutory guidelines.

“The length of this sentence is more than half of the possible total sentence, but it isn’t the maximum sentence allowed by law. Sentences are established by statute but subject to the discretion of the judge. This sentence is certainly at a level that is under the law’s stipulated maximum for this offence in our criminal code,” he said.

After being notified of his sentence Sam Rainsy took to Facebook, writing in a post that he regarded the court’s ruling as ridiculous.

“This ridiculous verdict reflects the fears of Hun Sen, who wanted to oust Sam Rainsy from the political stage in Cambodia because he knows that if there was a fair election his out-of-date dictatorial regime would come to an end,” Rainsy wrote.

“Whoever is persecuted by these puppet-courts under this dictator’s regime are the ones who are struggling to bring freedom to the nation, truly,” he stated.

Judge Duch Sok Sarin showed a short video clip of Rainsy speaking at a meeting in the US on September 14-15 of 2019 about his plans to return to Cambodia on November 9 of that year to “arrest” Prime Minister Hun Sen despite the fact that the verdicts and sentences for the nine defendants had already been handed down at that point.

The clip shows Rainsy trying to persuade Cambodian soldiers to ignore the orders of their senior officers and not to obey the government but rather instead to – in his words – stand on the side of the citizens.

Rainsy then seemingly attempts to bribe Cambodia’s soldiers, claiming that if they put him in power he would put together a financial assistance package for them funded through donations from abroad.

The clip also has Rainsy calling on all Cambodian migrant workers to prepare to accompany him on November 9, 2019 as he returns to Cambodia via one of the land border crossings with Thailand.

“When we have a genuine democracy we will ensure that members of our armed forces live prosperous lives and they will be honoured as Cambodia’s heroes. All Khmer [people] have to join us in our mission to rescue the nation,” Rainsy says in the video clip.Contact authors: Lay Samean and Kim Sarom

Phnom Penh Post, 2 March 2021 No comment necessary

Are Singaporeans ready for a two-party system?


Partyforumseasia: The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), a research center of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, discussed this question on January 25th. After the other dominant political party in the neighborhood, Malaysia’s UMNO, was defeated in May 2018 and goes through one crisis after the other since then, many were asking whether the hegemony of Singapore’s PAP would eventually shrink or even end as well. In fact, it did shrink by 8.6 per cent in the last election in 2020 but won with 61.2 per cent a still rather comfortable absolute majority in parliament, compared to the increasingly precarious results for the catch-all parties with long government experience in other parts of the world. Singapore’s British-inherited first-past-the-post electoral system rewarded the PAP with 83 out of the 93 elected members of parliament. The total number is 104, including two “non-constituency” MPs (NCMP) which were given to the best loser, the new Progress Singapore Party (PSP), and nine Nominated MPs, who are supposed to offer non-partisan views from different sectors of the society. The nominated MPs are a relic of the times when the PAP won all seats, when many were not even contested by opposition candidates, so-called “walk overs”, meaning that the PAP candidate had already won before the election. In the June 2020 election, the results suggest that a two-party system is evolving with the Workers’ Party (WP) increasing its number of elected MPS from six to ten, winning two Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), one with five seats and one with four, plus one single member constituency. The leading opposition party showed a remarkable resilience and growth over the last years after winning a GRC for the first time in 2011. Apart from the surprise success of the new Progress Singapore Party, due to the leadership of a popular challenger for the last presidential election, a former PAP MP, the nine other competing opposition parties could not win any seat at all.

So, what does the question of a two-party system actually mean for Singapore? Would it be close to the US-system, where two main parties compete for the governing mandate, with smaller parties restricted to a spoiler role in some elections, or more the British model, where the two long-term competitors alternate in government but sometimes need a coalition partner from a third party like the Liberal Democrats? In Singapore, nothing like the Workers’ Party taking over the government can be imagined, even in the longer term. The PAP rule over the last half century has been seen as efficient and successful and winning the trust of the voters, even considering that the party has massively highlighted its own achievements in the media and questioned the competence of the opposition parties. However, this type of “valence politics” or “competence voting” has changed already  in the 2020 election. A survey with 4,000 respondents by the Institute of Policy Studies late last year shows that the Workers’ Party’s credibility rating has risen remarkably close to the PAP results. While the PAP credibility has fallen in all age groups, the Workers’ Party’s ratings have improved nearly at the same rate, especially so among the older generations who were always supposed to be staunch PAP supporters having witnessed the spectacular development of the island “From Third World to First” as Lee Kuan Yew described it.   

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Source: Straits Times, 2.10.2020

Some Singaporeans criticize the WP leadership as being too moderate and not challenging the PAP enough. Knowing that they are extremely far from any chance to take over the government, it is true that they did not come up with alternative grand visions for the future of the country but focused instead on constructive suggestions and contributions in parliament. This strategy and the recent smooth transition of the chairmanship have been successful in the election and earned WP-leader Pritam Singh the title and office facilities of opposition leader.

Another aspect which distinguishes Singapore in the region is the apparent absence of money politics. A comparison with neighboring Southeast Asian countries with their wild swings in party and coalition developments, the stable but not static Singapore situation reveals its value. Throughout the region money plays a decisive role in party politics and all too often leads to the personal enrichment of politicians, while poor candidates practically cannot win an election.  Singapore does not only rank close the top in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index but has the tightest and best controlled regulations for campaign costs as well. Given the PAP’s government control and experience, this is not yet creating a completely level playing field but at least facilitated the Workers’ Party’s steady rise in the last few years. There is always criticism of the high ministerial salaries in Singapore, but except on this top level, political engagement on the ground is not financially attractive. That is and should be the norm in liberal Democracies.

For more comparative details see our 2018 book on party funding and money politics in Southeast Asia:   

The Myanmar Election


Partyforumseasia:  Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the November 8th election with a margin which confirmed its dominant role. The party won 258 seats in the House of Representatives (Lower House), and 138 in the House of Nationalities (Upper House), whereas the military backed opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was reduced to only 26 and 7 seats respectively. Together with the seats in the regional parliaments, the USP secured 71 seats, down from 117 five years ago. But calling the NLD victory a landslide would be beside the point since it just cemented its majority without much movement in the results.
The NLD majority is being reduced by the 25 per cent or 166 unelected seats reserved for the army. The two graphs below by The Irrawaddy newspaper and the Union Election Commission show the military block and its unreal size, symbolizing at the same time the constraints for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in implementing its own policies against the military and its veto power in crucial areas. Not surprisingly, the USDP is challenging the election results with more than 750 complaints about irregularities, a practice which seems to be contagious around the world these days.
Despite the Covid problems and the ongoing fighting in several parts of the country, the voter turnout was very high with 27 out of 38 million eligible voters or 71 per cent. But 1.5 million voters were excluded either because of the Covid pandemic or ongoing local fighting, especially in the Rakhine and Shan States. Altogether 87 political parties had fielded a total of 5,639 candidates, a pluralistic feast of democracy in a very difficult political, social, and security environment.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been heavily criticized by the international media for not offering any viable solution for the Rohingya crisis. Some were even suggesting to withdraw her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, assuming that, with the NLD in power after fifty years of mismanagement under the military, Myanmar would morph into a textbook democracy without much delay. This approach betrays a lack of understanding for the complexity of the political problems. The Shan State for example, which constitutes about a quarter of the country, was part of Thailand until 1893 when the British colonizers annexed it for Burma. When this area was invaded after 1949 by parts of the National Chinese Guomindang army, beaten and expelled from Yunnan by Mao’s Communists, the international community did not care that the local populations were forced to produce opium and heroin to feed and arm the invaders. Under the Truman doctrine and the domino theory, they were seen as allies against China, and even got covert support in armament and logistics from the United States. The heavy handed treatment by the Burmese army added to the resistance of most ethnic minorities in the region against the central government in Rangoon. This is only one example why ruling the ethnic and political quilt of a country, still far from being unified, is more than difficult. It is therefore a positive move that the NLD, in a letter dated 12th November to 48 ethnic parties, called for an end to the civil war and to join them in building a federal democratic union. Self-government and regional autonomy had been promised during the independence process in 1948, but systematically prevented by the military regimes with the typical argument that the integrity of the county was paramount. A NLD spokesman said that the new government should be a “unity government”. Given the historical and political background, integrating the ethnic parties who have lost many seats to the NLD is certainly a herculean task but a dream for the country.

The election results show that an overwhelming majority of Myanmar’s citizens support Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD while rejecting the persisting power of the military with the help of a constitution they have written themselves. It is noteworthy that the voters, aware of the shortcomings of the NLD government during the last five years, are obviously more patient than the international media, so prepared to drop Aung San Suu Kyi as un unsuccessful politician who did not manage to speed up the expected democratic revolution in Myanmar.



More detailed election results here:

 

 

Déja vu or new normal?


 

Partyforumseasia:  Fascinated with the US – election, we might forget that it is rather common not to accept election results. But the outgoing US-President is certainly not in good company…

USDP cries election foul

After early returns in Sunday’s elections showed the military-backed opposition party heading to a crushing defeat, the party refused to accept the outcome and demanded a re-run of the election with the military’s cooperation.

The move was seen as an attempt to discredit the polls and has sent shockwaves throughout the political and business communities in Yangon.

Myanmar held its second openly-contested polls in half a century last Sunday. The ruling National League for Democracy said it expected to win 399 seats, more than its landslide victory in 2015, sweeping aside a fragmented opposition.

Top Myanmar-focused electoral experts see the Union Solidarity and Development Party’s rejection as an effort to discredit the elections, because it was on course to lose several of its former strongholds in another landslide defeat. They said the move was not a manoeuvre to launch a coup against the government of State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

USDP leader U Than Htay, in an interview with Radio Free Asia Burmese, said the election was unfair and his party had ordered candidates not to sign off on their losses.

The new parliament is scheduled to convene in February and vote in March for a new president who will take office with his or her Cabinet on April 1.

Source: Myanmar Times, 11.11.2020
https://www.mmtimes.com/news/myanmar-opposition-demands-election-re-run-after-heavy-losses.html

Malaysia’s “Katak” Parliament


Party switching by members in the 1980’s by national cartoonist Lat

Partyforumseasia:  Beside the judiciary, discussed in the last post, the other important legacy of the British colonial rule in Malaysia is the First-Past-The-Post or FPTP election system. It is applied predominantly in former British colonies including the United States and Canada, in Southeast Asia in Malaysia, Myanmar, and Singapore. The advantages and disadvantages of FPTP in comparison with proportional systems, under which the different preferences of the voters are more realistically mirrored, are outlined in great detail by the (Link here:) Electoral Knowledge Network under International Idea at Stockholm. The disadvantages for Malaysia have been evident for decades. FPTP favors single parties or dominant coalitions like the former National Front (BN) coalition dominated by UMNO. And its “winner-takes-all” effect enables this type of political dominance without a majority of votes. One big area of criticism is exactly here, that the system allows numerous “wasted votes”. An extreme example was the British general election of 2005, in which 52% of votes were cast for losing candidates and 18% were excess votes not necessary for the winner’s majority, a  total of 70% ‘wasted’ votes. Gerrymandering, the tactical redrawing of precincts, is another advantage for the ruling coalition, which has been excessively applied in Malaysia.

