A Creative Internet Election Campaign

The Pheu Thai Party is leading in the polls and wants a landslide victory
Today in The Nation (https://www.nationthailand.com/thailand/politics/40027020)
One million views and 12,400 retweets within the first 12 hours!!!

The Pheu Thai Party released a new marketing ploy: A poster linking each of the 44 letters of the Thai alphabet with one of its attention-grabbing campaign pledges.

A tweet with a link to the alphabet poster received about 1 million views within 12 hours.

The alphabet-campaign poster was uploaded on Pheu Thai’s Facebook page at 8pm on Wednesday, followed by a tweet embedding a link to the Facebook post.

The alphabet-campaign poster mimics the ones used to teach the Thai alphabet to children, but uses rhymes for key campaign pledges.

Pheu Thai uses the first letter of the alphabet, “Kor Kai”, to spell out “Kasettakorn” (“farmers”) and follows with its promise to give them a three-year debt moratorium.

Pheu Thai’s rhyming ‘alphabet campaign’ goes viral“Khor Khwai”, the third letter of the alphabet, is rhymed with “Kha Raeng” (“wage”). It is followed by Pheu Thai’s promise to raise the daily minimum wage to 600 baht.

“Chor Chang”, the seventh letter, is rhymed with “Charttiphan” (“ethnic minorities”) and explains that they will be given Thai citizenship.

The tweet was retweeted 12,400 within 12 hours, while the Instagram photo of the poster received more than 3,100 likes.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Facebook post received over 9,600 likes and was shared 1,700 times. It received more than 420 comments.

Pheu Thai is by far the frontrunner for the May 14 election, according to national opinion polls. It leaves every other party, except Move Forward, in the dust.

The Question of a Third Shinawatra: Possible Without Another Coup?

The chances for the Pheu Thai Party explained by Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap

Commentary: Could Thai voters put a third Shinawatra in power after Thaksin and Yingluck?

Winning at the polls on May 14 may not guarantee an actual victory for Pheu Thai favourite Paetongtarn Shinawatra nor her father Thaksin, says ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Termsak Chalermpalanupap.

Commentary: Could Thai voters put a third Shinawatra in power after Thaksin and Yingluck?
From left to right: Paetongtarn Shinawatra, Pheu Thai candidate (Photo: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit), former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (Photo: AFP/Isaac Lawrence), former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra (Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha).…see more

28 Apr 2023 06:27AM(Updated: 28 Apr 2023 06:27AM)

SINGAPORE: Seventeen years after exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a coup, his youngest daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra, 36, has been leading opinion polls for the same job in recent months.

Pheu Thai, the largest opposition party, which nominated her as one of its three candidates to be prime minister, is also currently expected to win the largest number of seats in Thailand’s upcoming general election on May 14.

Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister and Paetongtarn’s aunt, had been prime minister until she resigned in 2014, two weeks before a military coup toppled her government. If election outcomes were to follow the polls, could Thailand soon see a third Shinawatra in power?


Many in Thailand are unhappy with the political status quo. A large majority of voters in Bangkok and urban areas in the provinces have indicated they want a change in government.

But surveys tend to capture the sentiments of urban respondents – easily accessible to pollsters – and name recognition, which are shaped by media exposure. They usually miss a large majority of voters outside of provincial centres, who may vote with their wealthy patrons or influential village heads.

Opposition party Pheu Thai is fronted by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter of billionaire former PM Thaksin Shinawatra (Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha)

Veteran politicians in Thailand rely heavily on patronage networks of influential families to win elections. Party label, policy platform and reputation of party leadership are secondary.

Even in Chiang Mai, a Pheu Thai stronghold and Thaksin’s hometown, a sweep of all the seats at stake there isn’t guaranteed. Opposition party Move Forward is also gaining ground in Bangkok and is currently expected to win more seats than Pheu Thai.


Failure to achieve a landslide victory will put Pheu Thai in a precarious position.

Based on the NIDA Poll and The Nation Poll, both released in April, Pheu Thai could win no more than 240 House seats, 11 seats short of the minimum majority in the 500-seat lower chamber.

To form a viable government coalition, it would need support from fellow opposition ally Move Forward. In return, Pheu Thai would have to accept some of Move Forward’s sensitive policy initiatives – including reforming the monarchy.


Thai general election: A look at the candidates vying to be the country’s next PM
Commentary: Political dealmaking will determine the winner and twist outcomes in Thailand’s election

Alternatively, Pheu Thai could avoid upsetting the conservative establishment by working with some government parties. But doing so would alienate a large number of its supporters who are anti-government.

Pheu Thai already found itself in such a situation after the 2019 general election. Pheu Thai won the most seats (136 seats) but only had 245 seats as a coalition of seven parties. The government was formed instead by a coalition of 19 parties led by Palang Pracharath with 254 House seats.


Winning at the polls in May will not be enough for Pheu Thai to usher Paetongtarn all the way to the next premiership. It still may not have the minimum of 376 votes in the combined session of house parliamentarians and senators.

All 250 senators were hand-picked by the military regime headed by then General Prayut Chan-o-cha before the 2019 general election.  In 2019, Palang Pracharath’s candidate easily won nearly all the senators’ votes – and became Prime Minister Prayut.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is seeking re-election, after a court ruled in September 2022 that he had not reached the constitutional term limit in office. (Photo: United Thai Nation Party)

Not many of the senators would vote for Paetongtarn or Pheu Thai’s two other candidates, real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin, and veteran lawyer Chaikasem Nitisiri, in the premiership selection in parliament after the general election. A majority of the senators is expected to support either Prayut, who switched to the new United Thai Nation party, or Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, leader of Palang Pracharath.

