About partyforumseasia

Party Research and Consultancy, Singapore

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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Ex-PM Najib’s last laugh?


Partyforumseasia: When we published our first post on the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia, one reader wrote in that the prison gates were wide open for former Prime Minister Najib Razak who lost the general election in May 2018. Nearly a year later, Najib is still running free, and what is even more surprising, roaming the country being cheered as “bossku” (my boss) and “boss kita” (our boss) by crowds wherever he appears. To a certain degree, this is a reaction to the slow implementation of promised reforms by the new government under Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. One of the slow-moving processes is the reform of political patronage in Malaysia’s intricate network of state-owned and government-linked companies, another one being the reduction of the overblown bureaucracy which is also a result of the former government’s corrupt mechanisms of employing its own supporter clientele. 1MDB is supposed to have been the source of quasi-unlimited funds for the former government’s money politics.

But there is also another, maybe more potent, development behind. Najib’s financial mastermind, fugitive financier Low Taek Jho, alias  Jho Low, who is suspected to have diverted billions from the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund, is spending millions to “unsully” his image.
On its website “opensecrets.org”, Washington based Center for Responsive Politics has published in great detail that the elusive businessman has spent so far more than 1.4 million US$ on law firms and reputation management companies in the US to influence his own and Najib’s prosecution. LINK
Najib’s continuing freedom in Malaysia may be close to an end, though. The list of charges is long enough, and all but one of his appeals have been rejected by the Court of Appeal recently:

Thai elections still haunted by Thaksin – Constitutional Court dissolves Thai Raksa Chart Party


Partyforumseasia: Calling it election fever would be an understatement. The long-anticipated general election on 24th March is stirring up emotions like never before in the country’s colorful election history. And, no surprise, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who is seeking election (since he assumed the premiership by ousting Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014 it can not be called re-election) is preparing the ground to prevent a surge of the surviving and diversified Thaksin-loyalists surviving predominantly in the Pheu Thai Party, the third incarnation of the plutocrat’s original Thai Rak Thai Party.
The Nation daily published a survey of the election chances on 6th March, which forecasts Pheu Thai as the biggest possible winner:

Nation survey

The survey focuses on the 350 constituency seats in the mixed-member proportional system and does not include the possible results of the 150 party-list members. This new electoral system has been designed to limit the chances of bigger parties to dominate the 500-seat lower house. But party strategists know how to play the piano even if it is not tuned to provide a level playing field. The Thai Raksa Chart Party, founded by many Pheu Thai politicians only four months ago, was therefore widely seen as a mechanism to add party-list seats to Pheu Thai.
These dreams have been shattered yesterday, 7th March, by the decision of the Bolratana 2Constitutional Court to dissolve the party with immediate effect. The surprise move of nominating Princess Ubolratana as a prime ministerial candidate turned out to be too risky a strategy. The court deemed it unconstitutional because it abused the Royalty, supposed to be above politics,  for electoral advantage. To make sure that they don’t find another loophole, the 13 members of the TRC executive committee have been banned from politics for the next ten years.

Nervousness about a deeply divided electorate is rather understandable and only the third place in the Nation survey for the Phalang Pracharat Party which supports Prime Minister Prayut must irritate the military camp. Interesting as well are the continuing regional party preferences, the Thaksin camp still dominating in the North and North East, and the Democrat Party equally dominating Bangkok and the South. The real question will come up after the votes will be counted, when coalitions will be needed to form a majority in the lower house. The incompatibilities seem to be clearly visible at the moment, but parties and politicians have shown extreme flexibility in the past when the spoils of ministerial power are being up for grabs.

 

No Royal Prime Minister for Thailand!


Partyforumseasia: Was it a PR-coup and a calculated provocation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha or simply a miscalculation? With obviously launched rumors that the just three months old Thai Raksa Chart Party was going to nominate a very important person as its nominee for Prime Bolratana 2Minister in the upcoming election on 24th March, the media attention was guaranteed. The bombshell exploded on the last possible date for the nomination last Friday, February 8, when Thai Raksa Chart’s leader Preechapol Pongpanit opened a brown envelope and presented as a nominee the former princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, the elder sister (67 years old) of King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Royal Prime Ministers are rare, but Bulgaria’s former king, Simeon II, was PM from 2001 to 2004, and Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia from 1955 to 1960. 

The political bombshell of Princess Ubolratana’s candidacy was the clash in Thai politics between the royalist and military camp and the still strong lingering support for ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, PM from 2001 to 2006, perfected money politics and secured faithful voters in the rural areas as the first Bangkok politician to take care of them. Multi-ethnic Thailand has more than 50% dialect speaking minorities which are sensitive to official neglect and reduced job opportunities. They were the key to Thaksin’s stunning electoral successes and the popularity of the serial re-incarnations of his original Thai Rak Thai party.

A special feature in the ongoing election campaign is the split of the Thaksin party reincarnations. It is a strategic move of his followers to maximize their chances in the new electoral system which is clipping the wings of bigger parties. Thai Raksa Chart is fielding 175 candidates, and many bigwigs of the other Thaksinite Pheu Thai Party have joined.

The coup triumph with the royal top candidate was short-lived. The King intervened within the day and declared his elder sister’s candidacy as highly inappropriate and even unconstitutional since she is still considered a part of the royal family though she renounced her title decades ago when she married an American. But divorced and back in Thailand, she has participated in royal ceremonial functions. A singer and TV presenter, she is also popular for chairing and promoting charities. But she is not known for any special qualifications in politics.

As a result of this highly theatrical political episode, the future of the Thai Raksa Chart Party may be threatened by dissolution. As a failed coup, if Thaksin has been behind, it will definitely push the candidacy of former general Prayut, the incumbent Prime Minister.

 

Pakatan Harapan-Broom to Sweep Malaysia Clean


Partyforumseasia: The Pakatan Harapan or Coalition of Hope suffered a setback by losing an important by-election last weekend, which actually gave an opportunity to the opposition UMNO to develop new hope in turn. See the previous post

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (93) is killing two birds with one stone simultaneously by launching a wide-ranging National Anti-Corruption Plan yesterday, 29th of January. It shows him as a reformer and highlights the endemic corruption of the former government. His only eight months old new government is facing the unpleasant task to clean up the gigantic swamp of graft and corruption which served the former dominant UMNO party to rely on quasi-unlimited political funding. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak was simultaneously Finance Minister. With a rather hybrid entity, called Ministry of Finance Corporation, he could control a  huge network of Government Linked Companies (GLCs). But what was all too visible for the voters and finally broke his political neck was the growing evidence of criminal manipulations within the state-owned Sovereign Wealth Fund 1MDB with billions of dollars disappearing in black holes.

As laudable and timely as the National Anti-Corruption Plan is, some Malaysians remember Dr. Mahathir’s money politics in his first 22 year-long term as Prime Minister until 2003. Yet, the concept of eradicating corruption in Malaysia within the next five years and the planned reform measures sound convincing enough.

The most important points are as follows:

– New laws on political funding for politicians and political parties will be introduced.

– Review appointment procedures for key government posts.

–  Politicians and high-ranking civil servants will have to declare their assets.

– The credibility of the legal and judicial system must be enhanced.

– Corporate governance needs reform.

Ex-UMNO-President Najib Razak, facing a slew of graft charges, is still maintaining his innocence, and even may not be completely wrong in a technical sense because political funding has been totally unregulated in Malaysia so far.

The just-published Corruption Perception Index (CPI) by Transparency International does not show any dramatic changes for Southeast Asia in comparison with the previous years. With rank 61 out of 180 countries, Malaysia is still ahead of most other ASEAN countries. Obviously, the 1MDB saga has not really affected the result.

For more details about political funding and money politics in Malaysia see:

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New Hope for Malaysia’s Defeated UMNO Party?


The sea-changing landslide defeat of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in May last year was mainly triggered by the loss of trust in its chairman and Prime Minister Najib Razak with more and more revelations concerning the 1MDB financial scandal. Najib is indicted with numerous accusations but still free on bail and still pretending that he didn’t do anything wrong. But UMNO, after more than half a century in power and enjoying quasi-unlimited access to funds via its tight control over a government-linked company empire, seemed to disintegrate quickly. Its Barisan Nasional (or National Front) coalition lost ten of the formerly 13 component parties which had contributed ethnic minority votes for decades. After initially 17 defected MPs, Umno remains with 38 in the 222 seat parliament and the remaining BN partners Malaysian Chinese Association and Malaysian Indian Congress with one each.

For the remaining UMNO MPs, switching into one of the new ruling coalition parties is not as easy as party switching used to be in Malaysia before. They are seen as opportunists in both camps, and the few who are trying to move back into UMNO are seen as traitors. There are even calls for banning party hopping or going independent altogether.

Left: Party switching in the 1970s…

Yesterday, Saturday, 26 of January, the low morale of UMNO and BN has Continue reading

ICERD and the elimination of racial discrimination in Southeast Asia


Partyforumseasia: Singapore has just submitted its first report on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which it ratified in November 2017. And multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious Singapore is proud of decades of “racial harmony” and equal rights for everybody. Neighboring Malaysia, in contrast, suddenly belongs to the remaining 14 countries worldwide which have not signed the convention. In force since 1969, the ICERD has been ratified by 179 countries and signed by 4 more. The new Pakatan Harapan government under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had promised to sign and ratify it but bowed to pressure from huge protest rallies by tens of thousands of Malays who feared for their positive discrimination and exclusive rights in the mixed ethnic setup of the country.

KL Icerd rally

On 8 December 2018 about 50.000 Malay Muslims protested against the ICERD in Kuala Lumpur.

The decades of racial politics by the former UMNO-Barisan-governments which helped to win all elections until May 2018 are backfiring now, that a strong Chinese-based party, the DAP, is part of the ruling coalition and accused of being a threat to the Malay majority. And even more backfiring is the focus on Islam by UMNO and especially the Islamist PAS party. Malaysia has a secular and neutral legal system, Islam is formally “the religion of the Federation” but not a state religion. For radical and many other Muslims, though, this is not enough. They campaign for more Sharia-based criminal punishments (hudud), and a right-wing Malay Muslim group,  Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Malaysian Muslim Solidarity), known by its Malay acronym Isma, fights for giving up the secular principle and establish the country as a genuine Muslim state. The political parties which have promoted these social undercurrents for their electoral advantage, now see it as a vehicle to promote their comeback after being ousted in the May election. For the time being, UMNO is split and in disarray, but the ruling coalition is not really strong and united, holding together mainly by the towering personality of PM Mahathir.