Now come in the “katak” or frogs. What is maybe more of a regional variety of party politics, especially in Malaysia, is called “party hopping” by members of parliament, switching to a more promising party and taking the electoral mandate along. In February this year, the Mahathir government collapsed because 40 federal legislators defected and joined another coalition under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. And following this major political earthquake, four of the 13 federal state governments, Johor, Perak, Melaka and Kedah, collapsed as well through party hopping. The fifth, Sabah in East Malaysia, followed suit and prepares for new elections.
On the background of decades of money politics and political corruption in the country, with many politicians receiving well-paid directorships in Government-Linked-Companies (GLC’s), the party hopping gets more than a negative connotation. Earlier attempts to prevent or ban it, a court case in 1992 by the Kelantan state government, ended without success. There is a new initiative by a caucus of predominantly opposition legislators to suppress the party hopping tradition and similar suggestions by the “Electoral Reform Committee” (ERC), which reviews for the first time in 63 years the whole electoral system. Reform is also strongly supported by the Aliran movement, an influential NGO. But building a majority for the reforms under the prevailing circumstances, namely an unstable ruling coalition  which would risk its shaky majority in parliament, will be an uphill task despite a lot of support among voters fed up by party hoppers.

In dubio pro reo, sure, but the court has no doubts


Partyforumseasia: Probably the best and most important legacy of the British colonial past for Malaysia is the legal system and the judiciary. It has been watered down to a certain degree under the first premiership of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and hollowed out even more under Najib Razak. But the fact that the latter has been convicted for abuse of position, criminal breach of trust, seven counts of corruption, and money laundering by the High Court is a sign of its independence vis-a-vis powerful political and financial interests in the country, as well as a continuing sectoral support for the fallen leader in the public opinion. Details of the judgement pronounced end of July by judge Mohd Nazlan Mhd Ghazali are part of a 801-page ground of judgement paper which is also part of the records brought to the Court of Appeal. Najib and his team of lawyers are appealing, and Najib continues to plead not guilty, despite the overwhelming evidence against him. He may be emboldened by the return of his party into the government coalition of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and a number of won by-elections, where he continues to campaign. The pictures show that he is not only getting older, but also show the stress of the years he is out of power. Details emerging about the extravagant lifestyle of his wife Rosmah Mansor are not helpful. A former aide just revealed that she gave him a monthly lumpsum of RM 100.000 (20.000 Euros) in cash for a team of cyber warriors to take care of her image in the social media. Her collections of luxury handbags and jewelry are legendary. The case management procedures for Najib’s appeal will start on 15 October, surprises are not excluded.

Milk Tea for Democracy


Partyforumseasia:  Fancy slogans can turn into a battle-cry when the time is ripe and the mood contagious. The European student movements in the late 1960 had them all and they were already spreading like wildfires without handphones. All that is technically so much easier and faster today, and especially so in East and Southeast Asia. The new phenomenon is the networking across borders by student-led pro- democracy initiatives and movements. Their coordination and their hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance crystallized in April this year after a Thai celebrity couple was attacked by netizens in China for allegedly supporting the Hongkong protests and independence for Taiwan. There is certainly a clear anti-China element in the regional youth movement, including Thailand, where China at least is not seen as a role model or pop culture pioneer like Korea and Taiwan. And the authoritarian style of government may compare too easily with the military dominated administration in Thailand and their law and order style. Since the Prayut government modified the 2019 election results by eliminating the successful Future Forward Party and its leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit who garnered seventy per cent of the first-time votes, the young generation as well as academics and intellectuals are getting less cautious and asking for change. It is evident and unforgotten that the political parties of Thailand have not given a good example of democratic behavior in the past before the coup. Obviously, the feeling on the ground is asking for change despite the uncertainties. The 18th century German physicist and philosopher Lichtenberg had a suitable formulation for this: “I don’t know whether we make it better with change, but I know that things have to change to make it better.”

Probably the more important and innovative development of the #MilkTeaAlliance is the mutual exchange and encouragement between the protest movements in the three “theatres” and an exchange about tactics and strategies. The Hongkong activists have managed to reach and draw in big parts of the older citizens, something that seems to happen now in Thailand as well. And the challenge and danger for all authoritarian and dictatorial regimes is the point when the population is no longer intimidated and frightened by violence and imprisonment. The Belarus developments will be closely observed in Southeast Asia. And disagreements within the fragile Prayut coalition are also a warning signal which can only encourage the protesters. When the deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwon said last Monday that the demonstrations are justified if they are peaceful and that the constitution should be amended, he may think primarily of his and his party’s political survival. The king’s request not to apply the Lese-majesté law is of a different quality, though. That was probably the sharpest weapon of the traditionalist elite and its merciless application has undermined the image and moral authority of the monarchy as such. The king’s decisions and lifestyle, including his temporary retreats into a more informal private environment in Bavaria, are understandable but differ from the remembered aura of personal sacrifice, duty, dedication, and service for people and country first of his late father.

First joined demonstrations for democracy and against the authoritarian style of China in Taipei, with students from Hongkong and Thailand, signal a new trend in the region. One Thai student activist is being quoted by the Bangkok Post as saying: “We don’t want to just talk about it online. We want a pan-Asian alliance for democracy.”
If something is brewing up in Thailand, one can only hope that, after so much turmoil in the last decades, any transition will be smooth and peaceful.

Political Change in Thailand: For a Change without Coup ?


Partyforumseasia:  All over the world, the TV-screens are full of mass movements, antigovernment protests and the all too familiar reactions of the security forces who seem to be only concerned about the security of the powers that pay them. The pictures from Thailand are very different this time. Mass demonstrations in Bangkok and other cities with tens of thousands of students and citizens are demanding that former military coup-leader and now civilian Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha steps down, that  Parliament be dissolved, and the drafting of a new constitution be entrusted to an independent commission. Seeing the ferocious reaction of police and army in Belarus  and similar places, it comes as a surprise that the Thai government reacts with such restraint. Deputy Prime Minister  Prawit Wongsuwon said publicly on Monday that people can stage rallies and express their opinions as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. He also agreed that the constitution needs amendments.
For the ruling multi-party coalition, which is somewhat stabilized but still fragile, the challenge is enormous. And certainly much of the protest potential comes from the voters and supporters of the Future Forward Party which had won 70 per cent of the first-time voters in the 2019 election but was dissolved by the Constitutional Court a few months later on technical grounds. Obviously the young generation and the students are no longer prepared to accept the still de facto military controlled regime and want change against the coup tradition.
Similarly revolutionary are the calls for reform of the monarchy, without questioning it in principle. And King Vajiralongkorn himself has asked the Prime Minister not to apply the draconian Lese-majesté laws which have been used until recently to intimidate or eliminate opposition figures and critics. That is remarkable because the protesters demand a return to a more independent control of the royal assets and less personal control by the king over substantial parts of the military, the two major changes the king had initiated after his coronation. What the demonstrators want is a constitutional monarchy and a king under the constitution and not above the law.
Seeing clearly that the monarchist counter-demonstrators are a minority, it will be difficult for the Prayut government to defend the military-monarchy cooperation in the long run. Agreeing to a constitutional reform followed by elections would at least buy them time as long as simply stepping down and trusting in the democratic process cannot be expected to be in their DNA. A smooth transition without violence, though, even over a longer period would at last validate the old tourism slogan of Thailand: Smooth as silk.

Malaysia’s Najib Razak: “We are innocent”


Partyforumseasia: After endless delays and technical maneuvers by his defense lawyers, the former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been convicted to twelve years in jail and fined 50 million US$. The corruption scandal around the sovereign wealth fund 1MDB which cost him his office and his long-term ruling party the first election defeat in sixty years, erupted already in 2015. Outside the court house, thousands of supporters reportedly cried in sorrow and disappointment, while the convict repeated his mantra in the pluralis majestatis: “WE ARE INNOCENT”. He added, like his lawyer, that they have a very strong case because the real culprit, fugitive businessman Jho Low, did all that behind Najib’s back. So it was a conspiracy, none of the seven charges in this first lawsuit against the politician could be proven, he was not aware of the millions in his personal accounts, even shocked and dismayed when he learned about it, he did not ask the Saudi royals for donations, he did nothing illegal, not even anything wrong. High Court judge Mohamad Nazlan Mohamad Ghazali saw it differently and convicted Najib of all seven charges, proven by the prosecution “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
During the last few years, the money trail has been investigated internationally and especially in the USA, where Goldman Sachs on 24 July has agreed to a 3.9 billion $ settlement with the Malaysian government. The deal includes a $2.5 billion cash payout by Goldman and a guarantee by the bank to return at least $1.4 billion in assets linked to 1MDB bonds. The financial dimensions of this scandal are outrageous but Najib maintains his innocence.

The big question among Malaysians and regional observers is now whether Najib will manage to escape the prison sentence. The money cascade during his premiership has created dependencies and loyalties which are rekindled with the UMNO party joining the actual ruling coalition earlier this year. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin declared that he respects the court’s decision and urges all parties to “have faith in the legal system and judiciary as a free and independent institution”. That faith will be seriously at risk if Najib should manage to wriggle out of the noose. His election loss in 2018 was very much triggered by anger and disappointment of the voters about the 1MDB corruption scandal and the daily corruption they could observe around them. And it would shatter the dream of a cleaner system among the Malaysians who don’t support Najib and UMNO. Bets are welcome, with money politicians do go far in Southeast Asia.

PS: Partyforumseasia has published a number of posts on the 1MDB scandal since 2016. If interested, please check under Malaysia.

Great Expectations in Singapore


 

 

Partyforumseasia:  Great Expectations is the title of a famous novel by Charles Dickens. As in most elections, it describes as well the hopes and expectations of the competing political parties,  in Singapore the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and at least the three major opposition parties, namely the Workers’ Party (WP), the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), and the newly formed Progress Singapore Party (PSP). While the PAP was asking the 2.65 m voters for a strong mandate for a strong leadership in and after the Covid-crisis, all the 10 participating opposition parties were striving for a more balanced and more pluralistic parliament to check on the PAP government.
The short campaign period showed a rather colorful competition with posters, walkabouts in markets and food courts, and canvassing in the housing estates. TV-airtime was given to all competing parties, and the print media were also reporting extensively on the opposition parties. Behind the media surface, as expected, the social media scene and blogosphere were very alive as well.
The result in terms of parliamentary seats is not really surprising, the PAP won 83 of the 93 seats. Party leader and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a press conference early on Saturday morning that he was satisfied even without the strong mandate he had hoped for. The six decades of PAP-rule have been more successful for the country than for most ruling parties worldwide. The PAP expected a 30% natural swing-vote but indeed, the electorate has matured and obviously wants more opposition. The big winner is the Worker’s Party which not only managed to retain its two-term stronghold in the Aljunied GRC with five seats but also won the new Sengkang GRC with four seats plus a single ward in Hougang. That means altogether ten mandates really won instead of the up to 12 guaranteed seats without being elected. Their strategy to warn the electorate against an “opposition wipe-out” beat the PAP call for a strong mandate.
The two remaining guaranteed opposition seats will go to the new Progress Singapore Party under veteran Tan Chen Bock, a former PAP MP and former presidential candidate. The Singapore Democratic Party managed to increase its result, especially for its president, professor Tambyah and secretary general Dr. Chee Soon Juan, but did not reach the PSP results to qualify for the two remaining “best loser or consolation mandates”.