Even if Pheu Thai can form the majority alone, senators may abstain from the vote. Pheu Thai would need the support of other opposition parties or major government parties to cross over to vote for Paetongtarn to win the premiership with 376 votes. This may not happen.


But Thaksin is probably still pinning his hopes on Pheu Thai’s landslide victory in May that could make his dream of returning home from exile come true. A resounding mandate to form the next government could give it more leverage to overcome the senate vote.

Thaksin had been instrumental in fielding Yingluck as a surprise candidate of Pheu Thai in the 2011 general election. It swept 265 House seats with the slogan “Thaksin thinks, Yingluck acts!”

This time, he has sent in yet another surprise candidate, Paetongtarn. But for now, he has avoided being seen to do anything for his daughter or Pheu Thai.


Commentary: Thai PM Prayut survives challenge but does this pave a way for Thaksin’s return?
Commentary: Why is former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra still so popular on social media?

He has stopped his weekly Tuesday talks on social audio app Clubhouse, where he goes by the alias Tony Woodsome, to distance himself from the election. He is being careful not to make any serious misstep that could lead to the dissolution of Pheu Thai.

With less than three weeks until the election day on May 14, Pheu Thai’s dream of a landslide victory is probably wishful thinking. Thailand may not see the third Shinawatra prime minister after all.

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Visiting Fellow and Coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

Only One Month to GO: The Thai Elections on 5 May

A superb introduction by Prof. Punchada Sirivunnabood

Thailand’s General Election: Can the Winner Really Take All?

The opposition Pheu Thai Party is well placed to win the May 14 polls. But will it be able to form government?

By Punchada Sirivunnabood for The Diplomat

April 20, 2023

Thailand’s General Election: Can the Winner Really Take All?
Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the leading prime ministerial candidate of the opposition Pheu Thai Party, speaks at a campaign rally on March 30, 2023.Credit: Facebook/Ing Shinawatra

On April 5, Thailand’s opposition Pheu Thai Party announced at a rally that the party would not join the pro-military Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) in forming a coalition government after next month’s general election, despite rumors to the contrary. The party was aiming to reassure supporters and stated that its goal was to win at least 310 of the 500 seats in Parliament. Many polls report that Pheu Thai is the most popular choice to lead the government, with at least 35 percent support.

The question remains, however, whether the party can form a one-party government or even obtain the prime minister’s seat. Despite its likelihood of emerging with the largest share of parliamentary seats – the party and its predecessors have done so in every Thai election since 2001 – the party will face many challenges in forming the government, including the fact the 250 unelected senators will vote to elect the next prime minister, and are unlikely to support Pheu Thai’s chosen candidate, given the party’s association with exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

According to the 2017 Constitution, prime ministerial candidates are not required to run for election. Political parties can nominate up to three candidates with the Election Commission of Thailand before election day. Only candidates whose party wins a minimum of 25 parliamentary seats are eligible for consideration. Until 2024, the selection of the prime minister is open to both the 500 MPs in the Lower House and the 250 members of the Senate Thus, to win the PM post, candidates likely must secure the support of 376 members of both houses of parliament. The Pheu Thai Party (PTP)’s “landslide strategy” of aiming to win at least 310 seats in the lower house would allow the party, with the support of other opposition parties, to claim a clear victory and appoint a PM despite having little support from the appointed Senate. Can the PTP, the party with the highest potential for electoral victory, achieve this landslide goal to form a one-party government and win the PM position? If not, what are the other possible electoral outcomes?

Winning 310 seats is not an easy task for the PTP. According to recent media interviews with senior members of the party, the PTP announced this strategy based on its victory in the 2001 and 2005 elections, in which the party won 248 seats and 377 seats, respectively. In those elections, though, the only main alternative party was the Democrat Party. There were no clear alternatives on either the liberal or conservative sides of the political spectrum.

In 2023, however, the electoral battlefield is crowded. The major conservative parties include the Democrats, the United Thai Nation Party, which supports Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha as its prime ministerial candidate, Palang Pracharath, led by Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, and the Bhumjaithai Party, led by Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul. On the liberal side are PTP, the Move Forward Party, the Thai Sang Thai Party, led by former Pheu Thai prime ministerial candidate Sudarat Keyuraphan, and the Seri Ruam Thai Party, led by Seripisut Temiyavet.

The large number of options for voters will make it difficult for Pheu Thai to capture a landslide. Without a clear victory, it may be forced to form a coalition government with other parties from the liberal side, including Seri Ruam Thai and Move Forward. However, the PTP may need to consider this option carefully with regard to Move Forward’s policy on the reform of Article 112, Thailand’s lese-majeste law.

Aside from the above option, PTP may join political parties from the conservative group, including Palang Pracharath and Bhumjaithai. PPRP has headed the government under Prayut since 2019, and captured the prime ministerial post, despite being only the second-largest party in parliament, thanks to support from the 250 appointed senators. By joining PPRP, Pheu Thai could potentially gain support from the Senate. However, this might not result in a Pheu Thai prime minister, as the PPRP’s candidate, Prawit Wongsuwan, would prefer to become prime minister rather than take a backseat to the PTP.

Before the 2019 general election, Prawit had a hand in selecting the 250 appointed senators, which would likely give him a boost over any PTP candidate. While a PTP-PPRP coalition is possible, as mentioned above, senior members of Pheu Thai have declared their intention to establish a government without PPRP, calling on supporters to deliver a landslide victory. But the PPRP has additional advantages. Given his charisma and connections to many sectors, Prawit could help PTP form a stable government as well as create a path for Thaksin Shinawatra, one of the most influential and controversial figures in recent Thai political history, to return to the country.