With its evident idealistic undertones, ICERD itself may have an open flank by focusing on “racial” discrimination. In Article 1 it defines racial discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”

But the notion of “race” is in many ways outdated since in terms of species, humankind consists only of the “homo sapiens” variety for the last 40.000 years. Neanderthal and other genes have survived in rather small percentages, and cultural differences may distinguish the existing subgroups a lot more than shades of skin and hair color. Among many pseudo-sciences, race biology has been one of the most destructive, historically an outgrowth of the need to justify slavery and colonial supremacy.

Southeast Asia is characterized by an outstanding number of distinct ethnic groups with their own language and culture, though closely related by phenotype and genetic composition. Indonesia counts over 300 ethnic groups, Myanmar 135, Thailand about 70, and Vietnam 54. Malaysia and Singapore, for administrative and political reasons, have decided to classify along the main racial lines, namely Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Others, thus simplifying the many shades of ethnic and cultural differences on the ground. In Malaysia, the ratio of “immigrant races” and the Malay “sons of the land” or Bumiputera was controversial from the beginning and later developed into a religious issue as well.

Singapore started her independence in 1965 with a Chinese majority of 75%, and the Malay, Indian and Other minorities to be accommodated as equally as possible. With the increasing migration and the ageing of traditionally more homogeneous populations, an ethnic mix will be the future of most countries. It is already and will remain an enormous political challenge, which is hardly understood by political parties in Europe and the US. The ongoing, though imperfect, solutions in Southeast Asia may present some clues for a better understanding, hopefully without the historical baggage of the outdated race biology.

The Lack of Money is the Root of all Evil (Mark Twain) The International Anti-Corruption Day and the Party Funding in Southeast Asia


Partyforumseasia: Ahead of the International Anti-Corruption Day on 9th December, President Jokowi met with chairman Agus Rahardjo and commissioners of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). According to an article in the Jakarta Post on 5th December, the President supports the Commission’s efforts on party reform, because the party funding is considered the Achilles’ heel of Indonesia’s fight against graft. Politicians and party members are involved in corruption cases more often than other professions, since 2007 “at least” 229 of them. The most prominent case was former Golkar chairman and speaker of parliament, Setya Novanto, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison earlier this year for “milking” a government budget  for electronic ID-cards on behalf of Golkar and other parties,  but also kept more than seven million  US$ for himself.
A survey conducted by Transparency International Indonesia (TII) in 2017 had listed the House of Representatives as the institution judged by Indonesians to be the most corrupt, followed by government officials and regional councillors. But the Indonesian politicians and parties are in numerous if not good company throughout the region.
Transparency International Malaysia has published a comparison of the perception of citizens how corrupt their politicians are in February 2017:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The dilemma of the political parties has at least two major root causes. One is the lack of membership fees which are nominal or not existent, the lack of public funding, and the exorbitant costs of election campaigns inclusive of massive vote-buying. The other is the traditional expectations of the voters. Their ideal representative brings tons of money into the constituency, normally from development and infrastructure funds, and subsidizes all sorts of private events, from sports competitions and religious ceremonies to wedding parties. They don’t care that the money normally comes from a procedure called “pencaloan anggaran” or “budget scalping” at standard rates between 10 and 40 %. Every politician who wants to be elected or re-elected has little choice apart from being corrupt, unless he is a tycoon and sacrifices part of his money as an initial investment – to be recouped later, of course.
As long as this mismatch exists, the KPK will have difficulties to initiate real change and will be attacked by the forces that prefer the existing system for personal gain. The open debate and the support of President Jokowi are nevertheless an indication that the democratic development of Indonesia is progressing.

For a regional comparative study of the problem see:

Expectations, Skepticism, and Hope among Thailand’s Political Parties


Partyforumseasia: Thailand’s political history has not been “smooth as silk”, as the tourism promoting slogan tried to characterize the country. Since the end of the absolute monarchy, in1932, there were seven failed and eleven successful military coups, the last one in May 2014. Since then, under Prime Minister and former general Prayut Chan-o-cha, a junta called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has banned activities of the political parties, but promised the eventual return to democracy. The volatile and splintered party landscape had produced massive unrest and turmoil since, in 1998, Thaksin Shinawatra founded the Thai Rak Thai Party which swept him to power in 2001. The ingredients of his meteoric rise were lots of money and a hitherto neglected voter base in the poor North and Northeast. The political establishment, aka Bangkok elite, did everything to fight Thaksin. His party was banned by the constitutional court, but survived in re-incarnations. The second one is still around as Puea Thai or Pheu Thai, and the third one surfaced only a few days ago, on 7 November, under the name of Thai Raksa Chart Party.

The much anticipated return to civil rule has been delayed until now, promised elections were postponed, but a new constitution and many institutional changes have been implemented in the meantime. To be fair, though, the NCPO-junta-regime has at least managed a smooth royal transition from the revered King Bhumibol to his less popular son Vajiralongkorn, for which internal and external pundits had predicted turmoil and uprising.

Sensing the popular expectations, PM Prayut has now hinted that the polls might be held on 24th February 2019. Deputy Prime Minister (and Defense Minister) Gen. Prawit Wongsuwon, has informed the impatient parties that the partially relaxed ban on political activities will be lifted, once a new election law for the national parliament will be enacted on 12th December, followed by a royal decree to confirm the election date.
Here are some glimpses into the preparations of the main competitors:

The Democrat Party, founded in 1946, is the oldest political party, and has played an important role since. The liberal-conservative party opposed military rule already in the 1990s, led government coalitions several times, but had no chance against Thaksin Shinawatra’s power and money politics. Its leader since 2005, Abhisit Vejjajiva, re-elected last week, was Prime Minister from 2008 to 2011. The Democrats are strong with a well established party organization and with a solid power base in the South and in Bangkok. The party machinery is well prepared for the campaign.

The Puea Thai Party has just elected a new chairman, Viroj Pao-in, a retired police Puea Thai leadergeneral. The problem of the party is the looming uncertainty whether the junta or the courts might dissolve it before the election, because they suspect the exiled former leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, to pull the strings from his exile in Dubai. Puea Thai and connected groups, supported by the so-called United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, or Red Shirts, have won the last five elections and were only stopped by the courts and the military,

Another ally in the “pro democracy camp” is the Future Forward Party, led by young tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.

But there is also a new kid on the block, the recently founded Thai Raksa Chart Party. Observers in Thailand suspect that this third re-incarnation of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai is the plan B or safety net in case the Puea Thai should be dissolved. Marketing themselves as “political young blood” politicians, the core members and leaders come predominantly from political families related to Thaksin, including party leader Preechapol Pongpanich. Whether this new group is fighting fit for a nationwide campaign remains to be seen.

This year alone, more than 30 new parties have applied for registration with the Election Commission, in addition to the about 16 established ones. As mentioned, Thailand’s  party landscape is volatile and splintered, and at the same time dynamic and flexible. The main fault line, however, is the social and political divide between urban royalists, known as the “yellow shirts”, and Thaksin’s supporters and his rural support base, the “red shirts”.

High hopes on a return to civil rule and liberal democracy may be premature. The determination of Prime Minister Prayut and his military backing to keep in control  should not be underestimated. The “precautions” of the military in neighboring Myanmar to control Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government should be a warning.

 

This post, like all the others in the blog, is free for reproduction. We only request a copy. 

The End looks Nigh for Malaysia’s UMNO


Partyforumseasia:  Political parties come and go, have ups and downs, win and lose elections. In many European countries, party systems which have been stable for many decades disintegrate, previously unthinkable coalitions demand all sorts of difficult compromises. In Germany, the Social Democrats with a history going back to 1863 and many years of dominating in government, are agonizing in federal state elections under 10% and with a helpless leadership. In Malaysia, now, it seems to be the turn of UMNO, the dominant party for over sixty years. On 9 May this year, it lost more than an election. It obviously lost its soul and raison d’etre, its self-confidence and successively all its allies. From a coalition of 13 parties which helped to cement the grip on power for so long, only the former ethnic minority vote banks, Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) with only two seats left in the federal parliament, and the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) with one, remained after the election. It is like the proverbial rats leaving the sinking ship, a question of survival for all of them. After a recent desperate attempt by UMNO to save the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition through getting the Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) on board, the MCA is planning to quit as well.

UMNO’s former strongman and now its president, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who planned to bring PAS into a new credible opposition coalition, is indicted with 45 charges of graft and corruption, following former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his spendthrift wife Rosmah Mansor. They all have not only lost the election and the trust of the voters but are all moving closer to prison. The intricate, complex and corrupt financial network which provided unlimited campaign funding for their  coalition, needs time to be sorted out by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.
On 20 October, Umno veteran Razaleigh Hamzah (in the picture on top) launched a book on “The End of UMNO”, edited by Prof. Bridget Welsh, a prominent and outspoken scholar specializing on Southeast Asian politics. But in an interview she cautioned that so far only the Najib-style corrupt UMNO is dead and that the party could survive with new leaders and younger members. These, though, are turning away according to the media.

Meanwhile, Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the new main ruling party, has its own teething problems. Trying to be the democratic model party in contrast to UMNO’s top down style, PKR is now running its internal leadership election. Its 800,000 members can vote over more than two months, and for the first time in an electronic voting system which does not function without glitches all the time. The stakes are high because party president Anwar Ibrahim is supposed to be Prime Minister within the next two years. Once he well be in office, many government positions will be available for the leaders elected now. So, claims of irregularities, even bribing, have been reported, but also violent clashes between rival supporter groups. Malaysia’s changing party landscape will need some time to cool down and normalize.

Anwar Ibrahim: After 11 Years in Prison on the Way to the Top Job Once Again


After winning the by-election

Partyforumseasia:  Few politicians have gone through more suffering and humiliation than Anwar Ibrahim. After convincingly winning a by-election in Port Dickson on Saturday, 13 October, Anwar is on the way to Malaysia’s premiership he was so close to already 20 years ago. In 1998, as deputy Prime Minister, he fell out with his “boss” Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who sacked him rather unceremoniously, accusing him of corruption and sodomy. At that time, money politics was just starting in big style in the country, and the following sodomy trial was unspeakably tasteless with a mattress being carried into the court room etc. Convicted to nine years in prison, Anwar was freed in 2014 when the supreme court overturned the sodomy conviction. But the bad treatment, a striking symbol of it being Anwar being beaten up in prison and coming to court with a black eye, also triggered massive street protests and calls for reform. It facilitated the formation of a reform party called Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) or People’s Justice Party in 1999. Its success in the general election in 2008 was followed by another controversial sodomy trial and Anwar landed back in prison. After altogether 11 years in jail, the politician is unbroken and ambitious and charismatic as ever. After the May 2018 surprise defeat of the eternally ruling UMNO party, and his former nemesis, Mahathir Mohamad back as Prime Minister at the age of 93, Anwar is now back in parliament and, reconciled with Mahathir who even campaigned for him in the by-election, supposed to succeed him within the next two years. The PKR was led during Anwar’s prison time by his wife Wan Aziza, and survived all attacks under the premiership of Najib Razak, who may well end up in prison himself any time soon. 255px-Parti_Keadilan_Rakyat_logo.svgThe party logo, two white crescents on a blue background, supporters say symbolizes Anwar’s infamous black eye and the eye seeking justice.