Overview: Straits Times, 11 July 2020

Compared to the voting history of Singapore, which was characterized by years of multiple “walkovers” when the opposition did not field enough candidates, in the last few elections all the constituencies have been increasingly contested. To read the special circumstances in Singapore and the results correctly, it is necessary to bear in mind that the published results in percentage points for the different parties are calculated only for the constituencies contested, that is 93 for the PAP(=61.24%), 24 for the PSP (= 40.85%), 21 for the WP (=50.49%), 11 for the SDP(=37.04) etc. Calculated on all the 93 seats nation-wide, the opposition results cannot be compared to the 61.24% overall for the PAP, meaning that the political competition is less vibrant as it looks on the surface. But all in all, the contest was livelier than ever, even without big outdoor rallies. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was gracious enough to congratulate WP-chairman Pritam Singh in the night after the results were out and declared him leader of the opposition, a new position in the Singapore parliament and a sign of democratic consolidation. A difficult period for Singapore lies ahead when the whole impact of the pandemic on the economy becomes visible and indeed, a decisive and courageous leadership and constructive opposition will be necessary.

The Upcoming General Election 2020 in Singapore


Partyforumseasia:   On 23 June, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong advised President Halimah Yacob to dissolve the 13th parliament and issue the Writ of Election. The time schedule is tight; nomination day is the 30th of June. After 9th of July as “cooling-off” day, the voting will take place on the 10th.

Typical campaigning in a food court in Singapore. Effectiveness is not guaranteed, but the tradition is at least more environmentally friendly than the poster battles in other countries.

As a former colony, Singapore inherited the British electoral system which gives the prime minister the prerogative of calling for elections at a time which he deems suitable for his government. Lee has hinted at elections several times in the last few months, and may have  hesitated to reconsider the dates due to the Covid-19 outbreak The pandemic appears to be stabilising after the unexpected mass infections among the foreign workers who live in congested dormitories under not always the best hygienic conditions are fizzling out. The mortality rate in Singapore is rather low, but a lockdown called “circuit breaker” has affected the economy quite badly. Like many other governments around the world, Singapore has injected massive amounts of cash to cushion the impact and help citizens who lost their jobs and businesses most affected by the lockdown. Even the foreign workers under quarantine were fed and paid fairly, instead of being sent back to their home countries such as India and Bangladesh.
The international image of the city state, apart from cleanliness, very low corruption levels, and high- tech affinity, is also dominated by the longevity of the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) grip on power and its efficient governance. So far, the PAP has always won an absolute majority, and this is not expected to change on July 10th. The ambition of the party, so used to success, was already hurt  in the 2011 election when its share of the popular vote sank to 60.1%, although such a result would have been more than a dream for most other parties world-wide.  But in the 2015 general election the PAP recovered with 69.9%.
The opposition, now as ever, is divided and hardly capable of building sufficient trust among themselves for strategic candidate-placing and avoiding three-cornered fights. The Workers’ Party alone has managed to win and defend a group representation constituency (GRC) where each party has to field a group of candidates. The system has been introduced by the PAP majority in 1988 to guarantee the official racial balance and a minimum number of minority candidates and MPs. For this year’s election, there are 17 GRCs and 14 Single Member Constituencies (SMCs). The British first-past-the-post system has always catapulted the PAP to a huge majority in parliament, but this time a minimum number of 21 MPs will be guaranteed a mandate, including 9 Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP) representing subgroups in the society and 12 Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMP) – the “best of the losers” in case the opposition does not win these 12 seats on its own strengths.

Apart from the Covid-19 problems, this election is unusual in several aspects:

  1. It is the start of a change of leadership. Since Prime Minister Lee has announced that he plans to retire when he turns 70 in 2022, the PAP had started the “renewal” process and installed a new generation of leaders, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and a handful of younger politicians, called the 4th generation (4G). They have already taken up more prominent ministerial portfolios and given more presence in the media limelight.. At the same time, many prominent members of the old guard are retiring, with the most high-profile  and anticipated member being the former prime minister Goh Chok Tong, predecessor of Lee Hsieng Loong.
  2. There are several new opposition parties, increasing the probability that all constituencies will be contested. The fact that, in the past, with only the PAP fielding candidates in all precincts, so called walk-overs disappointed many of now middle-aged voters who so far hardly had a chance to really cast their votes in a ballot box.
  3. The Workers’ Party (WP) has held the Aljunied GRC in the East of Singapore since 2011 and will try to retain it this time, though they have been attacked for alleged shortcomings in the running of the town council which is the local form of municipal management with wide financial responsibilities. The respected father of the Aljunied success and long term party chairman Low Thia Kiang is retiring at the age of 63, and his successor since 2018, Pritam Singh, has been criticized in parliament for a variety of reasons, maybe for his courage to raise uncomfortable questions for the government.
  4. The former PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock has formed a new party, the Progress Singapore Party (PSP). Tan (80) made the headlines of his political career in the presidential election 2011, when he narrowly lost against the PAP-supported candidate Tony Tan with 34.85% against 35.20. The PSP intends to field 24 candidates in 3 GRCs and five SMCs. Tan Cheng Bok, as his presidential success has shown, enjoys a jovial image attracting protest voters against the ruling party. One PR-coup is the surprise move of the Prime Minister’s estranged younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, to join the PSP. A photo session took place during a breakfast meeting in a food court, when Tan handed over a membership card to Lee. The family feud between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his two younger siblings seems to be bitter but rather unpolitical in details.
  5. The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), under secretary-general Chee Soon Juan since 1995, has been unsuccessful in all elections since, but obviously attracts enough support from members and donors. Chee is a good speaker and has generated quite a number of reform proposals on democratic and bread-and-butter issues. He will run again in a single member constituency where he garnered respectable 38% in the last election.
  6. On the opposition side, altogether 10 parties are supposed to run for a mandate in the 93 seats parliament. That means, the opposition is divided, and the most successful one, the Workers’ Party, is focusing on its stronghold and is probably less interested in opposition agreements on who should have priority where. The daily reporting in the print media focuses mainly on the very typical “walkabouts” of candidates and supporters in food courts and shopping centres. Whether the prospective voters are always happy about the interruption is a mystery, but always a given for the candidates. In contrast to most neighboring countries, Singapore is not covered with smiling faces on big posters during the election campaign. All candidates must pay a deposit of S$ 13,500 which will be forfeited if they garner less than 12.5% of the valid votes. The system is being applied in Britain and most former colonies in different levels of vote percentage. Party funding is strictly controlled and limited. But at the beginning of the campaign, there are already all sorts of bags, toys, and mascots being seen. Donations seem to flow in sufficient quantity.
  7. Organization is one of the outstanding strong points of Singapore and the ruling PAP. So, not surprisingly, the preparations for a safe campaign period are all in place, such as no rallies allowed and a focus on online campaigning, etc. And the rules for the polling stations are meticulously set, including electronic registration, taking of temperatures, disposable gloves for the ballot paper, and, of course, compulsory wearing of face masks.
  8. Over the last weekend, the PAP withdrew a new candidate because he generated a social media storm for “elitist” behavior and arrogance. The very careful selection of new candidates was a hallmark of the party with grueling final interviews by Lee Kuan Yew himself. The party was proud of attracting always the most suitable and qualified characters to serve the voters and the country. Highly educated candidates running for the opposition were a sensation for many years.
  9. Predicting the outcome is always risky; in politics many things can happen. But all in all, Singapore is being well-managed by the incumbent PAP. For the unforeseeable expenses in the pandemic crisis, unlike most bigger countries, Singapore could fall back on financial reserves instead of borrowing everything from institutional lenders. The prime minister’s calculation may also have considered that in times of crisis the silent majority may not risk rocking the boat. So, the percentage of the PAP’s majority will be the interesting detail in the results and, of course, the number of opposition mandates.

A Majority is a Majority or What?


Partyforumseasia:  Party switching, party hopping, candidates looking for the party which would give them the best chances to be elected, or parties shopping for the most eligible candidates, that all is common in Southeast Asia. The cartoon above by famous Malaysian cartoonist Lat from the 1980s shows the phenomenon in a light way, but Malaysia is going through a much more serious period of political turmoil at the moment. More serious because the switching persons are not just rank and file party members but parliamentarians and even ministers.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin hands over documents to the king in the 18th May session

When in February this year the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government of Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir was booted out in a surprise move by defectors who found easy support from the opposition parties UMNO and PAS, Mahathir-ally Muhyiddin Yassin turned into a challenger and was appointed as Prime Minister  by the King without a vote by parliament. The new majority was defined by the King after interviewing all members of parliament personally, and the new majority remains unclear and contested until today. The change of government was criticized as coup and backdoor move by the PH supporters and welcomed accordingly by the losers of the 2018 election, UMNO and PAS. When they found themselves in opposition after the unexpected defeat, and after having sufficiently licked their wounds, this old guard realized that they had lost all their access to state coffers and the lucrative side jobs in government linked companies. UMNO, once supposed to be one of the richest political parties in the world, was suddenly cut off from the money flows. And their former Prime Minister, Najib Razak, found himself in court with numerous charges of corruption.
On the side of the Mahathir and PH supporters, the 2018 watershed election had created high hopes for a more transparent and democratic political style and less race based competition in this multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country.

Mahathir (2)

At age 94 Dr. Mahathir is as defiant as ever

On 18th May, the first sitting of parliament after the switch to Prime Minister Muhyiddin and his Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance) coalition, turned out to be remarkable in several aspects:
1. The sitting, according to the constitution, would have had to confirm the new Prime Minister and his government.
2. Mahathir had initiated a no-confidence motion against Muhyiddin for this meeting, which was accepted by the speaker.
3. But the schedule for the sitting was reduced to the introductory speech of the King. Due to the Covid-19 threat, this was the explanation, no debate was allowed after that.
4. The next sitting of the parliament was adjourned to July.

Conclusions:
1. The shortened sitting has spared Muhyiddin the no-confidence vote. That might allow doubts on his majority and legitimacy, as well as his confidence in the coalition which supports him. It is indeed wobbly because the UMNO members feel undercompensated with cabinet posts and GLC directorships.
2. Mahathir and his remaining PH supporters feel betrayed and encouraged to sabotage Muhyiddin at their best ability.
3. The top positions in the federal states are being ferociously contested as well. Mahathir’s son Mukhriz is the first victim after losing the majority in Kedah.
4. The beleaguered PKR party has tried to prevent defections after two federal state MPs left. They had made them sign a no-defection clause and threaten them with a fine of 10 million RM (more than 2 million USD). That sounds rather unrealistic to be enforced.
5. The estimated majority of the Muhyiddin government is two or three seats, or the same two or three seats short of the majority, depending on the political standpoint.
6. Wafer-thin majorities, even minority governments, are quite common nowadays all over the world. Malaysia obviously needs more time to get used to it, or make it back to big, clear, and stable majorities. 

 

Elections During the Covid-19 Pandemic?