During campaign debates, leaders of other conservative parties have stressed that if parties can form a coalition government with more than 250 seats, those parties should be allowed to rule the country, raising the prospect that the party that wins the largest number of seats may not form the government, as happened in 2019. If the PTP fails to form the collation government again after this election, there is a good chance that this will will allow the second largest party to form a government, perhaps in the same sort of patchwork conservative coalition that emerged after the last election. Last month, photos of Anutin Charnvirakul, the leader of the Bhumjaithai party, having lunch with Prawit, were released in the media, signaling a possible cooperation between these two parties after the election.

In responding to PTP’s April 5 announcement that it would not join forces with the PPRP after the election, PPRP deputy party leader Paiboon Nithitawan insisted similarly at a press conference that his party would not form a government with Pheu Thai due to disagreements with several PTP policies. The statement may have been made to appeal to conservative voters who oppose pro-Thaksin and liberal parties. On the other hand, Paiboon’s message weakens PPRP’s claim to transcend past conflicts in Thai politics, emphasizing the party’s willingness to work with a broad array of parties after the election.

PPRP hopes that its motto will elevate it above the struggle between conservative and pro-democracy forces that have shaped Thai politics over the past two decades. The 2023 election will likely see a repeat of this struggle. Pheu Thai will likely gain the largest number of seats in parliament, as it and its predecessor parties have in every election since 2001. But whether that victory will translate into the capture of the prime minister’s seat is still in question.AUTHORS


Punchada Sirivunnabood

Punchada Sirivunnabood is an associate professor in the faculty of social sciences and humanities at Mahidol University, Thailand. Her expertise is Thai politics, political parties and elections, Indonesia’s politics, the criminal justice system in Thailand, and ASEAN security.

The Upcoming Election in Thailand

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (center) with supporters

While many Western democracies are losing their former prestige as a political model for Southeast Asia, there are interesting developments in the upcoming elections. In Europe, formerly stable political systems have crumbled. Party programs are difficult to distinguish, traditional ideological divides between conservatives, socialists, and liberals have nearly vanished, far right and far left fringe parties make it into the parliaments. The trust of the voters in political parties has eroded in such a way that parliamentary majorities are more difficult to form than ever before. More coalition governments struggle to survive, and hardly compatible parties in these shaky coalitions are facing the big challenge of accelerating economic and demographic changes. The USA, considered for many decades the leading model for the world and promoting democracy everywhere, is risking no less than its own governability in the unprecedented conflict between Republicans and Democrats. The once celebrated “Third Wave of Democratization” is so obviously history that finger pointing at democratic deficits in other countries is becoming futile and counterproductive. Politically motivated sanctions against military and authoritarian regimes don’t change attitudes but often enough endanger the poorer parts of their population. Exporting democracy as a humanitarian mission and attempts at regime change in countries far away look out of place, and the “missionaries” should better try to improve and rebalance their systems at home to regain credibility. Given this background, politicians, voters, and political scientists in Asia resent being constantly reminded of their democratic deficits and lack of human rights and minority protection. That might also apply to many among the 1.3 billion Chinese who see the progress of the country and the improved quality of life, without suffering too much from their lack of democratic freedoms under the tight control of the Communist Party. Because of the fast-increasing prosperity in many parts of Southeast Asia, people are more self-assured, and voters are looking for opportunities and improvement of their personal lives while remaining well aware of the power games among the political elites and their competition. But the popular demand for more transparency and democratic participation is persistently visible, not least inspired by the Myanmar resistance against the military regime.

The Thai elections on 14th May

Thailand has lived through a checkered history in terms of democratic development with more than a dozen military coups. Nevertheless, what seems to come up in the May election could be a fresh start without the coalition between the economic establishment and the conservative voter base supporting the monarchy and the military. The incumbent Prime Minister and ex-general, Prayut Chan-ocha, is running for re-election on a ticket of the United Thai Nation Party, which he joined only in December 2022. He has been in power since 2014, when his coup toppled the elected government, and he was elected in 2019 as a new-born civilian. His candidacy may be a move to consolidate the ruling coalition beyond April 2025 when his maximum six-year term as Prime Minister will end. Prayuth’s shaky coalition may have a chance to continue because of certain technicalities in Thailand’s election law. The Prime Minister is being elected by the 500 members of parliament and the 250 senators who are appointed and supposed to be “reliable”. If there is no clear majority for one of the candidates in the lower house, which is rather probable, the senate may tip the scale by joining one of the MP groups and support the incumbent. Thailand has experimented with changes of the election law and the balance between 400 MPs being elected in a first-past-the-post system with 100 more on party lists. Internal critics feel that this 400 to 100 balance favours the big parties. What may turn out as a surprise is the strength of the parties now in opposition. Leading in the polls is the Pheu Thai Party, the second reincarnation of Thaksin Shinawatra’s original Thai Rak Thai Party, which ruled from 2001 to 2006 and was dissolved in 2007. Its founder Thaksin Shinawatra, a self-made billionaire, lives in exile, and his 36-year-old daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra is increasingly ahead of Prayuth in the polls, despite her lack of leadership experience. Prayuth has so far managed to defang the opposition, especially the charismatic Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, co-founder and leader of the Future Forward Party, dissolved in 2020, which resurrected as Move Forward Party and aims to end the military’s role in the country’s politics. This is particularly popular among the younger and more educated population and in urban areas. The Move Forward Party, which is campaigning as well for certain reforms concerning the political role of the monarchy, may be better prepared than in the last election, having had more time to identify candidates and campaign in the constituencies. Like in other countries in the region, especially in Indonesia, candidates are increasingly being vetted for their electability, a feature widely neglected in Western democracies, where self-declared leaders fight their way up to the candidacy. That does not guarantee at all that they are attractive to the voters. The bait should be appetizing for the fish and not for the fisherman.
Thailand’s party landscape is splintered and fluid. Parties come and go, are banned, and resurface under a new name. Speculating on future coalitions after the May 14 election is difficult, while other mechanisms like money politics and old traditions of vote buying can be game changers beyond the intentions of voters and the often-unreliable poll results. There is also the Bhumjaithai Party, the second biggest in the outgoing coalition, which is open for cooperation with Pheu Thai or Prayuth or Prawit, whoever wins and is open for compromises, not least in the distribution of cabinet positions. Prayut’s own support base has been weakened by a split in the military and his falling out with the influential general Prawit Wongsuwan from the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP). Both generals are promising a new political climate beyond the old divisions and promise to address the real issues of the people and the country. These are mainly the recovery after the Covid-slump, with a 6% contraction of the economy and many job losses in the important tourism industry. Now the tourists are coming back, and the outlook turns to cautious optimism for the second biggest economy of Southeast Asia. That might support Prayuth’s promise for continuity and stability, but it remains to be seen how strong the more anti-establishment drive by Pheu Thai and Move Forward will be at the ballot boxes in May. They are campaigning with promises, like an increased minimum wage, similar to the old establishment, but there is not much financial leeway to fund them without new debts or higher taxes.