Now the biggest party in parliament, the PKR is starting to reap the usual benefits of power. Its membership has nearly doubled to 900,000 compared to the landslide election on May 9th, and very probably the donors are queuing, including the ones who used to fund UMNO before and try now to save their lucrative projects with the government. PKR and Anwar himself are symbols of political perseverance and eventual success, paying a hefty price during their struggling years but also being successful because of severe political mistakes of the Najib government and its rampant corruption. Whether the banned CNRP opposition in Cambodia might be encouraged by the success of PKR is therefore a big open question.

Losers in Search of Survival Strategies – Malaysia’s UMNO Licking its Wounds


Partyforumseasia:  After six decades in power, not only the ruling UMNO party could no longer imagine to lose an election. As usual they had done everything to make sure they would win another mandate, especially by financial largesse with the traditional vote banks like 1.6 million civil servants or rural settlers on land distributed by earlier governments. The political guru community, including Partyforumseasia, was also believing that the Barisan Nasional (National Front or BN) could not afford to lose, because its internal money cascade, fed by contracts and a huge network of Government Linked Companies (GLCs), would create havoc for the country’s economy. Everybody was wrong, including the opposition, which had not really imagined that they could win so decisively. But, against all pessimists, the regime change was home-made and opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad was sworn in only hours after the election result was out. At the age of 93, the reactivated statesman is now the oldest chief of government in the world.

The signs of a possible defeat had been on the wall since 2008, though, when the results started to nosedive and money politics and the heaviest geryymandering did not work as planned any more in the British-inherited first-past-the-post electoral system. The May 9, 2018 results were 113 seats for the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) opposition coalition (+45) and 79 (-54) for the losing BN coalition.

Ousted Prime Minister Najib Razak conceded the defeat fast and sort of graciously enough, but also tried to leave the country. Citizens rushed to the airport to prevent that, but soon the new government banned him from leaving. When police investigated a number of Najib’s houses in Kuala Lumpur, the worst suspicions of the citizens were topped by what they found. Confiscated cash and valuables amounted to RM 702 million or US$ 170 million. Especially the notoriously spendthrift wife of the ex-PM was exposed as a colossal liability. But above all, the ongoing investigations in the sovereign wealth fund 1MDB turned out to be a deeper reason for many faithful Malay UMNO voters to vote for the opposition in order to get rid of Najib. In post-election polls many of them admitted that they were disappointed with the party because of the blatant corruption on all levels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is there a way out? First results of the party convention last weekend:

As usual, election losers are also losing their appeal to members and supporters. Defectors have joined the new government coalition, among them five elected UMNO law makers and rather prominent party figures, including two former ministers. Since practically all signs of the ongoing international investigations, searching for evaporated billions of US$, are pointing toward Najib. The regionally unmatched* extent of money politics by UMNO and its cronies might even lead to the deregistration of the party. Najib maintains that he is innocent which may not even be formally incorrect because party finances are practically unregulated in Malaysia. But he is charged with numerous counts of breach of trust and others, his wife as well. Free on bail, he is still participating in UMNO activities and even enjoys support from party members, but too many Malaysians are expecting to see him in jail. Assets and accounts of the party are frozen, and more party leaders may be indicted.

The deregistration is a warning by UMNO strongman and former deputy chairman and deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who took over when Najib resigned a few days after the election. Whether this will prevent further defections or even increase them is unclear at the moment, but the party leadership made unity a priority during the party convention which ended Sunday 30 September. One instrument to retrieve some funds will be to ask defectors to pay back their campaign expenses shouldered by the party. The call to give back their mandates will be in vain because this is not in the electoral rules and regulations.

All but two of the formerly twelve component parties have left the BN-coalition, and a closer partnership with the second Malay party, Party Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) is being discussed without a consensus in sight. The openly Islamist PAS which, among others, campaigns for the extension of Shariah punishments, has been a long-term competitor of UMNO for the same voter spectrum, predominantly conservative rural Malays. Unlike the money obsessed UMNO, PAS has managed to keep a frugal image, but even together the two parties have no power perspective.
More confusing for the 5,700 delegates of the weekend convention were ideas of a rapprochement with the new Pakatan Harapan government and a possible “unity government”, ventured by Zahid. It sounds unreal, but the new Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, has been UMNO president for more than twenty years and he was the one who made it as strong as it was before Najib ruined it, mainly with the huge 1MDB finance scandal and the way he managed to hide details for three years. Media and politicians are soul searching by now how they could believe the excuses of Najib, that the 700 million US$ in his private accounts were a donation by Saudi royalty…

The closing speech of chairman Zahid Hamidi on Sunday revealed that his attempt to unify the party is anything but finished. He urged the party to respect the decisions of the supreme council. “We want to bring UMNO back to life. Don’t poke holes in the ship and let it sink. If that’s the case, then you are a traitor to the party. Have some decorum when you want to criticise. This is Zahid, full stop.” This quotation has been published by the Star newspaper, belonging to the remaining component party Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) which won only one seat in the May election. Without the power of unlimited political funding and the money cascades being distributed by Government Linked Companies (GLCs), an authoritarian leadership style will be difficult to uphold. And having the ambitious former youth leader and former minister in Najib’s cabinet, Khairul Jamaluddin, who ran for the presidency without success, on his heels, Zahid will have to struggle to keep the party together.

Political activities on the ground are continuing nevertheless. Anwar Ibrahim, pardoned by the King and released from a longer prison term for alleged sodomy, has made peace with his former nemesis, Mahathir Mohamad, and is supposed to succeed him as Prime Minister within the next two years. He is campaigning now in a by-election in Port Dickson to join parliament and qualify for the succession. UMNO has declared to boycott this by-election, but Anwar will face six other candidates, among them the former aide who pretended being sodomised by Anwar…

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* For a regional overview on money politics in Southeast Asia see: 10726.cover

ISBN: 978-981-3230-73-6

Cambodia’s Ersatz Opposition


Partyforumseasia:  Like him or not, Cambodia’s eternal Prime Minister Hun Sen has always new ideas to find a way out. Some called the election victory of his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) end of July a landslide, others a charade because the main opposition party had been banned and its two leaders neutralized, one in exile and the other in prison. But unlike former Prime Minister Najib Razak in Malaysia who may have seen the defeat coming but decided not to believe it, Hun Sen took all the unpopular precautions to prevent it. This strategy was probably even more efficient than he himself wanted it to be. The CPP won all 125 seats of Parliament, the 19 smaller opposition parties none, leaving the leader in the somewhat embarrassing situation that the desired democratic mimicry has disappeared. But never underestimate Hun Sen, he always finds a way out. He now wants democracy and opposition views and establishes the “Supreme Council of Consultation”, inviting all the losers and even offering advisory posts in several ministries. Some parties declined or hesitated to participate, but after all, on September 21st, there are 16 opposition parties attending the first meeting which host Hun Sen praises as a step toward a “culture of dialogue”.

The first meeting of the Supreme Council of Consultation in Phnom Penh

Cambodian observers interpret the establishment of the Consultation Council as a move to avoid the stigma of one-party rule and to show a semblance of democratic debate to meet more demanding domestic expectations, especially with the young generation,  with nearly 50% of Cambodians being under 24.

As to the eliminated CNRP leaders: Sam Rainsy might have overdone his opposition role from abroad by calling in vain for vote abstention and even an uprising against Hun Sen. There are doubts whether he will ever be allowed to come back at all. And Kem Sokha, the less emotional but equally charismatic CNRP-leader, remains in prison for alleged conspiracy with US support, while other CNRP members got a royal pardon and were released from prison.

Economic sanctions by the US and the EU, both critical of the election results,  might harm Cambodia’s economy, but Hun Sen feels on the safe side with the backing of China. Decades of massive Western support for a democratic Cambodia seem to be wasted.

Is this the Beginning of the End of Political Corruption in Southeast Asia?


Partyforumseasia: Most of the region’s countries, except Singapore – and Malaysia to a certain degree – rank as rather corrupt in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI). Here is an excerpt of the CPI 2017 for Southeast Asia:

Since politics has become a profitable business model in the region, many “unusually rich” politicians have attracted criticism from the taxpaying electorate, with envy or without. But, on the other hand, the funding of political parties is widely unregulated or, if contained by legislation, the rules are not enforced at all or only half heartedly. The election campaigns are increasingly expensive, so the necessity of getting donations at any cost, mainly from the private sector or by skimming public procurement and infrastructure projects, has brought about many “creative” solutions.

The financial creativity of the toppled Malaysian leader Najib Razak, who was virtually sitting on a gold mine with his dual role as Prime Minister and Finance Minister is legendary. The 1MDB scandal with billions missing has probably broken his neck in the 9 May election and brought back former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (93) who is now trying to clean up Malaysia and see Najib convicted.

Some recent headlines:
9 August: “Ex-PM accused of receiving $14m in proceeds of illegal activities from former 1MDB subsidiary.”

24 April: “Ex-speaker of parliament Setya Novanto sentenced to 15 years for his role in stealing $170m from public funds.”

6 August: “Vietnam court jails 46 bankers, execs for loan scheme. He joins scores of bankers, executives and former politicians behind bars in the one-party state that has long had the reputation of being one of Asia’s most corrupt countries.”

8 August: “Thaksin’s trial to begin without him.”
The former Thai Prime Minister lives in exile in Dubai since he was ousted in 2006. This case is especially remarkable because the alleged malfeasance took place in the 2003 Thai Petrochemical Industry (TPI) scandal. The retroactive prosecution has been made possible by a new law on criminal procedures for political office-holders which took effect in September 2017. Similar regulations existed in some Italian city states like Lucca and Pisa in the 12th century, but were forgotten since then.

________________________________________________________________

More information about the dilemma of money politics in Southeast Asia is available in our new publication ISBN 9789813230736 which covers nine of the ten ASEAN countries.

 

 

 

 

Cambodia’s Parliamentary Election 29 July 2018


Update: According to CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan, political parties had no authority to announce the number of seats they believed they had won, but according to the NEC’s unofficial calculations, the ruling party had won comfortably and no other party could win a single seat. (The Phnom Penh Post, 1.8.18)

Partyforumseasia: The first unofficial results of yesterday’s election are out, showing the expected overwhelming victory of the CPP and a voter turnout of over 80 %. Here is a preliminary table, courtesy of Mear Nup at Phnom Penh. Out of the 125 Parliamentary seats, 114 would go to the CPP, six to FUNCINPEC, and five to the League for Democracy Party.