Partyforumseasia:  Korea has done it. Other elections in Southeast Asia are pending. A recommended paper by International IDEA in Stockholm.
MANAGING ELECTIONS UNDER THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC: THE REPUBLIC OF KOREA’S CRUCIAL TEST
Technical Paper 2/2020   Available in English and Bahasa Indonesia
For free download Click here:

CONTENTS

1. A national test for public confidence
2. A test run for managing elections under a pandemic
3. Extraordinary measures for extraordinary circumstances
4. How the 2020 National Assembly elections unfolded
5. What can be learned from this experience?
6. Every context is unique
Useful links

For the practical safety arrangements see:  Wikipedia
“Special arrangements were required to ensure social distancing during the election and prevent further infection. Voters were required to wear face masks and stay at least 1 metre (3 ft) apart when queueing or casting their votes.[25][26] Before entering the polling station, each voter was checked for fever using a thermometer, required to use hand sanitiser, and issued with disposable plastic gloves. Any voter with a body temperature greater than 37.5 °C (99.5 °F) was taken to a segregated polling booth, which was disinfected after each use.[25][17] The thousands of voters who had been placed in self isolation due to potential infections were allowed to vote, but only after the polling stations had been closed to all other voters, and provided they were asymptomatic.[26][25] About 26% of votes were cast in advance, either by post or in special quarantine polling stations which operated on 10 & 11 April.[17]

Before the outbreak of the pandemic, the Democratic Party had been expected to struggle in the election: opinion polls in 2019 had predicted it would win 37-41% of the constituency votes. The government’s response to the outbreak was praised by the World Health Organisation and received widespread support in South Korea. The President of South KoreaMoon Jae-in of the Democratic Party, was not up for re-election, but his response to the pandemic was popular and benefited his party in the legislative election.[25]

Tumultuous Political Landscapes, Not only in Malaysia


Partyforumseasia: With the resignation of Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir and his reincarnation as caretaking PM, his Pakatan Harapan (HP) “Coalition of Hope”, fragile as it was from the beginning, looked rather clueless. Plagued by the succession debate, when and how 94-year-old Mahathir would pass on the baton to Anwar Ibrahim as agreed before the election, and the problems left behind by the corrupt previous government, Mahathir and his government could not deliver fast enough on the election promises to clean up the country and stimulate the economy. The media and the pundits are competing with analyses and probable scenarios, leaving the public guessing and more  confused than ever. That is an achievement on the cultural background of wayang kulit, the traditional shadow play, where the audience cannot see what happens behind the screen. Ironically enough, this scenario seems to be back in the era of cacophonic information and disinformation on multiple channels.
But this time the political actors are obviously as confused as the public. This, as well, does not really come as a surprise, on the contrary, it seems to be the new normal in politics, especially in party- and coalition politics in many countries worldwide. First of all, we seem to have arrived in the post-truth era, defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The USA being the trend setter, Malaysia has been especially vulnerable with the focus on racial and religious politics for decades which were hiding the rent-seeking interests on the fact side.
The second big change is the weakening of dominant parties more or less in all democracies, especially in Europe. Italy, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, and increasingly Germany, have seen a fast erosion of formerly stable party systems and the rise of fringe parties. This goes hand in hand with a clear loss of confidence in the economic and political elites, caused by all too evident shortcomings in political management and judgement by the leaders.
The Malaysian party landscape, in a recent overview published by Singapore’s Straits Times (27/2/2020) which includes only the relevant parties among the full list of over sixty,  seems to show at a glance that coalition building cannot be easy. And the PH coalition was born out of the joint aim of ending the six decades of UMNO dominance and the general perception of its corrupt nature, culminating in the exposure of the 1MDB scandal.
A rough overview of the evolving splinter party scene in other countries:
Italy: 6 major and 30 minor parties
Spain: 14 in parliament, 18 in regional parliaments
Germany: 7 in federal parliament, 43 competing in last election
Switzerland: 15 in parliaments, 17 minor
Sweden: 8 in parliament, 16 minor, 52 local
Thailand: 29 in parliament, 12 with only one mandate
Indonesia: 10 in parliament, about 60 others
Singapore: 2 in parliament, 12 others active, 24 more registered
United Kingdom: Atypical because of the Brexit

Conclusion: Malaysia is far from being alone with a split or hung parliament, unable to decide on majority and leadership but this crisis is extremely serious. After the intervention of the King, the choice of a new prime minister might be determined by the parliament coming Monday, 2 March. The pundit and commentator community is puzzled and contradictory from day to day as “old sly fox” Dr. Mahathir seems more and more unable to control the situation. Malaysia needs and deserves a stable government and not the reincarnation of the old regime. And snap elections if the parliament does not come up with a solution may complicate the situation even further.

 

 

Rule of Law and Rule by Law in Thailand


Partyforumseasia: As the saying goes, the difference between optimists and pessimists is, that the pessimist is often better informed. All optimism, guesses, and hopes vanished Friday afternoon, when Thailand’s Constitutional Court dissolved the Future Forward Party (FFP) and banned eleven of its leaders from politics for ten years. With the support of 70 % of the first-time voters, the young party had won 81 seats in the 2019 election, but some MPs had switched to other parties in the meantime. After the dissolution, the 64 remaining parliamentarians have 60 days to join another party if they want to maintain their mandate. In Thailand’s  very special political culture with its extremely volatile party system, FFP could well reinvent itself and reincarnate under a different name. That happened already twice to exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s party which was dissolved twice and emerged as the second biggest party last year under a new name.
The unrelented attacks on Future Forward after the unexpected election success do not come as a surprise. For the initially wafer-thin Majority of Prime Minister Prayuth chan-o-cha’s ruling coalition and the conservative Thai establishment, the young party is obviously a threat to the fragile political stability. Whether the suppression approach is wise or not, it also reveals a military mindset behind. Enemies have to be crushed decisively, and the two reincarnations and continuing success of the Thaksin parties are a warning not to be too lenient.

How did the Constitutional Court justify the dissolution?
In December last year, the Election Commission (EC) had requested the Court to disband Future Forward, because it had accepted a loan of 191 m THB (approx. 6 m USD) from its billionaire leader Thanatorn Juangroongruangkit. The cited section 62 of the Organic Law on Political Parties does not mention loans among the list of legitimate sources of funding, but it does not exclude them as illegal either. The Constitutional Court, anyway, followed the EC and dissolved the party. The reactions in the domestic debate are rather blunt. The Bangkok Post, on Friday, related that a least 32 political parties had funded parts of their election campaigns with loans, adding that there is a long list of cases showing the incompetence and partiality of the EC, and that its reputation has arrived at the lowest possible point. Other critics from the academia denounce party dissolution as just another form of coup d’état.

22 February 2020   by Wolfgang Sachsenröder

Thailand’s Future Without Military Coups?


Partyforumseasia:  In several Southeast Asian countries, English language  newspapers are normally supposed to be less dangerous than the vernacular ones. That is true in Thailand  like in other  countries with control-minded governments and a strong military behind it. The Bangkok Post, one of two big national newspapers in English, dared to publish a relatively friendly comment on 10 February about a “Thai dream”, a Thailand without military coups. Such a dream  wouldn’t be possible in many other countries for simply being unnecessary. (Link) 

Party leader Thanatorn (left) and secretary general Piyabutr


But Thailand, despite her friendly people and easy-going image abroad, has a rather dark record of military involvement in state matters and a long list of civilian governments toppled by the army. The first one, in 1932, changed the absolute monarchy into a constitutional one. And since then, at least every five to six years, the Thai military staged a coup, most of them successful.
The recent transition to civil government, headed by former general and junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha, is obviously not being taken at face value by considerable parts of the population, especially by the Future Forward Party (FFP) and its predominantly young voter base. In the 2019 election, 70 % of the first-time voters supported the FFP. So the “dream” of a Thailand without coups, promoted by co-founder and secretary general of the party, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, does make waves in the domestic debate. Khun Piyabutr was a professor for constitutional law at Thammasat University with an impressive list of publications, and is now a member of parliament and known as “chief ideologue” of the party. He suggests to start with a parliamentary panel to search for instruments to prevent coups. As a law expert he also wants changes to constitution and criminal code to prevent impunity for the coup leaders and repression against their victims, like imprisonment of politicians opposing the military involvement.

The Bangkok Post article by former editor Veera Prateepchaikul starts with caution, talking first about the defenders of the military: “It’s wishful thinking, an ideal that will never be achieved.” But his conclusion is the advice to be open-minded and think about possibilities to reach this so far elusive goal. With the wafer thin parliamentary majority and volatility of the ruling coalition recently slightly stabilizing, mainly due to party hopping MPs, Future Forward might evade the formal dissolution, its Damocles sword since the unexpected election success. The party’s leader, Thanatorn has already been stripped of the mandate he won last year, but Piyabutr is still in. His political career may depend on the perception of the Prayut government how dangerous he is or can be in the future.

Wolfgang Sachsenröder

Slowly Forward for Thailand’s Future Forward Party?


Partyforumseasia: Thailand’s ruling coalition under ex-general Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha may have carefully observed the two recent examples in the immediate neighbourhood: The bad one in Malaysia, where PM Najib Razak was defeated by the opposition and is facing 42 counts of breach of trust and money laundering in court. The other neighbour, PM Hun Sen in Cambodia, has simply eclipsed the opposition and the threat of losing the next election by asking the constitutional court to dissolve the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
Starting after the March 2019 election in Thailand with the proverbial wafer thin majority of his coalition with altogether 19 parties, some of them with one seat only, the Prime Minister did not hesitate to weaken the opposition. The first victim was Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party, the youngest and surprisingly third strongest party winning 81 seats in parliament,  behind Pheu Thai with 136 seats, and PM Prayut’s Palang Pracharath Party with 116. Future Forward was a big success among the younger generation, and its leader Thanatorn, a 41-year-old auto part and media tycoon, is most popular. A poll published by Thailand’s National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) beginning of January, saw Thanathorn and his party as the most promising next Prime Minister and FFP as ruling party, which must have been an alarm signal for the Prayut-Government. Thanathorn lost his mandate for several technicalities prohibited by the Election Commission and was disqualified by the Constitutional Court already in November 2019, but the next hit was already coming:

A lawyer had filed a complaint against Future Forward for trying to FFP logooverthrow the monarchy, and (sic!) alleged that the party is linked to the Illuminati, an occult group seeking world domination. The FFP logo, he argued, looks suspiciouly similar to the Illuminatis’ all seeing eye…

Fortunately for its own and the image of Thailand, the Constitutional Court, yesterday, 21st January, dismissed both allegations. The party was not dissolved, but should be cautious. Immediately after the acquittal, jubilant supporters were chanting “Future Forward Party, fight, fight! Gen Prayut, get out! Dictatorship collapse, long live democracy.’’ The government and the military-monarchist bloc won’t like and won’t forget that.

                                                                                                  Wolfgang Sachsenröder

 

Najib: A Step Toward Impunity?


Ex-PM Najib Razak, called “Bossku” or my Boss by his supporters, after last week’s by-election win in Sabah. Dreaming of a return to power and impunity?