The challenger: PM candidate Paetongtarn Shinawatra

Cambodia’s Opposition Leader Kem Sokha Convicted to 27 Years in Prison

In the morning of Friday, March 3, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court delivered the much-anticipated verdict on Kem Sokha, the last leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), dissolved by the Supreme Court in November 2017. The news spread immediately around the media worldwide, all of them slamming the all too visible political motivation of the verdict. It certainly is detrimental for the image of Cambodia and its strongman Hun Sen who is prime minister since 1985 and obviously grooming as a successor his son Hun Manet, who is already the army chief.
The Phnom Penh Post reports on the same day that the court convicted Kem to 27 years in prison under articles 439 and 443 of the Criminal Code and barred him from politics and elections under article 450. The main reason for the indictment being the alleged attempt to overthrow the rightful Cambodian government by conspiracy with foreign states is covered by article 443, which reads as follows:
Article 443 Espionage. The acts of entering into secret agreement with a foreign state or with its agents in order to create hostilities or aggression against Cambodia is punishable by imprisonment from 15 (fifteen) years to 30 (thirty) years.”
Article 450 defines additional penalties like the reduction of civil rights, travel restrictions, house arrest and the ban of contacts with others than family members.

This unusual kind of lawsuit against Kem had started with his detention in 2017 and smoldered since then through several phases of imprisonment, release on bail, and house arrest. After the verdict was handed down by the court, Kem was not immediately sent to prison but confined to his home under court supervision.

With the former co-leader of the CNRP, Sam Rainsy, already in exile since 2016 to avoid prison terms for similarly politically motivated conspiracy against Cambodia, the opposition is now without its most popular figure heads. Kem Sokha is 69 years old, Sam Rainsy 74, and Cambodia has a young population with the younger ones probably not remembering too much of the days when the CNRP had hopes to win against Hun Sen’s well-oiled Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP) election machinery and its army backing.

For all who know Kem Sokha personally, the conviction is especially outrageous. A balanced and soft but outspoken man, he became popular as a politician who can listen to the grievances of the common people, who can speak their language, and who knows what is wrong in the country. As a former human rights lawyer, he founded the Human Rights Party which he later merged with the CNRP. He could have contributed much to the development of Cambodia and balance the authoritarian style of the ruling CPP, had he not been perceived by Prime Minister Hun Sen as a threat to his own dominance.

Party Funding in Southeast Asia and Germany

The funding of political parties is somewhat precarious and controversial all-over Southeast Asia and, unfortunately, opaque enough to enable corruption and money politics in too many places. The politicians are in a difficult position to eradicate that because election campaigns are getting increasingly costly and who would be prepared to cut himself off from the vital funding sources? In several countries the legislature and the judiciary have tried to eradicate political corruption, but as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and politicians are creative in this field.
For comparative reasons, let us look into the experience with the legislative and judicial attempts to make the political parties in Germany as clean and democratic as possible.

After the end of WWII and twelve years of Nazi rule, the allies, USA, GB, and France occupied their respective zones in the West of Germany and tried their luck on “Denazification” and “Re-education” for a democratic future. The USSR, occupying the East of the country, tried to nurture a Communist new Germany there. Based on democratic traditions before the Nazis took over in 1933 and with several politicians who had resisted the Hitler regime, the Federal Republic of (Western) Germany was established in May 1949. The men and women in the Parliamentarian Council who formulated the new constitution were careful in designing it in the most impeccable democratic form and the following legislation took great care to make the new parties as fair, free, and democratic. The constitution stipulated that the political parties should be regulated by a federal law. But because of different expectations on the funding part, the Political Party Act was passed only in 1967 and amended in 2002, meant to ensure the transparency and integrity of political parties.