It is futile to speculate whether the CNRP opposition and its leader Sam Rainsy would have won this election had the party not been dissolved in November 2017, officially by the Supreme Court, but de facto, of course, following the steely will and resolve of Hun Sen. The longer a politician is in power, the more difficult it is to give up. Hun Sen is the world’s longest serving Prime Minister with 33 years in office. The former Khmer Rouge officer joined the Vietnamese who ended Cambodia’s horror years with an invasion in 1979, and, in 1985, at the age of 33, was appointed Prime Minister. After the 1993 UN-sponsored election which was won by FUNCINPEC under Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Hun Sen was Second Prime Minister, but toppled the Prince in 1997 and regained the premiership. His grip on absolute power reflects the violent history of the country since the Vietnam War, including several instances where the “West” can be accused of letting down Cambodia. Maybe the most damaging one was the continuing recognition of the Khmer Rouge, in exile in Thailand, by the UN until 1993, a stance against the occupying Vietnamese who rather felt that they had liberated the neighbour from the genocidal Khmer Rouge. And the UNTAC-supported election, a huge international effort, failed to disarm the remaining Khmer Rouge and was never seen as positive by the Cambodians as by the international helpers and media.

The facts are as they are, Hun Sen and the CPP are confirmed in power by an election widely criticized as undemocratic and far from free and fair. Giving a special training and deploying thousands of military police “to prevent unexpected demonstrations and strikes” tells about the government’s precautions.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was the main opposition until its ban last year. It could neither participate nor organize a boycott and mass abstentions it advocated for, if the 82% voter turnout is realistic. Its leader Sam Rainsy lives in self-exile in France to avoid imprisonment for several dubious accusations, and his deputy, Kem Sokha, is in prison, accused of treason and plotting together with the United States to topple the Hun Sen government. Could all that have been avoided or did the two leaders overestimate their cards and underestimate the resolve of Hun Sen? The CNRP vote share of 44.5% in the 2013 election was certainly ringing the alarm bells for Hun Sen, but also boosted the self-confidence of the CNRP that defeating the CPP would be in reach. The excellent international contacts of both leaders and their image as the alternative and more democratic  leadership of Cambodia, on the other hand, may have opened a flank domestically and triggered the rather absurd treason accusations.

 

 

 

Malaysia’s UMNO Drama Unfolding Further


Latest development: Former PM Najib Razak detained on 3 July
at 3 p.m. by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC)
___________________________________________________________

Partyforumseasia: The fall of Malaysia’s National Front (Barisan Nasional) coalition after nearly 61 years in power is revealing more and more dubious secrets of its business model. The advantages of being the incumbant for so long, and having practically unlimited control of the country’s rich financial resources, had led to a network of the leading UMNO and the smaller component parties with huge flows of cash, donations, and bribes. Details are being revealed one by one, all but two component parties have defected, heads are rolling, but maybe most symptomatic for the “money-politics-disease” are the astonishing amounts of valuables found in the different dwellings of defeated party president and prime minister Najib Razak. The list of confisated items so far looks unreal to say the least.

                    The current exchange rate is four Malaysian Ringgit for one USD.

Najib’s explanations are manifold: He was not aware of the jewellery items of his wife. Many pieces are not his own and must be returned to the jewellers.  Najib 1Accepting gifts is not illegal. Most of the money was for the party, etc. He has asked his lawyers already to start legal procedures to get the confiscated items back. Nevertheless, Najib claims that his party has to reform itself and abolish money politics and payments for internal elections. But the investigations are going on, and bank accounts belonging to Najib as well as UMNO’s party accounts are being frozen. The “new – broom – governmant” under returned Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is trying to sweep as clean as possible.

The Najib portraits show the changes from the self-assured election winner and unassailable party leader to the loser threatened by the Malaysian anti-corruption agency with prosecution and eventually a Najib scepticalprison term. His attempt to leave the country immediately after the election defeat was thwarted by concerned citizens, followed by an official travel ban.
Investigations into the billions lost in the 1MDB scandal are intensely going on, so far 408 bank accounts are frozen, and more indictments can be expected. It all started in 2015 with the 682 million US$ found in Najib’s private accounts making waves internationally. AAznfO4.imgThe investigations go back to hundreds of transactions to “a party”, individuals, and organizations since 2011. There is hope that at least part of the lost funds can be recovered for the state budget, though experience with the Marcos and Suharto billions in the Philippines and Indonesia are not encouraging.

Meanwhile UMNO tries to pick up the pieces and convince the voters that they have understood the verdict of the voters and are serious about reforming themselves. The internal elections over the last weekend have produced mixed results, though. Najib’s former deputy Zahid Hamidi has won the presidency, in his own view to guarantee the continuity, criticized by others as hara kiri of UMNO. “Young turk” and former youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin was first runner-up with respectable 61 branches (out of 191) voting for him against 99  for Zahid.

For an overview on party funding and money politics in Southeast Asia see our new book, available at https://www.worldscientific.com/worldscibooks/10.1142/10726

10726.cover

Political Parties, Party Funding, and Corruption


Partyforumseasia is pleased to inform you that our book on the funding of political parties in Southeast Asia is now available. Published by World Scientific in the Asian Politics series, this comparative survey covers all ASEAN countries except Brunei Darussalam which does not have parties.

The recent fall of the Najib/UMNO regime in Malaysia and the fast growing evidence of its massive political corruption is a timely reminder of how important it will be in the future to balance the funding of political parties in the region with the spiraling financial needs in ever more costly election campaigns and the increasing monetization of party activities. The public is now sufficiently aware to demand more transparency and accountability than the parties may like.

The following excerpt from the introductory chapter of the book illustrates how close partisanship and corruption can be. The sort of political Ponzi-scheme in Malaysia probably shows all the different shades of corruption mentioned here:

How to Define and Measure Political Corruption in Southeast Asia?

The word corruption has many different meanings depending on context and viewpoint. The Oxford English Dictionary defines political corruption as “perversion or destruction of integrity in the discharge of public duties by bribery or favor; the use or existence of corrupt practices, especially in a state, public corporation, etc.” Beyond this broad definition, political scientists Heidenheimer and Johnston isolate three narrower definitions, developed and discussed in the social sciences:

  • Public Office-Centered Definitions focus on bribery as the misuse of authority for personal gain, whether monetary or not.
  • Market-Centered Definitions focus on civil servants and elected office holders who see their public office as a business and try to maximize their income.
  • Public Interest-Centered Definitions start from the true interest of the polity, and encompass even formally legal actions which are not benefiting the community at large, especially at the initiative of special interest groups.
    (Power Broking in the Shade, p. 6)

The book can be ordered from World Scientific under:
https://www.worldscientific.com/page/asianstudies/new-titles

 

 

Any Future for the Loser?


Partyforumseasia: Will the defeated Prime Minister end up in prison? One of the successful campaign slogans of the rather old (92, and dynamic) new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was his calling Najib Razak a thief and his UMNO party corrupt to the core.

Najib's resignation 2

Loser loses all. Najib and his defense minister resign from all party posts.

Most political observers had believed that the 1MDB scandal would not play such an important role and that the memories had faded since it erupted in 2015. But voters, often characterized as forgetful, may have remembered the case and believed Mahathir that he was running only to save the country from the corrupt Barisan Nasional government. Obviously, only few Malaysians were unaware of the wasteful corruption going on and continuing to increase.
Now, Najib Razak is no longer Prime Minister, after a lightning transfer of power and the swearing in of his successor Mahathir within 24 hours after the election results were out. Najib, at least confronted the media to declare that he accepted the verdict of the people…without having a choice anyway. But an attempt to board a private jet and fly to Indonesia was thwarted by a crowd at the airport, and Mahathir did not hesitate to ban him  and his wife from leaving the country.
Since Mahathir has called it his biggest political mistake to help Najib become Prime Minister, the latter cannot expect lenience or mercy. His private residence is already cordoned off by the police. Mahathir announced already that the attorney general, who had whitewashed Najib soon after replacing a less compliant one, will be replaced shortly. Mahathir has vowed to investigate the 1MDB scandal and take action against those who may have abetted or benefited from corruption at the fund. At least six countries, including the United States and Switzerland, are investigating claims that $4.5 billion was allegedly siphoned off from 1MDB. If found guilty, Najib might end up in prison.

The Miraculous Resurrection of a Prime Minister


A winner’s smile

Partyforumseasia: What Malaysia’s incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak called the “mother of all elections” has turned out to be the end of his political career, unless he follows the winner, Mahathir Mohamad, who resigned in 2003 after 22 years in power and now comes back at the age of 92! If some politicians are worn down by the burden of office and age prematurely, others seem to be rejuvenated by campaigning. Mahathir does not look like a nonogenarian at all, and the crowds he was pulling in his relentless campaign during the last two weeks were already a signal that he might lead the opposition coalition to victory. This victory is certainly a world record.
That it was possible against all the odds and against the predictions of most political pundits  is more than remarkable. The incumbent Barisan Nasional (National Front, BN) had used all possible tricks and means to defend its majority. The latest were a sweeping gerrymandering exercise to make it even more difficult for the opposition, the election on a Wednesday with the expectation of a lower voter turnout, and a cornucopia of election goodies and promises for more after the election. Maybe the visible nervousness of PM Najib and the list of dirty tricks were helping the opposition to tip the scale. The victory is clear, in the national parliament as well as on the federal state level. The official results for the Federal Parliament are as follows:
Tan Sri Mohd Hashim Abdullah, chairman of the Election Commission,  announced at    4.40am on May 10, that BN won only 79 seats, down from 133, and won with only 47% of the popular vote. The Islamist PAS, suspected to be wiped out by many observers, survived with 18 seats. But even if PAS should coalesce with BN, they can’t form a government.  The former opposition coalition PKR has now 109 seats, the Parti Warisan Sabah eight, and with probably some more going to join, the victory is perfect. Mahathir is taking over the premiership again with a promise to hand it over to Anwar Ibrahim after he will be released from prison and pardoned by the king. July will end his prison term anyway which he is serving after a dubious conviction for alleged sodomy.

One of the main reasons for the landslide, called tsunami in the region, is the rising cost of living in a country rich in natural resources, and the all too obvious corruption in the BN system. What most observers had underestimated, but Mahathir managed to remind the voters of, was the dubious role of Najib Razak in the 1MDB scandal and the 682 million US$ in his private accounts. Few voters could believe his explanation that the money was a donation of the Saudi royal family for a wonderful Muslim ally in Southeast Asia. The future of Najib and the BN money cascade will be a very interesting case for follow-up research and comments. If it should help against the rampant political impunity, it will be good for the democratic development in the region.