Partyforumseasia: Najib Razak, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, toppled in May 2018 by the surprise election victory of the opposition, is involved in one of the world’s most spectacular political corruption scandals. When the story blew up in 2015, he “explained” that the nearly 700 million US$ in his private accounts had nothing to do with the sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB, which he was supervising, but were a donation of the Saudi royal family. The reality was different. Najib’s ruling coalition, and especially its main  party UMNO, was probably worldwide the best funded political party, with money cascades from government linked companies facilitating one election victory after the other, until May 2018, when even the pampered Malay core clientele was fed up with the level of corruption.
Mr. Najib, faced with three charges for criminal breach of trust, one for abuse of power and three for money laundering, is now telling the court that his adviser, businessman Jho Low, was behind the abuse and fraud of the 1MDB fund, from which 3.5 billion $ had disappeared. He himself pleads innocent and maintains that he did not do anything illegal. That, by the way, may not be as wrong as it sounds, because party funding was not regulated at all during his premiership. But the whole money cascade controlled by Najib and UMNO, involved public money, even syphoned away from the haj pilgrim fund, and left the new government with a huge public debt.
The clever “businessman” Jho Low, has just sealed a deal with the prosecution in the US. In exchange for one billion $ in property and other assets he is at least partially off the hook there. The blame game between Najib and Low goes on and on, each accusing the other. Low describes himself as a political scapegoat, while Najib says he has been tricked by Low. And for millions paid on jewellery with his credit card he even blames his own wife, Rosmah Mansor, who has been famous for years as collector of expensive handbags, sunglasses and jewellery.
Like Low, who is still in hiding but with a new passport from Cyprus, and managed to limit his indictment in the US, Najib may dream of sitting out his nightmare of  years in prison by slowing down the prosecution as longs as possible. With the actual domestic weakness of the Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan coalition, and with every by-election won by Barisan, the latest just last weak in Sabah, one of the two East Malaysian federal states on the island of Borneo, he may feel more encouraged to deny everything despite the overwhelming evidence. Voice recordings, released by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and reproduced in court, obviously prove attempts by Najib already in 2016, to untangle himself from the 1MDB scandal. And the ultimate relief dream would be final impunity if the UMNO-Barisan Nasional could make it back to power. That, at least, does not look impossible. The hopes of the Malaysian voters for a more transparent, less race-based, and overall cleaner political style have not been satisfied by the new government.
Wolfgang Sachsenröder

PS: For an overview of party funding and money politics in Southeast Asia see:
https://www.worldscientific.com/worldscibooks/10.1142/10726

 

 

 

Cambodia’s “Multi-Party” System


CNRP leader Kem Sokha to be tried for treason on January 15th

Partyforumseasia: Whatever the real power structures are, the international image of a party system is important. Single party systems look somewhat authoritarian, outdated in some parts of the world, and at least a semblance of formal democracy looks better for investors.
Cambodia may have started thinking along these lines, whether for her international image or for her internal social cohesion or a repair-remedy for the latter.

In the July 2018 elections, in which twenty parties had participated, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had won all 125 seats of the parliament. Five years before that, the CPP could only garner a small majority of 68 seats, while the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) had won 55. That was obviously a bit too narrow for the CPP and its leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is ruling the country since 1985. For the world’s longest serving and probably most battle-hardened Prime Minister at only 67 years of age, the idea of letting the opposition win might be difficult to accept. Anyway, one of the results of 2013 was the dissolution of the CNRP by the Supreme Court in September 2017. The justification was an alleged plot to topple the Prime Minister and his government. Since CNRP-co-chairman Sam Rainsy was already abroad in self-exile, the remaining leader Kem Sokha was detained as one of the coup-plotters. International standards are difficult to apply, in bigger parts of the world opposition as such is not a crime and competing in elections against the incumbent ruling party considered quite normal. There is no doubt that an upcoming country like Cambodia and her economy need internal stability, but the popularity of the CNRP and especially Kem Sokha were showing that many voters did not fear chaos or the unforgotten horrors of the country’s civil war coming back in case the opposition had won.

If the Hun Sen government should start to think twice about the damaging effects of one party rule for Cambodia’s image and investment climate, the recent formation of a new party may be an indication. Banned and dissolved political parties morphing into new ones with a different name and program are not an exception in the region, the nearest example being the two re-incarnations of Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party in neighbouring Thailand. The re-incarnation of the CNRP has been allowed in principle by Sar Kheng, Minister of Home Affairs last week, saying in a letter:
“To obtain validity and be able to carry out activities in accordance with the Law on Political Parties, the Cambodian Nation Love Party must apply to be registered with the Ministry of Interior in accordance with Articles 9 and 20, and new Articles 14 and 19 of the Law on Political Parties.”
The applicants, according to the Phnom Penh Post as of January 7, are former CNRP members “after they received political rehabilitation”. And the new name of the party, Cambodian Nation Love Party (CNLP), is as close to the old one in the acronym as “rehabilitated” in essence.

While exiled leader Sam Rainsy has unsuccessfully tried to put pressure on Hun Sen and the CPP via his excellent international contacts, the CNLP may avoid that trap which led to the coup and plot accusations.
For the very popular co-leader Kem Sokha, the plot theory will be treated in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court coming January 15th. Kem is directly accused of “conspiracy with a foreign power”, committed between 1993 (!!) and his detention in 2017. He could be convicted to a maximum of 30 years in prison.
The risk for the CPP government after such a harsh conviction could be a massive erosion of ground support, especially among the many younger Cambodians. Whether the American support, just celebrating 70 years of diplomatic relations, or the EU preferential trade arrangements would suffer, remains questionable. All too often, the Hun Sen government has ignored their calls for more democracy in the last 30 years without any consequences.

 

 

 

Near Self-Destruction Here and New Unity There. Volatility and Dynamics of the Malaysian Political Party Scene


Partyforumseasia: Malaysia’s party political scene, after six decades of predictability under the dominance of UMNO’s National Front government, and a turbulent start of the Coalition of Hope since its May 2018 surprise victory, is getting somewhat messy. As ususal after regime changes, the initial public support and the high expectations come down to a more sober realism and disappointment that campaign promises are not followed by prompt delivery. The cost of living issues of the masses are certainly as important as they had contributed to the downfall of the Najib regime, though the latter’s corruption conviction is still pending but slowly getting boring for most voters.

What is dominating the media and public debate these days are the succession of 94- year-old PM Mahathir Mohamad by Anwar Ibrahim, leader of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR or People’s Justice Party), the biggest party in the ruling coalition with 50 seats in parliament. The PKR Congress, ending today, 8 December, in Malakka, is brutally showing the lack of unity in the party and the divided support for Anwar and his deputy Azmin Ali. Both have distinct supporter groups in the party, especially in the youth wing. Despite an amicable meeting and propagated consensus between the two leaders on the day before the congress, the conflict broke out much too visibly and telegenic with turmoil inside and outside the conference venue and fighting of the enraged representatives, angry on behalf of the leaders they wanted to prevail. The sacking of faithful supporters on both sides was adding fuel to the fire, the program for the four days and the list of speakers was suddenly a casus belli. In addition, the special Malaysian variety of gutter politics with new accusations of indecent behaviour against Anwar Ibrahim who had spent already many years in prison for alleged sodomy, made the internal divisions within the PKR even more interesting for the media.
Germany’s first post-war chancellor Konrad Adenauer had formulated the partisanship within a political party with this famous quotation: There are enemies, mortal enemies, and there are party comrades... And another politician of this period, leader of a smaller party, used to say: No power in the world can destroy our party unless we do it ourselves.
The impression that PKR was close to self-destruction these last four days was being shared by many observers and the media, probably with some sort of glee among the opposition which are still licking their wounds from the unexpected defeat last year but starting to organise their return to power as well.

In stark contrast to the PKR turmoil, a parallel congress of the UMNO (Picture below) party celebrated unity and the new alliance with former arch enemy Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS). The latter’s president Hadi Awang, who used to call the UMNO members “infidels” years ago, was guest of honour on stage, and UMNO leader Zahid Hamidi announced the impending formalisation of the new alliance as “Muafakat Nasional” or National Consensus. Cut off from quasi unlimited financial supply under the Najib government, when political funding was not regulated and formally not illegal, though corrupt, the opposition parties are short of cash and limited in their campaigning, but disappointment with the ruling Coalition of Hope might fuel energy and new hope among UMNO and Pas members and their remaining partners in the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), which are relics of the former National Front led by UMNO.
As everywhere, voters with an interest in politics dislike open infighting in political parties which make the party and the leaders look weak, and regularly punish this PR disaster with the withdrawal of their electoral support. Success and ultimately the survival of the Coalition of Hope will depend on how they can solve the internal problems and above all the succession drama around Anwar Ibrahim. In his long, distinguished as well as dramatic political career, Anwar has sacrificed and suffered more than most top politicians. He is experienced and charismatic as few others, but this does not mean that the premiership is guaranteed. He is 72 years old in the meantime, but certainly young compared to Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who sometimes confirms the succession of Anwar, sometimes remains cryptic about how long he plans his own term in office. Many reform minded Malaysians want Anwar at the helm and hope for an end of race and religion in the country’s politics.


Fading Hope for Malaysia’s Ruling Coalition of Hope?


Partyforumseasia: Sea changing election outcomes, more often than not, come with the risk of creating very high expectations on the winners’ side and their supporters, and thirst for revenge among the losers on the other hand. That looks increasingly evident for the coalition government under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, which ended the six decades long rule of the UMNO/National Front administration in May last year. The unexpected victory was widely interpreted as due, and deservedly so, to the perceived corruption and money politics of UMNO and especially its leader and former Prime Minister Najib Razak. He held the ministry of finance as well, and not everybody believed that the US$ 700 million in his private accounts were nothing more than a private donation from the royals of Saudi Arabia. Political corruption, including control over a big number of government linked companies, plus the related arrogance of power were too much for a majority of voters.
But the new Mahathir government, the Pakatan Harapan or Coalition of Hope, saddled with the highest expectations of reducing the rampant politics of race and religion, and above all, their promises to care for the poorer part of the population and control the cost of living better than the Najib administration, has not delivered as expected. As a clear signal, the Coalition of Hope has just lost the 5th by-election in a row to a National Front which slowly recovers from the initial licking of wounds after being ousted. This by-election in Tanjung Piai, a constituency in the federal state of Johor, turned out to be a humiliating defeat for the Coalition of Hope. It had won the seat in 2018 with a narrow margin of just 524 votes and lost last week by 15,086 votes, a ratio of 1for the Coalition of Hope and 2.5 for UMNO, this time with support of the Islamic party PAS. UMNO and PAS have been competing for the Malay vote for decades, but entered into a marriage of convenience only a couple of months ago.


What is certainly difficult to swallow for all Malaysians who had voted for change, is the open jubilation of Ex-PM Najib Razak among the UMNO leaders and the winning candidate. The man is facing numerous charges of corruption and embezzlement, but the court procedures are difficult and slow. And Najib’s lawyers are trying everything to slow it down even further, because, if the Mahathir coalition should fail and collapse, Najib might get away from his nightmare of ending up in prison. And for too many voters the 4.5 billion US$ which have vanished from the 1MDB Sovereign Investment Fund under his control are obviously too abstract and complicated to remember.