The funding regulations
The basic principle of the funding is that the parties must generate at least half of their expenses by membership fees and donations before any topping up by tax money. And they must regularly and publicly declare their income and expenses and the respective sources. Public subsidies for the party finances depend on the number of votes won and are limited at .83 Euros per vote. The federal ceiling for party disbursements is fixed at 150 million Euros per year. Donations must be declared and one half of them is tax deductible for the donors. One of the aims of the Political Parties Act is to fight corruption. Therefore, donations to political parties are limited to 20,000 euros per year. This is to prevent interest groups from influencing politics by donating large sums of money. Members’ contributions are also part of the Political Parties Act. To strengthen the influence of members on party decision-making, minimum contributions must be levied. To ensure that the Political Parties Act is complied with, all financial flows to and from political parties must be disclosed. Everyone thus has access to information on donations or membership fees of the respective party. The Political Parties Act has had a positive impact on democracy in Germany. It ensures the transparency and integrity of political decision-making processes and at the same time prevents corruption through donations or membership fees. Unfortunately, the system was not airtight, and several funding scandals have occurred over the years, a major one even involving then chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Membership fees
Since membership contributions are nominal or close to zero in Southeast Asia, a glimpse into the German experience may be interesting. The following figures come from a recent article in one of the mainstream dailies which reminds the readers that, cleverly, the parties have pegged the membership fees to the net monthly income of their supporters. Membership normally does not come with a privilege expect in some cases when knowing the mayor of a village via the party may facilitate one or the other administrative procedure. Now, are the fixed fee levels different in the competing parties? Yes, they are. For a high monthly net income of 6.000 Euros, the fee you are supposed to contribute to the Social Democratic Party, the oldest in Germany and formerly a working-class party, is three hundred Euros. That sounds like a lot, but the income classification is voluntary, and one might guess how many members are paying that much. The other parties are much cheaper at the same income level. The Green Party asks for 60 Euros, the Free Democratic Party for 52, the Christian Democrats for 50, and the right-wing Alternative for Germany for 10 Euros. Pensioners, jobless members, or students can pay as little as 2,50 in the SPD and probably an equivalent in the other parties. But all are experiencing a shrinking membership base, especially the Social Democrats who also suffer from a higher and higher median age of their members.

Dr Wolfgang Sachsenröder                                                                           2 March 2023

PS: A part of this post has been redacted with AI support, my first attempt to AI. The software I have used is “neuroflash

For an overview on party financing in Southeast Asia, see my book below:

A Looming Landslide for the Pheu Thai Party?

Thaksin’s “little girl” as Prime Minister candidate

Partyforumseasia: Thailand’s next parliamentary election is scheduled for 7 May 2023, reason enough for political parties and their leaders to start campaigning and sorting out who will be the best candidate for the top job of prime minister. As usual, campaign season is the season of promises and opinion polls while both tend to be exaggerated and often enough too nice to be true or achievable.
The country is hopeful that the economy will start to grow again after the dull Covid years, but it is also true that the ruling coalition under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is not inspiring the electorate. Former general Prayut, started the top job as junta leader in the coup of 2014 and continued as civilian prime minister after the 2019 election. He has announced that he would like to continue but his popularity and that of the military behind him is limited. His 17-party coalition with eight of them represented by only one MP is anything but stable. The opposition camp in the house counts seven member parties, with the Pheu Thai Party being the biggest one with 131 MPs in the 500-seat parliament. The party performs rather consistently well in the polls, recently with 42% against the 4% for Prayut’s Palang Pracharath Party. One of its top candidates with increasing popularity is Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the youngest daughter of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra. According to the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida), the 36-year-old politician has increased her polling results from 22% in September to 34% in December and may be the front runner among the party’s three hopefuls. The nomination has yet to be finalized, but Paetongtarn, nicknamed “Ung Ing” declared already her “readiness” to be the next prime minister. Pheu Thai expects a landslide victory, which competing parties call hot air, but the memory of the predecessor Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) and the triumphant election victories of Paetongtarn’s father Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001 and 2005 are unforgotten. The success ended with the party’s dissolution in 2008, the exile of Thaksin, and was followed by TRT’s reincarnation as Pheu Thai in 2008. Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra was then prime minister from 2011 to 2014, her government ended in turmoil and one of Thailand’s infamous military coups in May 2014, led by the present prime minister Prayuth chan-o-cha.  
Paetongtarn Shinawatra is now the third family member reaching out for the premiership. Also known as “Thaksin’s little girl”, her profile as a politician may not yet be sharp enough to show her as predestined for the top job. Obviously, if the poll results can be trusted, there seems to be enough nostalgia for the economically successful Thaksin years, feeding Ung Ing’s growing popularity. Interestingly, political families are more common in Asia than in the West, apart from the Kennedy and Bush clans in the USA. The election of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as president of the Philippines last year is the latest example in Southeast Asia.

With the election campaign starting to develop momentum, the election promises are providing fodder for the media. Whether a majority of the voters believe them is an open question, but they belong to the propaganda rituals of the parties. Since it is difficult in Thailand’s stunningly diverse and volatile party landscape to understand their ideological or programmatic differences, promises must serve as bait for votes on top of the charisma of the leaders. That seems to be similar for many parliamentary democracies worldwide and may be due to the more and more chaotic supply of news and information through mainstream and social media. (WS)

Partyforumseasia plans to start a collection of typical election promises.

Suggestions are welcome!

Promises by Paetongtarn Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai Party (among ten proposed policies):

  • Raise the minimum daily wage to 600 baht ($17) by 2027, nearly twice the current amount.
  • Bachelor’s degree holders will earn at least 25,000 baht per month, about 765 USD.
  • “Drugs and Pheu Thai cannot coexist”.

Much of what happens in Vietnam’s government is opaque.

recommends this article from the Taipei Times, published on 21 January 2023:

Vietnam succession heats up after president’s ouster

CORRUPTION PURGE: The ouster of Nguyen Xuan Phuc opens the door for the Communist Party head to line up a successor and shut out rival reformist factions.

Happy CNY!

The Year of the Rabbit starts Tomorrow!

The horoscope says: “People born under the sign of the Rabbit dislike fighting and like to find solutions through compromise and negotiation.” Probably there are many non-Rabbits who also dislike fighting, especially in Ukraine, Russia, and elsewhere. Let us hope with them for an end to the war!

Best wishes for a successful and hopefully more peaceful year!