 

 

15 Years Not Enough? Setya Novanto Finally Sentenced


Partyforumseasia:  The corruption and embezzlement case around former house speaker Setya Novanto has come to a close. 15 years imprisonment, IDR 500 million (US$35,880) in fines and restitution of US$7.3 million, meted out by the Jakarta Corruption Court, is a landmark decision against one of the top politicians considered to be untouchable before. For many Indonesians, especially graft watchdog Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW), the punishment is disappointingly lenient. They had preferred a life sentence, arguing that the restitution of the $7.3 million he obtained was only 22.69 percent of the total state losses caused by him. The $7.3 million was only his personal share of what the conspiracy deducted from a huge 2009 project of introducing electronic identity cards for the 266 million Indonesians. Novanto hid the money transfers through several corporate accounts at home and overseas. Novanto 1

Is the difference in expectations the normal difference between rule of law and justice, which often results in critical views of court decisions? On one side it certainly is, but the court is also raising the benchmark against the widespread impunity of top politicians who organize the funding of their parties and election campaigns. One of the usual instruments, in Indonesia and neighboring countries alike, is the skimming or scalping of government projects, normally reducing the amount which reaches the target groups or project purpose by about 30% on average. Since the lawmakers have the discretion to decide on project funding, especially in certain financially crucial committees, secret deals with the bureaucracy and affiliated commercial enterprises are more than common. The system in Indonesia is ubiquitous and not really a secret, however, party activities and elections have become excessively expensive, and candidates must invest heavily in their election or re-election campaigns. One recent research paper on vote buying in Indonesia found that poor candidates never win a mandate.

Will the final fall of Setya Novanto, who got away with a couple of other corruption cases before, set a precedent for Indonesia and possibly some of the neighboring countries? Punishing even Politbureau members in China or Vietnam has done rather little against the daily corruption of miserably paid policemen and other civil servants. But the top level convictions in Korea, Taiwan, and now Indonesia, may contribute to the visible nervousness of the Najib– government in Malaysia which is going to the polls on 9 May. Obviously, the 1MDB scandal has not been forgotten by the voters, 

 

Is PM Najib’s notorious self-confidence evaporating?


PM Najib looking more skeptical than normally

Partyforumseasia:  The die is cast“. Prime Minister Najib Razak did not say it nor is he Julius Caesar, and there is no guarantee that he has the latter’s legendary luck. But the Star newspaper is already speculating that the day of the dissolution of parliament, which paves the way for the long expected election (GE 14), on 7/4 adds up to Najib’s lucky number. The 11, they say, is meaningful throughout his life, from the birthdays of his parents, to his official car plates, and only last week 11 measures worth 2.9 billion RM to support Malay (bumiputra) SMEs. So far, the Prime Minister and uncontested leader of Malaysia’s ruling coalition and dominant UMNO party, was seen as not leaving anything to luck in preparation for the upcoming election. His strategy to divide and emasculate the opposition on unprecedented levels culminated last week with a controversial delineation exercise by the Election Commission which is under his department and not really independent. Another blow against the new Malay opposition party PPBM (United Indigenous Party) came from the Registrar of Societies on allegedly missing formalities which have been met from the beginning according to the PPBM leadership.

Is PM Najib getting nervous?
The long list of election-related moves could be an indication that Najib has access to information about a groundswell against UMNO and himself and starts to get nervous, maybe even frightened. Against all the odds, his self-declared nemesis, veteran PM Mahathir Mohamad (92), seems to rally not only the opposition, but making inroads into the classical Malay vote banks of the ruling coalition.

Dr. M laughs
Will he have the last laugh?

The most vulnerable spots in Najib’s flanks are the still unresolved 1MDB-scandal, though he denied any wrongdoing, skillfully following strategy handbooks, and the festering unhappiness of many Malaysians with the ever rising cost of living. Pacifying all grieving subgroups costs many billions and the increasing spending exercises of the Prime Minister start to betray a growing nervousness about what he calls “the father of all elections”.
Partyforumseasia has argued for some years already that Najib and UMNO must win the election at any cost because a defeat would be a catastrophy of Greek drama dimensions for the ruling system and its enormous internal  cash flows. One of the newest indicators are threats by the UMNO leadership against “disappointed” candidates who are not fielded any more. They might “betray” their party and will be dealt with after the election. Najib and UMNO have not left any important stone unturned. But all these unprecedented efforts, obviously very costly for the taxpayers, seem to increasingly damage the nimbus of the ruling party’s invincibility.

Tan Sri Hashim Gerry from the EC Malaysia?


Partyforumseasia: On Wednesday, 28 March, the Malaysian Parliament approved the redrawn electoral maps with 129 to 80 votes, safe enough to reach the simple majority of 112. Ruling coalition and opposition were given only one hour each for debate, while opposition and critics outside parliament accused the motion of gerrymandering in favor of the Malay vote banks in predominantly rural areas. Prime Minister Datuk Seri NajibNajib, in his cold-blooded style, declared the Election Commission (EC), which happens to be under his Prime Minister’s department, as impartial and the changes as only for the benefit of the Malaysian people. The critics, on the other hand, call it gerrymandering and they do have a valid point here. While the redelineation of electoral boundaries is common everywhere when demographic changes like urbanization make it necessary, the malapportionment in Malaysia is exceptional. In the 2013 election, the number of voters per precinct ranged from 15,700 for the smallest rural to 145,000 for the biggest urban one. And, not by chance, the most reliable voters for the ruling Bairsan Nasional (BN) coalition live in the small rural districts. This is why, in 2013, and also due to the first-past-the-post majoritarian election system, a shortfall of 4% in the popular vote was changed into a 20% majority of seats. On average, BN constituencies were won with 48,000 votes, while the opposition needed 79,000.

The original 1812 gerrymander

Elbridge Gerry was the famous governor of Massachusetts who started the delineation trick in 1812 to benefit his Democratic Republican Party. And one of the precincts looked like a dragon or salamander, hence the new notion of gerrymandering.

If demographic change necessitates corrections, the opposition would normally accept fair changes. And in most democracies, these changes are being executed quietly, most voters don’t care. The Malaysian last minute exercise, however, is stirring up protest because it happens so closely before the elections expected in May. This might turn out to be a strategic mistake of PM Najib, who has already procrastinated with the election date due latest in August. So far, he has braved all the pressure created by the 1MDB financial and other scandals and pacified many unhappy former supporters with financial largesse. But the delay has given the opposition more time to rally under former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who is all out to topple Najib.
It looks debatable whether the redrawn boundaries are strictly following the demographic changes. If the opposition is right, they do follow ethnic patterns as well, like in Subang close to Kuala Lumpur. The borders, at least, look increasingly complicated and salamander-like as shown in this 2013 – 2018 comparison.
Map: Singapore’s Straits Times (LINK)

 

Cambridge Analytica Malaysia


Partyforumseasia: The ongoing controversy around political data mining has catapulted the discreet services of Cambridge Analytica (CA) into the international limelight. CA has obviously played an important role in Donald Trump‘s victory over Hillary Clinton, and its utilization of Facebook data is now in the center of the storm. Whistleblower Christopher Wylie, one of the brilliant young data experts in CA, has made public the dubious methods applied by the company.

Having offices in New York, Washington, and London, in countries where election campaigns are known to be sophisticated and dirty, Brazil is another client country, and there is only one more: Malaysia! The looming election (GE14), expected to be called in May, hasCA 7 already triggered a heated exchange of suspicions and accusations, since CA had been hired by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in the 2013 election to win back the federal state of Kedah from the opposition. Obviously learning only now that the BN had hired CA, the opposition wants to know details about Prime Minister Najib‘s role in the deal. Najib, as usual, denies everything and directs all the blame on Mukhriz Mahathir, former chief minister of Kedah when he was still member of UMNO, and in charge of the 2013 campaign. Mukhriz, in turn, denies any involvement, even knowledge of Cambridge Analytica.

NajibMukhriz 2

Whatever will eventually come to the surface, a glimpse into the services of Cambridge Analytica must create respect, if not admiration, for the technical ingenuity of this company. It is indeed combining all sorts of campaign instruments and strategies with the new opportunities provided by social media and internet penetration, including the dirty tricks which have tarnished the lofty democratic ideals of the United States. What is the background of CA and its parent company SLC Group, a data giant with 25 years experience in helping governments and military organization in over 60 countries with “behavioral change programs” (SLC homepage)? Involved were controversial figures like Steve Bannon and Russian experts, and the funding was mainly provided by hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, one of the prominent supporters of Donald Trump.

For anybody who has participated in election campaigns, the services of CA Political, the campaign branch of CA, must look more than attractive. They have been paid with many millions world wide and are certainly affordable for potential clients like UMNO. The branch office in Kuala Lumpur is not there by accident. And the revelations might impact the coming campaign and the chances of the opposition.

Here are some excerpts from the CA homepage (LINK, which might disappear any time from now if the scandal widens):

Experience an end-to-end campaign service

POLLING
With one of the best track records of accuracy in the industry, we will provide you with in-depth polling to advise informed decision making.

PREDICTIVE ANALYTICS
The global leader in predictive analytics, CA Political provides precise insights that will allow you to forecast voter behavior.

TV AND DIGITAL AD PLACEMENT
Through our detailed models, predictive analytics, and sophisticated ad-tech, you can find the most effective locations for ad placement and meaningfully impact your voters.

LIST BUILDING
Accumulate email addresses and an organic following in order to fundraise more efficiently and distribute campaign material.

EVENT PROMOTION, VOLUNTEER RECRUITMENT, APP PROMOTION
Rally supporters, promote your campaign events, and increase attendance through our creative and precisely targeted messaging.

REAL-TIME REPORTING
With our up-to-date reports, you will stay informed on the progress of your campaign and assess your voters’ reactions to the campaign in real-time.

PERSUASION
More effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations crafted with insights gleaned from behavioral understandings of your electorate.

GET OUT THE VOTE (GOTV)
Drive organized and methodical ballot initiatives, targeting the voters who could swing the election in your favor.

Some clients:

A New Multi-Party Democracy in Thailand?


Partyforumseasia: Since the Thai military ousted the Yingluck Shinawatra / Pheu Thai government in May 2014, party political activities were banned. Promises to re-establish democracy by holding elections were superseded by new promises and delays. YingluckBut junta leader and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, feeling the growing frustration of the prohibited voters, has finally announced that the election will be held “no later than February 2019”. This means that there is still a year for preparations on all sides of the broad political spectrum which includes the military and several supporters who want to prevent a return to the tumultuous contestation which triggered the military coup, and especially a return of the Shinwatra clan.

Since 1 March, in preparation of the election, the Election Commission has started to accept applications for new parties, after no less than 114 groups have expressed their interest to apply. By Friday, 2 March, 38 applications had been submitted with their party name and logo, among them many newcomers. More than any other country in the region and beyond, the Thai party scene has been volatile with ever changing parties and coalitions as well as “reincarnations” of parties dissolved or banned by the courts. Registration is possible until end of March, and the Election Commission will have another 30 days for vetting and approval.