The Tanjung Piai constituency has some 57 per cent Malay voters, but the Chinese minority is increasingly disappointed by the very Chinese dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) which, so far, has not managed to capitalize on its new role as a coalition partner in government. For many of its members and supporters the party does not shine and remains all too quiet in the shadow of PM Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. This widespread criticism may not be completely justified and fair, because one big question is dominating the public debate and keeping the wildest rumours alive:


Anwar Ibrahim (72) and Azmin Ali (55): Who will be the next Prime Minister?

The big issue is the mystery around the succession of 94-year-old PM Mahathir. To cobble together the new coalition against UMNO and Najib, Mahathir had promised to hand the premiership over to Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the Peoples Justice Party (PKR), within two years. Mahathir’s sometimes cryptic statements oscillate between strong confirmation and remarks that he must solve the most urgent problems first. In addition, there are two factions in the Coalition of Hope, one supporting Anwar, and another being against Anwar and supporting Azmin Ali, the Minister of Economic Affairs. The latter’s meeting last Monday with a bigger group of UMNO MPs did not help to reduce speculations and rumours.

The political development is not encouraging. Hopes for a “New Malaysia” without corruption and race and religion issues are more difficult to maintain, and the Malay majority has as many grievances as the strong Chinese and the Indian Minorities, and the poor people don’t see improvements in their livelihood. The old forces around UMNO, with secret and open support by the over 90 per cent Malay civil servants which feel less privileged under the new governmnet, will do anything necessary to come back to power. With every by-election the number games are starting from scratch, though right now, the majority of the Pakatan government still looks rather stable.


Cambodia: Who is who’s Nemesis?


No way anymore!

Partyforumseasia: Authoritarian rule is getting more difficult, unless the rulers have sufficient control of the social media. But long before the age of the omnipresent hand phone and internet penetration, it was difficult to suppress rumors and political jokes. That was always a valve for the subjects to signal like mindedness and disagreement with the prescribed views of the government.

Prime Minister Hun Sen won the election last year after eliminating the strongest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), through dissolution by the Supreme Court. Its chairman, Kem Sokha, was imprisoned, and Sam Rainsy and other leaders were pushed into exile. After all this, Mr. Hun Sen may have thought that he could relax. But the exiled and domestically low lying opposition is alive, maybe newly energized by the announcement of Sam Rainsy that he will come back to Cambodia on the 9th of November which is also constitution day. Whether this is a strategic manoeuvre or not, Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP leadership are apparently alarmed enough to react. And whether it is only a rumor or fake news injected by Sam Rainsy, that he has massive support in the armed forces and a budget to compensate the officers and soldiers who join him in a revolt against Hun Sen, this “plot” is already making waves and triggers detentions of activists from the illegal CNRP. More than twenty CNRP activists have so far been detained under charges of “plotting and incitement to provoke serious chaos to national and social security”. On October 7, the Prime Minister stated that any armed rebellion would be crushed immediately, and that for the detention of Sam Rainsy no warrant would be needed.
Mr. Hun Sen may be better informed than an outside observer, but the statement above sounds rather unusual and may betray a higher level of nervousness. So far, Hun Sen has certainly been Sam Rainsy’s nemesis, and a reversal of roles has always looked more than improbable. Sam Rainsy has often played indirectly with the support of his international connections in Europe and the USA. With economic support from China, Hun Sen could always shrug off all the external calls for more democracy. Therefore, the big question is whether there is a realistic chance for Sam Rainsy and the CNRP to come back and topple the CPP-government with sufficient popular support.

One possible cause for the top brass in the army to be unhappy may be the “request” of the Prime Minister in August, to rescind the “Oknha” titles of altogether 75 army officers. The honorific title, bestowed by the king, is given to individuals for “humanitarian contributions” of USD 500,000 and more. The regime has for long helped selected supporters to enrich themselves, what is easily done with business concessions and related privileges. But they had to be prepared that the Prime Minister, on one of his visits to the countryside, promised the local community a new school or new hospital and immediately turned around to the Oknha among the crowd to take over the funding. The collected “donations” were also suspected to be a main funding source for the ruling party.

As a result of the Prime Minister’s ultimatum, to drop the title or leave the army, seventy-five (75) officers have given up the title, while another 24 have left the armed forces. The 75 quitters were ranking between generals and lieutenant colonels, and the exercise was officially explained as a reform to avoid conflicts of interest. The director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said it in a rather charming way: “The changes make our armed forces more trustworthy because when officials have the Oknha title next to their military rank, the public begins to believe that they are leveraging their positions in the armed forces for financial gain.” (Phnom Penh Post, 25 September)

The Fuzzy Logic in Indonesia’s Politics



President Joko Widodo and Vice President Ma’ruf Amin
Partyforumseasia: While the Western tradition in politics and logic sees white and black as dominant categories, Indonesia has developed a fascinating way of validating the oscillating variations of changing gray scales, with some white and some black remaining at the margins. That is certainly helpful for the formation of compromises in politics and may prevent differences of opinion to develop too easily into open enmity. However, it can lead to positive or to negative outcomes. There are three very recent events to illustrate that:

1. Leadership posts in Parliament
The predominantly positive one is a compromise to enable all parties to get leadership posts in both houses of Parliament, the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) and the Regional Representatives Council (DPD). At least there is an agreement to amend the legislation accordingly. The move was triggered by a compromise between the dominant ruling party PDI-P and the biggest opposition party Gerindra, which had supported the former general Prabowo against the re-elected President Jokowi, to form an alliance of leadership in the MPR. Since this, in turn, irked the smaller coalition parties, the magic gray scale solution is now to give all parties a part of the leadership. Typically Indonesian? The trick might not work in other countries.
But Home Minister Tjahjo Kumolo (PDI-P) is cautious himself. The Jakarta Post as of 19th September quotes him as saying: “Hopefully, after this amendment, every policy-making process in the MPR can be done through a consensus, without opposition. (…) as the MPR leadership posts would automatically guarantee that all parties would pass,”

2. The Corruption Eradication Commission weakened
The second event looks like a gray scale compromise in Parliament but seems to be much less acceptable for the voters. The popular support for the respected Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) had so far been shared by President Jokowi and protected the organization against a number of attacks against its independence and its power to bring a number of corrupt politicians into prison. Probably the most spectacular case was the conviction of former Golkar leader and former speaker of Parliament Setya Novanto, sentenced to 15 years in jail in April 2018 for corruption and embezzlement in a huge scam in Parliament.
In a rather unusual “par force legislation”, on 17th September, the outgoing Parliament amended a number of regulations for the KPK which are clearly reducing the independence and powers of the institution. The changes, described as “emasculation” of the graft buster by critics, are as follows: The KPK has only two years to compile a case file, often not enough for the complex high level corruption cases. The KPK will become part of the executive branch and the employees will become state civil servants. The independence as an institution is gone. The supervisory board will be chosen by the House of Representatives through a selection committee formed by the President and has to decide on operational details like wire tapping which was one of the most potent tools. This may slow down ongoing investigations.
One of the gray scale aspects of the changes is the widely accepted practice of politicians and political parties to generate their income by syphoning away a high percentage from the development and infrastructure projects of the central and provincial governments, known as “pencaloan anggara” or “budget scalping”.

3. Amendments to the penal code
Another gray scale development is the creeping “Saudi-Arabization” of the traditionally more tolerant Indonesian Islam. One of the central projects of Islamist organizations and politicians is the reform of the penal code by amendments. But what lawyers, women’s and human rights groups had expected to be passed by the outgoing parliament last week was actually stopped by a hesitant president and referred to further clarification by the new parliament when it starts by next month. President Jokowi was attacked during his re-election campaign for an alleged lack of Muslim credentials, and has to be cautious. The Criminal Bill draft with its 628 articles was indeed containing many Shariah elements and tried to implement them on the national level, with many similar regulations already in force in the provinces, Aceh being the most radical of them. The proposed changes included punishing sex outside marriage with imprisonment of up to one year, which, since gay marriage is not allowed, would criminalize gay and lesbian sex without even mentioning these groups. It also banned the access to contraceptives for women under 18, and reduced the rights of religious minorities. Especially the interference into the very private affairs of the citizens may overstretch the flexibility of any gray scale compromise and damage the Wahabi model from Saudi Arabia in the complex and pluralistic society of Indonesia.

Muslim Malay Party and Malay Muslim Party Join Forces


The party leaders, Zahid Hamidi (UMNO) left and Hadi Awang (PAS)

Partyforumseasia: The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) which dominated Malaysia’s politics for over six decades and unexpectedly lost power in May last year, was licking its wounds since then. It looked knocked out while its leader and former Prime Minister Najib Razak is indicted for bribery and money laundering on the biggest possible scale and awaiting the first conviction after the 1MDB scandal. It might turn out to be one of his biggest political misjudgments caused by arrogance of power, that he thought his UMNO-led National Front Coalition was friendly enough with the other Malay-first Party Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) but did not need a formal election agreement with them. So he lost 54 seats and the Pakatan Harapan (or coalition of hope) won the decisive 53 seats which brought the former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad (94 and sharp as ever) back to power.

In the meantime, soul-searching and finger-pointing seems to be over, the acting opposition feels revived and aggressive, but the political cooperation pact between UMNO and PAS, inked last Saturday, 14th September, in Kuala Lumpur, stoked fears of reviving racial and religious politics because the event was called “HimpunanPenyatuan Ummah” or “Unity Gathering of the Muslim Faithful“. Many of the roughly forty percent Non-Malays in the country, predominantly Chinese and Indians, feel more than uncomfortable with the traditional affirmative action and identity policitics in favor of the Malay majority, especially when it comes with strong religious undertones. PAS vice-president Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man cited the Prophet Mohamed as mandating that the majority Muslim Malays must lead the country, and that especially the Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) cannot be entrusted with a role in government as it has now in Dr. Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan coalition.

The ongoing debate about a popular Muslim preacher, Dr. Zakir Naik, who pretends to promote Islam but questions the loyalty of Indian Malaysians, Christians and Jews, and calls the Chinese Malaysians “only guests” in the country, is certainly not calming fears that the UMNO-PAS marriage is not totally harmless. Zakir Naik, infamous as antisemitic in the USA and anti-Indian in his homeland India, is a permanent resident in Malaysia, but banned from public speaking in the meantime. But even the Mahathir administration is not inclined to revoke his permanent residency status because his popularity with Islamic groups. And another hype is adding to the dilemma. A growing movement wants consumers to buy halal goods only from Muslim producers which would discriminate on halal products made by Indian or Chinese enterprises. From food and fashion to lipsticks and banking, halal certificates are getting more important, in Malaysia and for many Muslims in Southeast Asia.

While many Malaysians outside the beneficiaries of Malay privileges and Ummah feelings were hoping that the new Mahathir government were more multi-racial and less focusing on religion, the new united UMNO-PAS block will have a good chance to win the next general election, due latest by 2023. For this opportunity, old rivalries can be overcome and PAS may forget that their leader called UMNO members “infidels” when PAS felt morally superior over the corrupt rival. All that is not surprising, opposition is no fun, especially after so many decades in power. All over the world, party alliances and marriages of convenience easily bring together the strangest of strange bedfellows which UMNO and PAS are certainly not, they are “family” now.