Umno’s No-Contest Motion

The Trappings of Leadership Succession in Malaysia

Partyforumseasia: Malaysia’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party which dominated the country’s politics for six decades, is trying to digest and hopes to overcome its worst election result ever. With the reliable support of ethnic minority parties, the predominantly Malay UMNO used to enjoy stable absolute majorities. After several years of gradual decline, the shock result of the November 2022 election reduced it to only 30 seats in the 222-member parliament.
Like in any political party, victories have many fathers and unite the membership whereas losses trigger internal and public debates, rivalries flare up and the hunt for culprits is difficult to control. This was the central problem of party president Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and secretary-general Ahmad Maslan, the second in command. The calls for their resignation were loud enough, especially from the former MPs who lost their mandate, but as well from the members who blame the defeat as a deserved punishment for the years of money politics and corruption. With former UMNO leader and Prime Minister Najib Razak in prison and a conviction of Zahid looming, many were arguing for a self-cleansing exercise to improve the bad image of the party. Acquitted of 40 corruption charges in September last year, Zahid is still facing 47 charges of criminal breach of trust, corruption, and money laundering. In most democratic systems this would have finished his leadership ambitions, not so in UMNO and not in Malaysia. With admittedly skillful arguments and maneuvers, Zahid has managed to survive. He persuaded the recent general assembly of the party (January 11-14) to vote with a convincing majority of delegates not to contest the two top posts in the coming party polls, which must be held by May 19.
The main argument tried to persuade the delegates that shaking the boat even further would be a deadly danger for the very survival of the party, especially in view of the growth of long-time rival PAS, the Islamist party competing in UMNO’s Malay vote bank. Zahid’s and Maslan’s success shows as well how skillful the two can play the party piano, even without the deep pockets the party used to enjoy, mainly from contributions by Government-linked companies (GLCs).
The outmaneuvered faction in the assembly was not only against Zahid and Maslan and a more forceful renewal, but also for a rejuvenation of the leadership. Zahid, who just turned 70 last week, has been challenged by Khairy Jamaluddin, 47, a former leader of UMNO’s Youth Wing, former Minister of Youth and Sports as well as Health Minister. As son of a top diplomat and son in law of a former Prime Minister, he belongs to Malaysia’s “political nobility”, but above all he is a political animal of sorts. He lost his seat in Parliament in November and will have enough time to campaign for a continuation of his political career. One possible opportunity will come if Zahid should be convicted and imprisoned at the end of the law suit which will resume in April. For many it looks logical that his fight for an acquittal would be supported if he remains party president and Deputy Prime Minister in the present Government under PM Anwar Ibrahim.
For students of party politics, the ongoing saga is a rather interesting case study, though, or maybe even more so, because it is not following the textbooks on liberal democracy.  But which party does?

Is Peace on Earth a Pipedream?

The outlook for 2023 is gloomy for all too many, optimism and confidence that the governments and the political class can solve the main problems is fading. Supposedly stable party systems are disintegrating and visions for a brighter future are hard to find among those who feel destined for leadership.

Nevertheless, we wish you, at least on the private level, good luck, success, health and happiness!!!

A version of the following article on a neglected aspect of the ongoing war in Ukraine and the military conflicts in many other places has been published in several media in Germany. If you know of a political leader or a party aware of this problem, please tell me.

Military, Arms Race and War: A Devastating Environmental Balance Sheet

According to the latest surveys, the willingness in the USA and the main donor countries in Europe to support Ukraine in the fight against Russia with whatever is necessary and for as long as it is necessary, is sinking. On the European side, this involves private aid and the accommodation of millions of Ukrainian refugees, but above all the unconditional supply of weapons and ammunition. For the latter, the donor countries’ own reserves are apparently running low, and weapons manufacturers are unable to replenish the quantities needed for their own defense quickly enough, even in the United States. Generally, moral support remains high, but many believe that the Russian attack was not as “unprovoked” as the Western mainstream media repeat since February. According to the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank in Washington, the latest budget approvals are pushing the US support for Ukraine to 113 billion dollars. The Quincy study sees that in the perspective that, in the past twelve months, Ukraine has been awarded more taxpayer dollars than 40 US states altogether and asks how long that can continue if the war drags on for years. If both sides refuse to revise their maximum goals, there is no chance for negotiations, not even for a limited ceasefire.   

Wars and their long-term environmental damage

The international fallout of the war, the energy crisis in Europe and many other countries far away, the disruption of the supply chains for vital goods and the increasing unpredictability of food security, is mostly being discussed under economic aspects. But on one important side effect of the grinding war, its environmental damage, politicians, and media are remarkably quiet.

Historical environmental damage, such as that caused by the endless wars in ancient Rome, is still visible 2000 years later. The Mediterranean region, which was densely forested in ancient times, was extensively deforested by the massive fleet and housing construction of the Romans and developed its characteristic arid fauna and flora due to the resulting karstification. In German and other European cities, unexploded ordnance from WWII is regularly found during construction work and often requires widespread evacuation of residents when it is defused. Since the war damage has now been so largely removed and only the very old can still remember the ruined landscapes, the topic of war and the environment apparently no longer makes it onto the current agenda. And the future reconstruction of Ukraine is discussed more under financial aspects. At least one reads less about the social and emotional consequences for the people there and even less about the polluted environment.

In other countries, the consequences of war are more strongly remembered for the continuing maiming of people who unexpectedly step on a landmine. The mining of large areas of even sparsely populated Indochina during the Vietnam War or the deformities of babies caused by the widespread spraying of forest areas with defoliants are unforgotten there. International attention was given in January to a report about Magawa the rat, who had helped clear mines for five years with his fabulous sense of smell, was awarded a gold medal, and died peacefully shortly thereafter. Presumably, the attention was more on the cute rodent than the dangerous mines. But almost fifty years after the end of the war, in which Cambodia was not even involved, the material damage is far from being repaired. The government launched a new program in early December to remove at least the remaining land mines by the end of 2025. At the same time, tens of thousands of new land and sea mines are being laid in Ukraine.

Futile warnings?