The expected playing field for the upcoming election will see at least three distinct party types. One will support the continuation of military supervision and “law and order”. Observers believe that the acting Prime Minister has ambitions to continue, which would be possible even is he is not elected, by a provision in the military-drafted new constitution through appointment by parliament. PM Prayut is being supported by several new parties, namely the “Reform People Party”, the “For Thai Nation Party”, the “Public State Party”, and “The Great Mass of People Party”. The latter has been

Suthep
Thaugsuban

initiated by veteran politician Suthep Thaugsuban, the controversial driving force behind the street turmoil in Bangkok in January 2014, to which he reportedly contributed funds from his own wealth. (see our related post “Who is funding Bangkok’s street protests” here LINK).

Another group will count on the new proportional representation system in the party law to get a few seats in the new parliament. Some of them might get cabinet posts as free-riders in case they are needed for a coalition government.

The third group may try to offer an alternative to the “old” parties. The chances of the oldest Thai political party, the Democrat Party, with its pro-establishment, though anti-military image might be difficult to gauge. Rumors that nearly 80 year-old Chuan Leekpai who was Prime Minister twice in the 1990’s would run again don’t sound too realistic. But the former Prime Ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck still enjoy massive support from their former voters and try to be visible in the media. Be sure, though, that the military will do anything it takes to prevent them from returning.

YingluckThaksin Shinawatra, Prime Minister 2001 – 2006
Yingluck Shinawatra, Prime Minister 2011 – 2014

 

Interesting Cash Flows in Malaysia


Partyforumseasia: Election campaigns are getting more expensive practically everywhere in competitive political systems. Ruling parties regularly enjoy a huge advantage because private donors from the business sector have enough incentives to support them for all the possible protection they can get in return. Legislation can change their competitiveness in many ways, and in many Southeast Asian countries, especially in Malaysia, licences and big public procurement orders are not necessarily given to supporters of the opposition.

The upcoming election in Malaysia, “GE 14” (14th general election), due latest by August this year, is highlighting the monetization trend in a very special dimension. Not that the generous distribution of “goodies” and further promises are anything new before elections, but the Barisan Nasional government’s cornucopia, or “horn of plenty” has never been as full as this time. Being a political symbol of sorts, offering the cornucopia has a long tradition, e.g. in the seal of North Carolina or – more bluntly with gold coins – in the coat of arms of the city of Copiapó in Chile:

 

Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is also the Finance Minister, explains the nature of the current cash flows as follows:
“ … the RM6.3 billion (USD 1.6 billion) worth of financial aid to be given to seven million people nationwide this year is a targeted subsidy scheme hatched by the central bank, not an effort to buy votes ahead of a general election due within months.”  (Straits Times, Singapore, 27 February 2018)

This amount is only meant for poorer people under the “1Malaysia People’s Aid Program” or BR1M. Other “cornucopia programs” have been implemented long before, RM 2.5 billion have already been paid since July 2017. Pay hikes and bonuses for the huge civil service which is dominated by the main voter target group, the Malays, and for another Malay vote bank, the farm land distributing organization FELDA. Discontent among the settlers seems to have been overcome with extra payments.

Prime Minister Najib dismisses criticism with his remarkable cold blood and straight face. When his challenger, veteran politician Mahathir Mohamad called the payments vote buying, Najib insisted that his government is truly concerned about the people and that the central bank suggested the latest round of payments, not the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN). The rising cost of living is one factor in the looming election campaign which is a possible danger for his re-election. The corrupt image of the BN- government and its cronies is another one. This is why there might be a sign of nervousness despite all the successful maneuvers to split and harass the opposition, with the biggest coup being the new closeness to the Islamic PAS party and the defamation of the Chinese dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) as anti-Malay and anti-Islam.

The Prime Minister keeps boasting about the fabulous economic development of Malaysia. The figures are indeed quite good, but could possibly be even better without some of the opaque political money flows, as a comparison with tiny Singapore illustrates. In 2016, the latter’s GDP was one billion USD higher than that of Malaysia, and the GDP per capita 5.5 times higher accordingly. The voters in Johor, Malaysia’s federal state bordering Singapore, know that very well, and the opposition tries to use their comparison with the rich neighbor to conquer Johor.

 

 

 

Wise Old Man or Running Amok?


Partyforumseasia:  Dr Mahathir Mohamad does not look his age of 92, and the unrelenting campaign he is leading against Prime Minister Najib Razak seems to invigorate and energise him even more. During his 22 years (1981 – 2003) Mahathir nowas Prime Minister he was not known for being too choosy with policies and actions against competitors and the opposition. His training background as a medical doctor was often used to explain the surgical precision of his shrewed and decisive political maneuvres.
Controversial as his tenure was on the one hand, Malaysia’s economic progress during the Mahathir years remains undisputed on the other. Some projects have seen less than lasting success, like the creation of a home-grown car industy, the Proton Saga, but under his supervision Malaysia has seen enormous growth and modernization.
Politically, the racial imbalance of the country had led to affirmative action in favor of the Malay population long before Mahathir, but he refined the system in a way that secured the dominance of his UMNO party until today.
After engineering the ouster of his immediate successor, Abdullah Badawi, in 2009, Mahathir has now turned against Prime Minister Najib Razak. He left UMNO and founded a new Malay party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) in January 2017.
For such a young party, the organizational progress is impressive. According to one of the leading internal political analysts of Malaysia, Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) and at the moment reseach fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, PPBM has established divisions in 137 out of 165 parliamentary constituencies in Peninsular Malaysia, and about 200.000 membership applications of predominantly younger people. See Wan Saiful’s latest analysis in Singapore’s Straits Times on 1 January (LINK).
PPBM, translated as Malaysian United Indigenous Party, is eyeing the Malay core voters, who, so far, have been voting for the ruling UMNO or its Islamist competitor PAS. The question is, of course, whether the unhappiness with the prevailing level of money politics and corruption can divert traditional UMNO supporters, who are not close to the PAS fundamentalists either, into voting for PPBM in the upcoming election due by August. Mahathir’s role as opposition leader is curtailed by the co-operation with the predominantly Chinese Democratic Action Party, which has been successfully defamed as anti-Malay and anti-Islam by UMNO propaganda.

Naj

Prime Minister Najib Razak

UMNO, however, does not take its victory for granted, and is setting everything in motion to weaken all the splintered opposition forces which it had already seen as toothless with former leader Anwar Ibrahim in prison and by getting closer to PAS which has left the opposition coalition. The newest re-delineation of constituency boundaries shows that the old gerrymandering tricks are being refined again. Malaysia’s level of malapportionment is rather unique and still growing.
For Mahathir the fight is more than uphill, but his energy at the age of 92 is remarkable, and his charisma and image are still working some magic and pulling the crowds. His determination to topple the Prime Minister might convince more voters than the polls predict by now that the UMNO system is detrimental for the country. But Najib and his cronies can be expected to do more than it needs to defend their dominance and the financial network.

 

Transparency and Disclosure for Political Finance? Don’t Dream!


Partyforumseasia: The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance,  (IDEA) in Stockholm, Sweden, is doing a very good job with its research and publications on a wide range of topics to strengthen democratic developments all over the world. One of the new handbooks, published in November 2017, focuses on the often opaque funding sources for party activities and election campaigns.
“One of the major challenges related to money in politics is the lack of transparency surrounding political party and electoral finance.” (LINK)

That is especially true for Southeast Asia, where too many scandals around the finances of political parties are regularly blowing up. They not only tarnish the leadership but the image of the fledgling democratic systems altogether and leave citizens and voters cynical.
The booklet aims at helping to create more control and transparency by providing information on the possible instruments.

“The open and transparent funding of political parties and candidates is desirable because it helps ensure that everyone is playing by the rules, which in turn strengthens the integrity of, and trust in, politics, among both the general public and political parties.”

Everyone playing by the rules? For many countries, but especially for Southeast Asia, this sounds too good to become true in the near future. Many party treasurers and leaders may support the idea theoretically… when it is to be applied to the other parties. The reality on the ground looks different and the exponentially growing expenses for election campaigns might keep it this way for the medium term anyway. The legal regulations, so far, look good on paper, but the enforcement remains more than weak.
Under the title “Power Broking in the Shade”, Partyforumseasia has finalized a background study on political finance in nine of the ten ASEAN members. We will inform our readers when it is available.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen: 33 Years in the Driver’s Seat. And the Opposition: Morphs from Party to Movement.


Prime Minister Hun Sen in an unusual driver’s seat

Partyforumseasia:         Thirty-three years in power! On January 14, 1985, at the age of 33, Hun Sen was the winner when then Prime Minister Pen Sovann was no longer backed by Hanoi, and successor Chan Si died in office. Few kings and emperors have reigned as long as Prime Minister Hun Sen though the feudal systems normally guaranteed their rule for lifetime. The political biography of Hun Sen shows a remarkable survival instinct and outstanding leadership skills which have made him one of the world’s longest serving prime ministers. His official title “Samdech” can be translated as “Lord”. It is bestowed by the King and, except to Hun Sen and his wife, awarded only to five other top politicians, the latest one in July 2017 to  loyal Defense Minister Tea Banh.

Celebrating the 33-year anniversary among some 5000 trishaw or tuk-tuk drivers, Mr. Hun Sen praised his long rule as based on elections and not on violence. The real dictators, he said, were the Khmer Rouge and US-backed Lon Nol. He also added that he was not keen on being the prime minister, but that he cannot retire because the country needs him.
For the upcoming elections in July this year, the Prime Minister seems to be completely assured of another victory. His potential nemesis, former opposition leader Sam Rainsy,

Sokha

Kem Sokha

lives in self-exile in France to avoid a string of controversial convictions. His successor Kem Sokha, is in prison for plotting to topple the government with the help of the United States, and accused of “treason”. Most of the other leaders of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) which has been dissolved by the Constitutional Court in November, are either in exile or barred from politics anyway. But in view of a groundswell against the ruling party, especially among the younger Cambodians, the

Rainsy

Sam Rainsy

CNRP refuses to give up. On 12 January, Sam Rainsy and more leaders have launched a new organization under the name of Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM), which they claim “nobody can harm or dissolve”. (LINK)
They invite Cobodians “from all walks of life, regardless of their political affiliation, to join the CNRM in order to protect the will of the Cambodian people through free, fair and inclusive elections.”
As long as Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha, and the extended leadership circle were active in the country, the tide seemed to swell in their direction and against Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). With the neutralization of the opposition, the task is much more difficult. Hun Sen brushes off all international criticism of destroying Cambodia’s democratic experiment. Western political and economic support is obviously no longer appreciated or necessary with China massively stepping in.
Expect Mr. Hun Sen to rule for the next ten years as he has said recently.
 