Power Broking in the Shade


Here is a review of the book:

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/732142

The Stability of Thailands Wafer-Thin Parliamentary Majority


Partyforumseasia: All over the world, traditionally stable party systems change into a collection of medium and small parties. As a consequence, the formation of governments is getting more complicated and takes more time after the elections. Clear majorities of dominant parties are getting rare, and even the British first-past-the-post election system, which was supposed to create stable majoritarian governments, is not working anymore in the UK itself.
The transition from a military government to a military-dominated coalition in Thailand is an extreme example. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has pulled all possible triggers to remain at the helm after calling an election which was supposed to start the return to a civilian government. The March 2019 election results were surprising in many ways. The traditional parties, Pheu Thai and the Democrats, lost half of their seats from the last parliament before the military rule. The biggest surprise was the success of the new Future Forward Party which denied Prayut’s new Palang Pracharat Party with only 116 seats and 24% of the vote the chance to form a clear majority coalition. But the former general cobbled together a thin majority nevertheless with the help of the Democrats and a string of smaller parties, altogether 18 of them. In June, Partyforumseasia has already discussed  the research results of Dr. Punchada Sirivunnabood, how public funding has contributed to the mushrooming of small parties in Thailand.

The remarkable part of this difficult coalition formation is that ten small parties most of which have only one elected member of Parliament have joined. And one of them, Mongkolkit Suksintaranont, leader of the Thai Civilised Party, has already left the new coalition on 13 August. That leaves the Prime Minister’s wafer-thin majority at only 253 seats out of 500 and could, in case the erosion continues, make the legislation a gamble.

The first defector’s explanation in front of the media was PM Prayut’s lapse in his oath of office. Freudian or not, he omitted the allegiance to the constitution and apologized in the meantime. But Prayut got away with it so far since the remaining leaders of the micro-parties declared their support as unconditional and lasting.

More democratically-minded commentators, including the leading academic observer, Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak from the Chulalongkorn University, see the first crack as a sign that the coalition won’t last very long. Their doubts are justified since the Election Commission had interpreted the rules already in a way which first allowed the micro-parties to enter the parliament. But many examples of narrow majority coalitions may teach otherwise. In a big majority, some dissent in policy issues does not matter. But if a coalition is threatened as such and close to losing its grip on power, the survival instinct of the members will prevail and foster cohesion. The spoils of power are much too attractive and will nearly always be stronger arguments than democratic principles. PM Prayut’s new cabinet has 19 ministers and 19 deputy ministers. And concerning incentives to single MPs to toe the government line there are more than enough ways to find a satisfying solution. The growth of the ruling coalitions in Indonesia’s democratic era shows how it works in practice. A commentary in the Bangkok Post on 14 August came with the headline “Tiny parties, giant power”. Rather true, the power to tip the scale comes with a reward and a price, especially in politics and especially in the current politics of Thailand.

Megawati Sukarnoputri continues to dominate Indonesias’s PDI-P


Partyforumseasia: When Mrs. Megawati was Vice-President of Indonesia between 1999 and 2001, the visually handicapped President Abdurrahman Wahid or Gus Dur was describing the two as: “We’re the best team, I can’t see and she can’t speak.” She may not be an exciting public speaker, but the political influence of the daughter of Indonesia’s founding President Sukarno is absolutely remarkable. Last Thursday, August 8th, she was re-elected as chair of her PDI-P party by acclamation, even before her accountability speech for the last five years of her already 20 years of leadership. And she also denied the rumors that, due to her age of 72, she would hand over her day-to-day duties to daughter Puan Maharani and son Prananda Prabowo. Chairing the party since 1999, Megawati, or Mega, in short, is a constant factor in the country’s democratic journey since the end of the autocratic Suharto era in 1998.
Megawati’s authority in the party is unchallenged. The delegates at the national party congress in Bali, representing 34 provinces and more than 500 regencies and cities, as well as the central board leaders, were far from changing their ” winning horse”. With 109 MPs and 19.3 % of the 140 million eligible voters, PDI-P is not only the biggest party in the Indonesian Parliament but has also successfully supported the re-election of President Joko Widodo.

As it happens often enough, a ruling party attracts more and more support and the willingness of smaller parties to join in as coalition partners. For a long time after President Jokowi’s victory in the April 2019 election, his losing challenger, former general Prabowo, had protested against the results because he alleged massive fraud. So, Prabowo’s participation in the Bali PDI-P convention is a possible landmark for reconciliation, maybe even for entry of his Gerindra party into the ruling coalition. Mrs. Megawati may not be a fiery public speaker but obviously a convincing mediator at the end, which certainly is a blessing for the political stability and further democratic development of Indonesia.

The difficult funding of Thailand’s political parties


Partyforumseasia: All political parties of the world need money, and they need more and more money, especially in Southeast Asia. Election campaigns here have become more costly every year because the voters have been sort of spoiled with entertainment, gifts, transportation to rallies, and most important of all, by the opportunity of selling their vote to one of the candidates or even several of them.

Elections with enormous turnovers by vote buying and “donations” to local constituencies are common all over the region, and Thailand played quite an interesting role in this development. A real godfather of money politics was the former Prime Minister Banharn Silpa-archa, who earned the nickname Mr. ATM (automatic teller machine) for his useful skills in channeling big amounts of money at the right time into willing voters’ hands.

The bad reputation of this type of money politics is also creating attempts to reduce or even eradicate it. A newly published research paper of the ISEAS Yussuf Ishak Institute at Singapore by Punchada Sirivunnabood gives an interesting glimpse into the efforts to create some transparency for the party funding. Thailand has already some experience with state funding or party funding with taxpayers’ money. But as usual, good intentions don’t necessarily yield good results.

Punchada shows the trappings of giving money to parties who need much more than they can ever get from this type of programs:

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Thailand introduced the Political Party Development Fund in 1998 as a means of providing state subsidies for political parties.

Law makers hoped that such financing would be an effective means of curbing illicit fundraising and vote buying. More importantly, subsidization would support small and new parties and promote their organizational development.

The Political Party Development Fund proved a double-edged sword, however. While it provided resources for the development of parties, it also encouraged small parties to set up numerous branches and to increase their membership for the purpose of maximizing their shares of subsidies.

The 2017 Organic Law on Political Parties introduced a new method of allocating Political Party Development Fund subsidies to political parties, with the goal of solving corruption problems associated with the existence of many small parties.

Punchada Sirivunnabood is a Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme of the ISEAS –Yusof Ishak Institute

The full text is available under
https://www.iseas.edu.sg/images/pdf/ISEAS_Perspective_2019_50.pdf

For a regional overview see

 

 

Mid-term elections in the Philippines: Landslide for President Duterte


Partyforumseasia: Traditionally, the Philippines belong to the democracies with the highest voter turnout. The calculations for the 13 May mid-term elections are expected to be between 75 and 80 %, which would be a dream result in most European countries and a miracle in the US. The first reliable results are out, among them the winners of the twelve Senate seats to be renewed every three years. Running for the Senate needs costly campaigning because the whole archipelago is one constituency. This is why the last three successful candidates for the “magic twelve” needed over 14 million votes, and the top result was nearly 25 million. It is also noteworthy that five of the twelve winners are women.

            Chart from The Inquirer: LINK

With this year’s outcome, the opposition in the 24 seat Senate is down to four, which means that the President will have all it needs to push through his agenda, including changes of the constitution. In the presidential system of the Philippines, a former US colony, the winner takes all principle is more than visible. Since the President controls the budget distribution, politicians and parties are easily “convinced” to join his or her ranks. Nonexistent membership fees and donations from businesses cannot meet the funding needs of the political parties, on the contrary, politicians, “Pols” in the popular lingo, are expected to contribute to their constituency and their voters in a rather personalized way. This, on the other hand, makes it necessary for incumbents and challengers to provide sufficient funding. Re-elected Senator Cynthia Villar, for example, the top performer with nearly 25 million votes,  happens to be the wife of a property developer on top of the national Forbes list. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

Among the prominent losers, but with respectable millions of votes as well, are candidates from the big political families like Aquino, Roxas, Estrada, and Osmena. The opposition, especially the Liberal Party, which had prospered under President Noynoy Aquino before Duterte, has been practically wiped out.

Since 2010, the Philippines are rather advanced with the vote counting automation, like only a handful of countries worldwide. The ballot papers are being read by automatic counting machines. The results are printed out and electronically transmitted to the “Board of Canvassers”. From more than 90,000 machines, a few hundred failed, and complaints about fraud and irregularities are common. According to National Police Chief Oscar Albayalde, 441 people have been arrested for vote buying. Interestingly, he blames the vote buying on the “incorruptible” vote counting machines, because the more traditional ballot manipulations, often during “power failures” after the polling stations had closed, are no longer possible. The Philippines, though, are in numerous bad company throughout Southeast Asia, where money politics and vote buying are common.

Apart from the Senate, 245 Members of Parliament and 18,072 local representatives in the municipalities had to be elected.

Altogether, President Duterte, heavily criticized for his war on drugs by the international media, has won a landslide victory, or “avalanche victory” in the Philippino media. On his home turf, Davao City, his three children have won municipal mandates. Duterte’s strong man image has convinced a majority of voters, maybe a bad omen for democratically minded people all over the world who prefer a more deliberative and consultative style of government. But we seem to have entered an era of strongman- and brinkmanship.

 

Thailand’s Circumstances Part 2


Partyforumseasia: There is widespread unhappiness with the election results and how the military government is handling them. Gaining legitimacy through elections is not easy. Here is a report in Asia Sentinel about alleged massive fraud:
/https://www.asiasentinel.com/politics/report-junta-rigging-thailand-election/

Scathing Report on Junta’s Rigging of Thai Election
May 11, 2019 By John Berthelsen

In 2018, the European Union reluctantly decided to resume relations with Thailand, based on a pledge by the junta that uprooted an elected democracy in 2014, that it would hold free and fair elections.

The farce that took place on March 24 of this year was so comically rigged that any attempt to call the election free and fair has to be met with outright scorn. The fraudulence of the events leading up to the election have only been matched by fraudulence of the events afterward in the junta’s so-far successful gambit to stay in power.

The details can be found in a 32-page report compiled by a newly-created organization named FORSEA, short for Forces of Renewal for Southeast Asia, established by Southeast Asian democrats and rights campaigners committed to making the region more just, fair and democratic. One of the leaders of the organization is former Thai diplomat Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an Asia Sentinel contributor.

The report, titled Fraud, irregularities and dirty tactics: A report on Thailand’s 2019 elections, was released this week. The information was gathered from thousands of submission by outraged Thai citizens who witnessed and reported the fraud over the 10 days March 19-29.

What they found was an astonishing litany of electoral fraud – backed up in the report by voluminous exhibits – including willful publication of incorrect information about party candidates, miscounted ballots, setting up polling stations in unsuitable locations, failing to provide ballots to overseas voters, failure to deliver ballots from overseas, heavy state intimidation of voters, tampering with opposition election posters, pressure by election officers to support pro-junta parties, forcing voters to attend pro-junta party functions, forcing the military to vote, interfering with voters casting their votes and scores of other misuses.