Ecologically devastating war damage has been studied in the Middle East. In 1991, more than 700 oil wells burned in Kuwait, destroying six million barrels of crude oil a day, 9% of world consumption at the time. Released were millions of tons of Sulphur, nitrogen, soot and hydrocarbons, a blanket of soot and oil covered 60% of Kuwait’s total area. War waste, and unexploded ordnance still make entire areas inaccessible, and radiation from uranium-hardened munitions remains an invisible threat for generations. The dramatic images of burning oil wells may have contributed to discussions about these all-too-visible consequences of war. But it was not until November 5, 2001, that the United Nations General Assembly declared November 6 of each year as the “International Day for the Prevention of the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict” (RES 56/4).  For this year’s International Day, the echo in was almost inaudible. On the Internet it is mentioned at least on the web pages, which remind in a calendar of such events. In the leading media it did not take place, and the Green parties in many European government coalitions, who had their roots in the peace movement of the 1960s, or the strong climate change demonstrators, were all quiet.

Environmental damage and the current arms race.

What one can assume anyway in the regions with air bases, namely that military air traffic is a considerable environmental burden in addition to civil aviation, is confirmed by pertinent research reports. A critical study from June 2019 by Brown University near Boston calls the U.S. military the biggest polluter. According to the study, the military has produced a total of 1.8 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases since 2001, more than twice as much as all of the nation’s passenger cars combined emit in a year. The Pentagon is the world’s largest institutional consumer of fossil energy, making it a major contributor to climate change. President Biden and his Energy Secretary, Jennifer M. Granholm, have initiated a number of programs to decarbonize, but they can only be implemented over the long term. The Brown University researchers, by the way, got their figures from Granholm’s ministry, because the Pentagon itself does not provide these figures even to Congress. (The study can be viewed at www.costsofwar.org)

Comparable data is naturally not available for Russia or China but can be roughly guessed at. The latest figures from the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) at least do not indicate a decline. According to them, the hundred largest arms corporations turned over $592 billion last year, far ahead of long time leaders Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and British firm BAE Systems, and now four Chinese corporations. Total U.S. spending on military and security, including intelligence agencies and the National Security Agency, which also handles cybersecurity, is estimated at $1.4 trillion. In the 2021 figures released by Statista in April, the U.S. leads with 801 billion in direct military spending, followed by catching-up China with 292 and India with 76. The U.K. still spent about 2.5 billion more than Russia before the Ukraine invasion, at 68.4 billion, and France and Germany are nearly tied at about 56 billion.

Meanwhile, “dreamers” can be found on the Internet who want to theoretically convert the presumed world military expenditures to fabulous per capita incomes for each of the earth’s eight billion citizens, which would unfortunately be too good to ever come true. On the other hand, it would do the world and all of us good to give the issue of war and the environment the priority it deserves.

Singapore, 28 December 2022                                             by Dr Wolfgang Sachsenröder

Can (Young) Voters be Trusted?

GE 15, the 15th Malaysian general election on 19th November 2022, has been analyzed in many ways. Probably the most commented elements of its outcome were the appointment of veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim (74) as Prime Minister and the decline of the Barisan Nasional, the vehicle for decades of UMNO’s dominance. What is coming up with some delay is the much-anticipated impact of a change to the constitution. In July 2019, the Parliament had enacted the Constitution (Amendment) Act 2019, which contained provisions to lower the voting age to 18 and allow for the automatic registration of voters. The inclusion of young voters was a success story of the advocacy group Undi18, which was born as a student movement in 2016 and started to officially lobby for its cause with a memorandum to then Prime Minister Najib Razak in April 2017.

Since the constitutional amendment, and especially in and long before the official election campaign, politicians and commentators were speculating about possible changes by the enlarged and much younger electorate. Indeed, with the similarly new automatic registration the number of voters increased to 21.1 million, and the reduced age limit added 1.4 million young and first-time voters, with a total of 6.9 million potential new voters. There was a clear expectation that the role of young and younger voters below 40 would be pivotal. All post-mortem election analyses, as usual, depend very much on the party affiliation or programmatic and ideological preference of the analysts. Losing parties tend to believe that those who have given their vote to other parties are ungrateful, mistaken, uninformed, or outright stupid. And even if a party has won because of the lack of alternatives, their top dogs will attribute the success to their own convincing leadership and their farsighted programs for the glorious future of the country.  

Concerning the real voting patterns of the youngsters, some research results have come up in the meantime. Hisomuddin Bakar, director of Ilham Centre, a market research company in Kuala Lumpur, found that almost 90 per cent were unaware of current political developments, that some were unable to differentiate between MPs and assemblymen, or even recognise existing political parties. According to his research results, most of them followed family traditions or relied on social media as main source of political information. But the encouraging result of the Ilham survey is the assumption that around 80 percent of the first-time voters exercised their right to vote. That is a fabulous increase from the Johor state election in March, when the turnout of young voters was only five per cent.

Interestingly, Hisomuddin adds to his critical assessment that young voters are slightly more politically literate than older generations, as they can access information online. The influence of the social media consumption, Hisomuddin says, can be seen in the success of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition among young voters. PN had used social media in its campaigning, including narrative content on TikTok. But in a regional comparison, Malaysia seems to be behind the Philippines, where the landslide victory of President Marcos in May was prepared by an army of trolls in the social media. Candidates there were all hiring trolls and have created tens of thousands of easy jobs for which you need just a SIM-card and a telephone or a PC and Wi-Fi.