Southeast Asia is East…and West is West


Partyforumseasia: The vast scholarly literature on political parties is often rather theoretical, and academic ambitions make “theorizing” a necessity for the young scholars. Starting to analyze the parties in “Non-Western” systems with the tool box from Europe, where most of the scholarly models have been developed, can be tricky, though. At face value, there are all the well known attributes, headquarters, members, presidents, vice-presidents, branches, central committees, internal elections, even membership fees. However, to start with the latter, membership fees in Southeast Asia’s parties are symbolic at best, if collected at all. With election campaign costs spiraling and reaching absurd levels, the funding is getting more and more the central problem. That affects the image of many parties and their leaders because money has to be found, and  corruption scandals erupt frequently. In some countries in the region, the voters expect tangible returns for their votes which has lead to so-called “pork-barrel politics”. The candidates, rather often, invest into their campaigns, are expected to “help” their voters once they are elected, and consequently need to recoup the invested sums one way or the other. For many of them, just recouping is not enough, they can also enrich themselves via their political engagement. It is maybe one of the big differences compared with Europe that there are many more “unusually rich” politicians in Southeast Asia.  This is not saying that politicians in Europe are underpaid, but a mandate in most parliaments is financially not attractive for professionals and even less for entrepreneurs who earn much more.

Partyforumseasia has been interviewed by Global Review with a list of questions about the characteristics of political parties in Southeast Asia.
What are the differences between Western and Southeast Asian parties?

You find questions and answers under this Link

Comments and opinions are most welcome!

In case the above link does not work, try to insert the following:
https://www.global-review.info/2017/12/19/interview-with-dr-sachsenroeder-about-south-east-asian-parties-many-political-scientists-base-their-analysis-too-much-on-the-paradigms-and-theories-developed-in-western-europe/

 

How to Cement your Grip on Power


Partyforumseasia: Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (17541838), the French statesman and diplomat, held high positions through the French revolution, the Napoleonic era, and the Vienna Congress. He was famous for his political skills, flexibility, and venality. In a well-known bon mot he is quoted as saying that the farewell from power is the most painful farewell in the world. Two political leaders in Southeast Asia, the Prime Ministers of Cambodia and Malaysia, Hun Sen and Najib Razak, seem to feel like Talleyrand and try to avoid losing the upcoming elections at any price.
Strongman Hun Sen has successfully destroyed the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in the last few months. Driving the original leader, Sam Rainsy, into exile, and imprisoning Sam’s deputy and successor, Kem Sokha, was not enough for him. With his CPP-majority in parliament, he had no problem tweaking the party law and had the CNRP dissolved by the constitutional court. More CNRP leaders preferred to escape into self-exile before being detained.
The background and final motif of Prime Minister Hun Sen might be the conviction, based on findings of his intelligence apparatus, that the election coming up in 2018 is not going to be a sure win, and that there is a groundswell against his 32-year authoritarian rule. The local elections in June showed massive gains of the opposition CNRP, and revealed that the ruling party had not even secured the votes of all CPP party members. After getting the opposition out of the way, most of their parliamentary seats have been given to the Norodom Ranariddh Party, which had been wiped out in the 2013 election.
The political cost on the international level might grow in the meantime. Apart from Hun’s  loss of face and the already dented image, the EU is considering sanctions which could hurt Cambodia’s textile imdustry, one of the country’s important cash cows. The Prime Minister seems to count on closer relations and support from the big neighbour China as a handy way of balancing the loss of Western funding, as massive as it was hitherto.

The Malaysian case is similar in the way that Prime Minister Najib Razak is all out to reduce or prevent the challenge of an opposition win in the elections due by August 2018 latest, but possible any time earlier at the discretion of the prime minister. When the unprecedented corruption scandal around Najib, his stepson, and his UMNO party, broke out in 2015, with 682 million US$ found in his private accounts, not many observers beleived in his political survival. But his cold-blooded survival instinct, as well as his absolute control over the country’s finances, since he is finance minister as well, seems to have cemented his grip on power and his unchallenged leadership position in the party.
Dividing or destroying the opposition is a game of Najib which is more sophisticated than the one in Cambodia. The opposition coalition, so far, does not seem united enough to seriously challenge UMNO and its Barisan Nasional coalition. The most charismatic opponent, Anwar Ibrahim, already 70, is still in prison on a controversial conviction for sodomy. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is fighting Najib relentlessly, but at 92, Najib does not take him too seriously any more. Finally, the long-term rival party PAS, an Islamic party with the same vote banks as UMNO among pious and rural Malays, has left the opposition and is now closer to Najib. Vilifying the biggest opposition party, the Chinese dominated DAP, as anti-Malay and anti-Islam, is another promising strategy of the Prime Minister and UMNO president. Obviously, the heavy lopsided gerrymandering which just got the Appeal Court’s green light for further fine tuning, is not seen as a sufficient life insurance. All these manoeuvres, like in Cambodia, betray at least that the leaders have some doubts about their winnability, but, of course, the determination to win at any cost.

Talleyrand, if he could observe this, would understand the two: losing power would be too painful for them and their cronies…

Fresh blood for the survival of the party


Partyforumseasia: The recruitment and selection of politicians is widely unregulated in political parties. Charisma and leadership potential can only partially be learned and developed, but the first litmus test is the socialization in the local branches. The possible motivations to first join a party are manifold, from family history or concern about local issues to attention seeking and the urge of being important. Within a branch and the interaction with fellow members, the most widespread patterns may be eloquence and perseverance, in any case, availability and attendance whenever there is an event. And not to forget, supporting a superior is nearly always helpful for advancement, as long as the superior is not challenged.  If the party is in government, networks similar to roped mountain climbing or skiing partiesSeilschaft play an important role in filling all sorts of positions with trusted comrades. Generally, the necessary rejuvenation of a party is left to chance, sometimes to recruitment drives among suitable persons among friends and aquaintances of the party activists.

A systematic approach is rare, but there is one interesting example in Southeast Asia, namely Singapore’s long-term ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP). It can be traced back to founding father Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) who decided without political or popular pressure to step down after ruling the new city state as prime minister from 1959 till 1990. His obsession with leadership recruitment and selection is legendary. Candidates for parliament were screened in different rounds of discussions from the local branch to ministerial level and finally by LKY himself in increasingly grueling interviews.  His special focus was the character, a criterion not really common in most parties world-wide. The prevailing perception and the image of party politicians are so negative that positive connotations linked to the character are rare.

Lee KYThis LKY-heritage is obviously living on. The Straits Times, on 3 December, published a glimpse into this part of PAP internal procedures under the headline: “PAP identifies 200 hopefuls for the next GE” (LINK), due by April 2021. Overseen by the PAP’s organizing secretary, the rounds of “tea sessions” with ministers and MPs have started, later on, the candidates will be interviewed individually by a panel of ministers. The paper mentions that in the past candidates have been asked to undergo psychological profiling. In Darwinian terms, the selection process looks like the survival of the fittest. Normally, the party brings in replacements for about a quarter of its members of parliament with every general election. PAP

Similar to his father, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who is also the uncontested leader of the PAP, has made public his intention to step down by 2022. He carefully tries to organize the transition and announced several times that his successor is very probably already a member of the cabinet, but the next batch of candidates might have a chance as well.

The quasi-hegemonic long-term rule of the PAP is unique in many ways, but seeing political leaders everywhere like glued to their positions, it might be interesting to search for any other party similarly engaged in its own renewal and rejuvenation like Singapore’s PAP.

 

Corruption in Southeast Asia


Partyforumseasia: Transparency International has published its newest Global Corruption Barometer (GCB), based on interviews with 21,861 people in 16 countries, regions and territories across the Asia Pacific region between July 2015 and January 2017. (Link)

Here are the most important results for Southeast Asia:

Among the ASEAN countries, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam seem to have the biggest corruption problems in the perception of their citizens. Malaysia obviously because of the festering and unresolved 1MDB scandal with a major involvement of Prime Minister Najib Razak who is also chairman of the ruling UMNO party, and Vietnam with the rampant daily petty corruption which tarnishes the ruling Communist Party though it tries to reduce it. Asked whether corruption has recently increased, the Indonesian respondents are even more critical than the Malaysians and Vietnamese, probably because of the ongoing corruption saga with the Golkar party and its chairman Setya Novanto.

The low rating for Thailand seems to be one of the positive points in favor of the military regime which is otherwise heavily criticized for its lack of democratic credentials, especially on the international scene.

Looking into the perception of the citizens vis-a-vis the institutions, the ratings for the police are on top. In most countries of the region, the rank and file police officers are not well or not sufficiently paid, which is a root cause for their constant attempts to solicit bribes as petty as they may be. Much more frightening, however, is the image of legislators and government officials who come immediately behind the police on top of the ratings. These assessments are certainly not conducive for the consolidation of the different democratic experiments in Southeast Asia.

NB: Laos, known for high corruption, and Singapore, known for very low corruption, are not covered by the GCB.

Political corruption and the funding of political parties and election campaigns
is indirectly highlighted in the table on institutions above but is not treated in more details in this GCB report. The answers of the respondents, though, are visibly influenced by their  perception of the political scene. While 59% of the Malaysians see an increase in corruption, only 23% say that they have paid bribes for basic services in their country.

The Political Partyforum Southeast Asia is working on a comprehensive survey on political party and campaign financing in the ten ASEAN countries minus Brunei Darussalam. We will inform our readers once it is published. 

 

 

How to Create a Loyal Opposition


Partyforumseasia: Call it drama or saga, Prime Minister Hun Sen continues to get rid of the CNRP opposition because he is not sure that he would win the next general election if it is free and fair. His survival instinct is stronger than the CNRP wanted to believe, though they should have known him better. In the newest twist of the story, Hun Sen calls on the opposition MPs to defect in time before the impending dissolution of their party by the Supreme Court on 16th November. Singapore’s Straits Times on 5 November quotes Mr. Hun Sen as follows:
I want to give you this opportunity to continue in your job… It will not only be that the party is dissolved and then the matter is finished. Maybe more than 100 people will be banned from politics for five years.
The CNRP is accused of treason in collusion with the USA in order to overthrow the government led by Hun Sen and his Cambodian Peole’s Party (CPP). One by one, the CNRP leaders have been intimidated, beaten up, forced into exile, like former leader Sam Rainsy, or imprisoned and accused of treason like Kem Sokha. Their “crimes” are above all to dream of taking over the government, and winning too many mandates in the national and recently the local elections. Like many leaders all over the world who are used to power, and Hun Sen is by now with 32 years the longest serving prime minister, he as not the least intention to retire.
The official trigger for Kem Sokha‘s indictment was a video from 2013, in which he allegedly discusses with US-counterparts how to win the next election. Not only for Americans it sounds rather legitimate and normal for an opposition party to dream of taking over after winning the election.