Pro-government parties were allowed to set up posters in front of polling stations, pro-junta parties were allowed to continue campaigning on the eve of elections, opposition parties’ literature and posters were destroyed, there was suspicious funding for pro-junta parties, donation receipts for pro-junta parties were falsified, ballots were improperly transported in private pick-ups and mini-trucks instead of post office vehicles, ballot boxes were improperly secured, broken ballot box locks were found in trash piles, vote-buying was widespread, graveyards were voted along with underage voters, below the age of 18 and therefore ineligible to vote, found their names on the list of eligible voters and voters in pro-opposition areas found their names missing at their registered local polling station, according to CSI LA, an anonymous Thai activist group known for exposing fraud and corruption in the government.

Those election-day misuses were just the start. Even beforehand, Thai Raksa Chart Party, one of the stronger parties and closely affiliated with the Pheu Thai backed by for exiled billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, was dissolved by order of the Constitutional Court after the party nominated Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya, the daughter of the late King, Bhumibol Adulyadej and sister of the current King, Vajiralongkorn to be premier, a political earthquake that was considered tantamount to handing the election to the opposition. Vajiralongkorn said the entrance of royalty into politics was illegal and forced her to step aside although she had long since renounced her royalty to marry an American commoner.

The election was rigged from the start with a constitution written by the junta to make it virtually impossible for the opposition to govern even if it won a plurality of the votes – which it did. Pro-opposition parties, particularly Pheu Thai and Future Forward, along with a number of smaller parties, won enough of the vote to win the House of Representatives.

Due to the algorithm used to calculate the number of seats won by each party, the Pheu Thai Party, the surrogate for Thaksin, ended up winning the largest number of parliamentary seats with 135, followed by the pro-junta Palang Pracharat, which won 117.

Future Forward, an emerging political party spearheaded by a young billionaire, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, which has captured the imagination of Thailand’s young and is aligned with the opposition, won 80. The Democrat Party, which has dominated the country’s south and Bangkok, slipped to just 53, and Bhumjaithai, headed by maverick politician Newin Chitchob, won 51.

However, a week after the preliminary results were announced, the Election Commission, which is aligned with the junta, claimed it had discovered mysterious ‘uncounted ballots,’ which meant that all political parties received additional votes that gave the lead to the junta’s Palang Pracharat Party. Despite that, Pheu Thai remained the winner in terms of 137 parliamentary seats, followed by Palang Pracharat, with 118. Future Forward won 87, the Democrat Party, 55; and Bhumjaithai 52.

Although the number of seats meant Pheu Thai Party initially formed a coalition government with Future Forward Party and other, smaller parties, that has been stymied. Palang Pracharat party has claimed the right to set up a government. That has been ratified by King Vajiralongkorn, which is regarded by opponents as an unacceptable intrusion into politics by the royalty.

In any case, even though the opposition might take a majority of the 500 members of the House of Representatives, the 250 Senators appointed by the junta are allowed to vote in a joint session of the two houses of Parliament to select the prime minister, who does not need to be a member of Parliament himself.  Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the general who engineered the coup that brought down the elected government in 2014, will remain as premier.

The consequences for the Future Forward party are also menacing. Apparently alarmed at the party’s popularity and that of its leader, leader of the party, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, as well as its Secretary-General, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, the junta has accused Thanathorn of sedition for allegedly providing assistance to an individual who had led protests against the 2014 coup. Piyabutr has also been charged with allegations of computer crime and contempt of court.

“The charges against Future Forward leaders are meant to send a strong message from the Thai political elites, who appear unwilling to accept the results of the elections,” according to the report. “These elites are therefore searching for extra-parliamentary means to undermine their political opponents.”

Overall, “the information presented in this report exposes the systemic fraud and other irregularities during the 2019 election, pointing to a coordinated and methodical effort to facilitate the victory of pro-junta political forces, the authors write. “These activities completed the efforts of the junta before and after the election to cripple the democratic opposition and maintain control of the country, which this report briefly covers. The election, from its announcement to today, has made a mockery of Thailand’s democratic tradition.”

The organization calls on the Thai people and the international community to “reject the election’s results and call for a real election. The junta sees the election as means to assert its legitimacy while maintain dictatorial control over the country. It is today more crucial than ever that the world does not grant any legitimacy to the military junta.”

 

 

 

 

 

Pomp and Circumstance in Bangkok


Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war
(Shakespeare, Othello, 1616)

Thailand is divided between pomp and circumstance, as is the electorate and the political class. While the elaborate coronation ceremonies of King Rama X fascinated the population, it gave more time for the formation of a new government behind the royal palace scene and the not so glorious war against the opposition and its hope to end the military government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha.
The splendors of the coronation, including the Buddhist and Brahmin rituals of purifying the king, “symbolizing his transformation from human to the divine”(The Nation), are hiding for a while the political shortcomings of Thailand’s planned return to a civilian government.

If the timing and coordination of the two events have been planned by the outgoing government of Prime Minister Prayut, it can only be called politically astute and clever, at least from an unemotional perspective outside the country. For the internal critics of the military regime, who had hoped that the election on 24 March would pave the way for a civilian democratic government, the disillusion must be immense.

The not unexpected bombshell:

With the announcement of the party list seats, the element of proportional representation, by the Election Commission, the remaining dreams of an opposition government look futile. With a couple of manipulations, the scale is tipping in favor of the military by a mere eight seats, 253 to 245. And with the additional votes of the handpicked senators, Prime Minister Prayut can be assured of his re-eletion.

Despite the careful planning and several pre-emptive interventions by the Prayut government, the “Thaksinist” Pheu Thai is the biggest party, followed by the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), the political vehicle of the military government, which fared better than expected in the constituency votes but remained far short of a majority. The Democrat Party, the oldest party in Thailand, dreaming of winning a hundred seats, came out with only 33 plus 19 list mandates. Its tactical approach during the campaign, to join the opposition camp, may explain the bitter losses. Chairman Abhisit Vejjajiva, a  former Prime Minister, has resigned immediately. What the new leadership, to be elected shortly, will decide, whether to join the military or not, remains to be seen. Together with the 51 MPs of the Bhumjaithai Party, they would be the preferred coalition partners for the PPRP. Wednesday’s Bangkok Post quotes a PPRP source that Bhumjaithai and Democrats have been offered six cabinet post each, and Chartthaipattana two.

The unexpected spoiler is the young Future Forward Party (FFP) with its leader Thanatorn Juanroongruangkit, who managed to convince over 6 million voters, especially from the younger generation. With 30 direct mandates and 50 party list seats, FFP might have been the kingmaker and enable the opposition to prevail over the pro-military camp. The immediate consequence was a move to disqualify Thanatorn for violating the candidacy requirements. The EC says that he still held 675,000 shares in a media company. He says that he transferred them to his mother before the registration and that he can prove it, the case is pending. But a Bangkok Post comment came with the headline: “The Empire strikes back in Game of Thanathorn”… The English language newspapers, The Nation and Bangkok Post, are rather outspoken critics of the National Council for Peace and Order’s (NCPO) cynical moves against the maverick.

A surprise is the allocation of one seat each to 12 small parties which did not reach the minimum number of votes, yet another point of contention and upcoming legal challenges.

Finally, coming Friday, May 10th, the government will announce the list of the 250 hand-picked Senators and send it to the King for approval. A new finesse of the electoral law is the fact that the new Prime Minister will be elected by the 500 strong Parliament and the 250 Senators together. This model is functioning quite well in Germany for the election of the president, with the difference, though, that the second chamber (Bundesrat) is the elected representation of the 16 federal states and not appointed by the government of the day. But appointed senators are a tradition in Thailand. Legal battles may continue for a while but Election Commission and even the Constitutional Court have lost the trust of the anti-military camp who doubt their impartiality.

The carefully crafted and rather complicated voting and parliamentary system has not guaranteed Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s re-election automatically. Many voters seem to have opted for him for fear of more turmoil with fragile party coalitions on the anti-military side. But the upcoming coalition may be as fragile itself. One positive point for the Prayut government is the successful royal transition for which many pundits had predicted problems up to civil war because of the  image difference between the late King Bhumibhol and his son. Now, officially enthroned, King Vajiralongkorn or Rama X has “swept away the hearts of his subjects” (The Nation and Bangkok Post, which both spike their copies with congratulatory adverts and “long live the king” devotion). May Thailand glide safely through the next phase of her destiny like the royal barge on the Chao Phraya river:

Indonesia’s Democratic Progress


Partyforumseasia: A nation with over 190 million eligible voters is preparing for the presidential and legislative elections on 17 April in an increasingly feverish atmosphere. The presidential contenders, incumbent President Joko Widodo or Jokowi and his narrowly defeated challenger from five years ago, former general Prabowo Subianto, have used strategically chosen vice-presidential candidates and met in a series of public debates without clear winners. But Jokowi is still leading in the polls, as usual with a shrinking margin over Prabowo to keep the race exciting for the last days of campaigning.

In the huge Indonesian archipelago with more than 17.000 islands, over 300 ethnic groups, and very different levels of development and modernization, the organizational challenges of nationwide elections are already immense. But the young Indonesian democracy has so far shown quite a decent outcome, despite many flaws and open flanks. One is the ubiquitous vote-buying, which is also rampant in most countries in Southeast Asia. Because of a major 170 m US$ financial scandal with the introduction of identity cards, for which former house speaker Setya Novanto is serving 15 years in jail, several million voters without the ID card may be excluded from voting. Novanto was also a chairman of the Golkar party. Recently another Golkar parliamentarian, Bowo Sidik Pangarso, was caught with thousands of envelopes filled with cash in different denominations. At least a third of the voters have received cash for votes in the past, and according to polls, most voters accept that as normal, while for the many poor Indonesians some election cash is most welcome anyway. And the thumb rule is evident: Poor candidates never win a mandate,

The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), though, is trying to stem the tide. A poster is urging the voters not to accept money: “Berani tolak gratifikasi” or “dare to refuse gratifications”. It may not be more than a starting point for a future change in election culture. The financial appetite of the political parties is an indicator that the candidates are still relying on cash handouts and other donations to their constituencies in the form of funds for mosques and sports facilities and the like. This is why, before the next president is confirmed, the horse trading for future coalitions and cabinet posts is already in full swing. Talking to journalists, Prabowo’s brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, revealed that in case of their victory, they would give seven ministerial posts to the National Mandate Party (PAN), and six to the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), two important members of their campaign coalition. Ministerial posts are the key to the huge number of development and infrastructure projects which serve as cash cows for parties and members of parliament to recoup the inevitable campaign costs. The skimming of these projects at a rate of between 10 and 30 percent is called “pencaloan anggaran” or “budget scalping“.

Another development looks more promising for Indonesia’s democratic progress. Among the 8000 odd candidates for the 575 seats in parliament are no less than 3,200 or roughly 40% women. The parties are forced by law to field at least 30% female candidates, but the numbers are going up. In the outgoing house, 17% of the MPs are female, so it will be interesting to see the outcome this year. The increasingly conservative mood in predominantly Muslim Indonesia is not really conducive for female careers in politics and business. But many younger women are just running with a scarf and all. Religious credentials play a strong role in this election. This is why incumbent presidential candidate Joko Widodo has chosen a leading Muslim cleric as his running mate.

For an overview of money politics in Southeast Asia see: ISBN: 978-981-3230-73-6
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