Ironically, to warn and threaten the opposition, Prime Minister Hun Sen has used a speech on the anniversary of the Paris Peace Accord of 1991 which established a multi-party democratic system in Cambodia. This democratic big bang was what the Western signatories believed and accordingly pampered the CPP-regime with generous development aid, regularly pledging more millions than the government was asking for. Interfering now in support of the CNRP seems to be out of the question, of course.
The opposition, especially Sam Rainsy and his party with the same name, and merger partner Human Rights Party under Kem Sokha, who formed the CNRP in 2012, have become somewhat overoptimistic with their rising popularity and election success and rhetorically more aggressive. Getting their funding to a certain degree from the Cambodian diaspora abroad, and supported by American and European pro-democracy NGOs and the Western embassies in Phnom Penh, their optimism and self-confidence may have seduced them to underestimate Hun Sen’s resolve to stay in command. He is preparing his son Hun Manet as a possible successor, and his extended family has much to lose as well. Global Witness, a London-based NGO, reports that the family has registered interests in 114 private domestic companies,   mostly as chairpersons, directors or major shareholders. When Hun Sen first declared his assets in 2011, he was quoted as saying that besides his official salary of 13,800 USD per year he hadn’t any other income…

Indonesia: The Empire Strikes Back


Partyforumseasia:                                                    The Empire versus KPK
Only a week ago, we published a post with the headline “Indonesia’s Struggle Against Political Corruption” (LINK). The saga goes on and the drama may unfold or not. Whether it will follow the patterns of antique Greek drama and end with the catharsis or cleansing as an ethical benefit for the people of Indonesia is still everybody’s guess.
Golkar chairman and speaker of parliament Setya Novanto was named as a suspect by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) in a political corruption case of exceptional dimensions. He dodged the hearings he should have attended recently by protesting heart problems but was eventually cleared by doctors to be fit enough. But buying time by being sick has helped him again to evade the KPK. On Friday, 29 September, South Jakarta District Court judge Cepi Iskandar declared that the court approved Mr Setya’s pre-trial motion challenging his status as a suspect in the case: “We declare invalid the suspect status against Setya Novanto dated July 17, 2017.” Everybody will be curious about the reasons.
However, after losing this round, the KPK is trying to find out how to proceed and possibly win the next round. If it manages to survive and can do so. Under the headline “A PLOT TO KILL KPK“, on 20 July, the influential news magazine Tempo had already suspected an attempt by powerful forces inside the parliament to weaken or crush the KPK by establishing a special “KPK Right-of-Inquiry Special Committee, or “pansus” in Indonesian
An investigation by this magazine has discovered that the pansus was established with a three-layered aim: dissolve the KPK, paralyze it by reducing its powers, or at the very least remove the main investigators who have been at the vanguard of corruption investigations.” (LINK)

The ongoing power struggle is widely seen as the transparent attempt of Novanto and many other political figures to maintain the prevailing impunity for apparent abuse of the insufficient political funding regulations in Indonesia. Marcus Mietzner, one of the leading experts on the country’s political system, called them “Dysfunction by Design” in a 2015research paper…

 

Indonesia’s Struggle Against Political Corruption


Partyforumseasia: The infamous e-ID card graft case is hotting up.  Golkar chairman and speaker of parliament Setya Novanto has been named as a suspect, and so far, managed to get away. He is no unknown to the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), which he fights as an enemy of the political establishment. Gresnews, a publication focusing on Indonesian legal and political issues, called his record “Setya Novanto´s Chain of Scandals” on 17 November 2016 (LINK). 
Novanto who had to resign end of 2015 in a bribery scandal of epic dimensions, was eventually cleared and re-appointed as House Speaker in 2016, and was again declared a suspect by KPK in June 2017. The new case, according to KPK, investigates the theft of 170 million USD from a project to issue electronic identity cards for the 255 million Indonesians. Sums between 5,000 and 5.5 million USD, the indictment letter states, had been openly divided up in a room in Parliament, involving at least 37 beneficiaries.
The KPK has been threatened of dissolution by its many enemies within the political elite, but President Jokowi’s reform policies may prevent such a move because it would be extremely unpopular. The question now is how tight the noose around Novanto’s neck might be or become. It is probably a sign of weakness for him to protest heart problems for not showing up for KPK hearings, but his doctors have declared him fit enough in the meantime. Obviously he has tried before some politicking in the background to influence the South Jakarta District Court to order the KPK to drop its investigation.  More than 80 witnesses have already testified against him in the KPK hearings, though.

The special Indonesian background:
Political parties need funding for their activities, lots of funding for their election campaigns, and even more funding if they buy votes and pay the canvassers.
The Indonesian party system has developed rather creative ways of raising the necessary funds by privatising the fund raising. One is the recruitment of oligarchs who can inject bigger amounts, the other one is the “scalping” of the many development and infrastructure projects which are available in the expanding economy and increasing state income of Indonesia. The mechanism is simple, in most cases the member of parliament manages to “sponsor” a project by influencing the decision making in the Parliament or a ministry, and gets a “commission”, regularly up to one third of the total cost. That method is anything but uncommon in the region in different varieties, and certainly not unknown in other parts of the world.
What sets Indonesia apart is the mindboggling size of some of the commissions paid. Since everybody knows about these procedures, many politicians have dropped any remaining reluctance to grab whatever they can get. And, no surprise, these financial skills are highly attractive for the political parties. This is one of the reasons why Setya Novanto made it back to the helm of the Golkar Party.

 

Cambodia: Who is a Traitor decides the Dictator


Partyforumseasia:     Opposition leader Kem Sokha detained for “treason”.
Lately, we have been reporting about Cambodia relatively often. The last few headlines were not positive, neither for the opposition nor the the ruling CPP: April 30, 2016: Party Competition Cambodian Style, October 14, 2016: Cambodia’s Opposition Getting More Sticks and no Carrots, January 2, 2017: Final Blow for Cambodian Opposition?, June 28, 2017: Cambodia’s Commune Elections – Final Results Not Really Glorious for the CPP.
Don’t blame pessimism in politics, it can always turn from bad to worse:
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy had been driven into exile in 2016 and practically forced to resign as chairman of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) because a new legislation allowed the suspension of the CNRP under a “convicted” leader. Even all his pictures had to be removed under the new law. Deputy chairman Kem Sokha took over and continued to prepare the party for the general election due by next year.
But Hun Sen, in power since 1985 and one of the longest serving prime ministers worldwide, seems to be nervous about his ruling party’s victory in 2018 and determined to do whatever it takes to continue his rule. He is only 65 by now, which is no retirement age for politicians. Known much more for his iron fist than for velvet gloves, Mr. Hun Sen has initiated a series of measures to guarantee that he stays in control. The newest was the arrest of Kem Sokha, Sunday morning, 3 September, 12:30 am at his home by 100 policemen and sent to a prison 200 km away from Phnom Penh. Prime Minister Hun Sen was quoted as explaining the urgency: “The treason of colluding with foreigners to betray the nation requires {us} to make an immediate arrest”. The foreigners, also called “the third hand”, are the USA who, like it or not, do have a tendency to promote their idea of democracy by intervention and regime change, which is certainly not always popular in the recipient countries. In the case of Cambodia, the US supported the coup of general Lon Nol which ousted the late king Sihanouk in 1970. It is no secret that the US and European countries who have supported Cambodia with billions of development aid have been disappointed with the Hun Sen administration’s resistance against crucial domestic reforms.
Kem Sokha, who has already endured legal attacks over an alleged extramarital affair last year, is known for his very balanced and conciliatory personality. But as an experienced politician and human rights activist, he is also a good campaign speaker, and, of course, his aim as opposition leader is no less than winning the upcoming election. That is normal and completely legitimate.

Other measures of PM Hun Sen are complementing the arrest of Sokha:

An attack on press freedom: With a surprise tax bill of over six million USD, the 24 year old English language “Cambodia Daily” feels forced to close down immediately.

A CPP internal party purge: End of August a leaked secret paper informed about a party-internal exercise to review the attitude and reliablity of the CPP’s 5,370,313 members, no less than 68 percent of the nation’s 7.8 million registered voters. Many, especially the bloated civil service, have been expected or forced to join. All reliable members will get a new membership card after passing the personal screening by a party team.

If the CPP should have any remaining Communist elements, the party purge reminds of the infamous Lenin quotation “Trust is good, but control is better”...

 

 

Thailand: Ex-Premier Yingluck Shinawatra follows her Brother into Self-Exile


Partyforumseasia: Yingluck Shinawatra, the 28th Prime Minister of Thailand since August 2011, was ousted in May 2014 by the Constitutional Court. She was accused of abuse of power for replacing the national security chief by a supporter of her Puea Thai party back in 2011. In the same month of May 2014, not exactly by coincidence, the Thai military intervened and replaced the democratically elected Puea Thai government by a junta under retired general and now Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. Unlike her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was Thailand’s 23d prime minister from 2001, and ousted in 2006, Yingluck continued to stay in the country. The first female prime minister of the country and probably the most beautiful and photogenic one of our times, still commands a huge popularity and political support, especially among the main electoral target group of her party, the poor farming communities in the North and Northeast. The Puea Thai Party is a re-incarnation of her brother Thaksin’s creation, the Thai Rak Thai Party which was dissolved in 2007 after the 2006 military coup, and of the People’s Power Party, dissolved in 2008, which had replaced the Thai Rak Thai Party.
Accused of negligence in handling her government’s multi-billion dollar rice buying scheme, introduced already by her brother, Yingluck could have been jailed for up to 10 years. The program was extremely popular with poor rice farmers, but buying the paddy well above the market rates turned out to be very costly for the government.
In a separate but related case, the court sentenced the former commerce minister Boonsong Teriyapirom to 42 years in jail for faking a government-to-government sale deal involving rice from the 18 million ton state stockpiles.

Though under close supervision by the security forces, Mrs. Yingluck managed to leave the country on Wednesday, 23d or Thursday, 24th of August. Her absence may be an advantage for the military government which does not have to deal with a martyr in prison. Yingluck is supposed to join her brother in his self-exile in Dubai. His and her assets in Thailand are frozen by the junta, but the family clan seems to have enough money abroad to fund and maintain their massive influence on Thailand’s politics.

In a regional perspective, getting rid or disposing of political rivals is often executed with the legendary iron fist but not with a velvet glove, even if the judiciary up to the constitutional court is involved. The most striking example may be the “disposal” of former finance and deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in neighbouring Malaysia. Anwar was convicted of sodomy already under prime minister Mahathir in 1998, and again with the same accusation under prime minister Najib Razak in 2008 when his political charisma as opposition leader threatened the ruling coalition. Both convictions left a number of doubts and open questions, but were highly effective in neutralizing the rival.