Whatever politicians, parties, and analysts may say about the ideal voter and how first-time voters might qualify to be taken seriously, a comparison must encompass young and old, urban and rural, enlightened or not. For many decades, political scientists are debating how informed the average and the ideal voter should be, whether voting is a rational decision at all or just emotional and following the all-too-common herd instinct in politics. Very important for the outcome is, of course, the current political situation before the election, in the GE15 a mix of complications of utmost impact for the stability and the future of the country. And, not to forget, a political impasse can be such a deterrent that many voters, young or old, don’t bother at all to go and cast their vote. In Europe, where in many countries the non-voters outnumber the leading parties, civic education in schools and comfortable voting by mail are not really boosting the turnout. The so-called mature democracies don’t appear to be more mature in political knowledge and voter decisions. According to figures of the European Commission, visualized by Statista, the turnout of young voters between 18 and 30 varies between 79 per cent in Austria and 35 per cent in Luxemburg. And in the USA, the overall voter turnout notoriously remains below 50 per cent.
For the outcome of GE15 in Malaysia in November, the youth vote was not decisive. The formation of the new ruling coalition under Anwar Ibrahim, according to many analysts, shows much more the moderating influence of the King and his fellow rulers.


Fairy Tales and Election Promises: Party Manifestoes in a Splintered Party Landscape

The recent election in Malaysia offers interesting examples of the value of party manifestoes and what voters read or believe. Here is a fascinating analysis by Dr Lee Hwok Aun, senior fellow at the ISEAS Yusuf Ishak Institute, Singapore

Highly recommended to researchers and party practitioners alike
by Partyforum Southeast Asia

Link: https://www.iseas.edu.sg/articles-commentaries/iseas-perspective/2022-113-malaysias-ge-15-manifestos-wading-through-a-flood-of-offerings-by-lee-hwok-aun/

Malaysia drowns in Campaign Colors

In practically all languages, the contest for parliamentary seats is called election “campaign”, except in Germany where it is traditionally called “Wahlkampf”, meaning election fight or election battle. But compared to most other electoral democracies, the German campaigns are increasingly boring with little interest in rallies and speeches of candidates, even if the top cabinet brass is showing up. The contrast to this electoral fatigue could not be bigger in the unfolding battle in Malaysia right now! Posters and flags in the party or coalition colors are omnipresent, rallies attract big and sometimes huge crowds, often in a sort of carnival atmosphere. It is also the time when the campaign turns into a battle with accusations flying back and forth in ever more heated and ferocious speeches. Vociferating candidates seem to be part of the entertainment expectations of the crowds coming to the rallies, whereas real arguments are not what candidates feel an urge to use and crowds want to hear. Manifestos with details of plans and visions of the parties are practically ignored, except by some journalists or political scientists, and instead, promises, lies and sweetened or poisonous narratives are all over the partisan mainstream and social media.

The outcome of the upcoming GE 15 is certainly less predictable than most previous elections, not least by the lowered voting age. According to the Election Commission, 40 % of the 21 million voters are between 18 and 21 years old. The pundits try to gauge how they will participate and vote and whether the top contestants, many in their seventies, can connect with this young generation. Rising flight prices and Monsoon floods in several areas of the country might prevent more than a few voters to travel to the home states for casting their vote.

The voter turnout in Malaysia started high in the first general election after independence in 1959 with 73.3% and continued to be high in the following decades. With 82.3% in 2018 it was even extremely high compared to the turnout in most European countries, not to speak of the notoriously very low turnout in the United States.

The voter turnout reflects the public perception of the importance of the decision in terms of future policy outcomes and the ability of the contenders to fulfil at least part of their election promises. But the atmosphere and mood of the special Malaysian campaign style certainly plays a role for the individual decision to vote. The limitation of the campaign period, just two weeks before polling day on 19 November, is at least helping to keep the campaign expenditure under a semblance of control. During the decades of Barisan Nasional and UMNO rule, the campaign budget was a big problem, but only for the opposition. That limitless money flow for BN eventually brought them down in 2018, when major corruption practices could not be camouflaged anymore.

The organisation cost of elections in Malaysia has increased from RM 1 million in 1959 to RM 500 million in 2018 and might go up to one billion this year. The campaign costs for the parties are more difficult to gauge, of course. The expenses allowed to be incurred per candidate are RM 200,000 for the federal parliament and RM 100,000 for a state election. The biggest problem for the parties is the absence of a volunteer tradition among the rank-and-file members. Every help and input must be paid. Therefore, the traditional thumb rule is “Tanpa minyak jentera tak jalan” in Malay or “Without fuel the machinery will not move”. According to Malaysia Today, the mineral water bottles with imprinted party logo alone cost already more the RM 100 million in 2015. The overall expenditure, against the intention and in breach of the legal regulations, has been in the billions for decades, explaining the ubiquitous party t-shirts, hats, meals for rally participants as well as the sea of flags and banners. In the difficult economic situation of Malaysia with a slow post-Covid recovery, high inflation and a depreciating currency, the costly election campaign is an additional financial burden. Like in many countries in the region, huge campaign costs are one of the root causes for corruption and money politics.
See: Power Broking in the Shade


Partyforumseasia: Malaysia is going to the polls again; parliament has been dissolved last Monday and everybody is speculating about the nomination and election date which will be decided by the election commission. In a commentary on 13 October in Free Malaysia Today, Shankar R. Santhiram comments on the chaotic political situation of the country. Under the headline “The circus is back in town” he describes the usual metamorphoses of politicians as we all know them: “The usually aloof chaps will transform into congenial and convivial fellas. Everybody will now have time to listen to your problems. And every politician will promise that they are the ones who will look after your needs and rights.” What Santhiram describes with amusing irony has a rather sad undertone though, because the country does not have the responsible political class and the government it deserves and needs at a time of too many dangerous uncertainties outside the control of any single nation. The last part of the article gives a good idea of the four competing possible coalition groups and what they stand for – or not. As in many countries in Europe, Malaysia’s political landscape is splintered to a degree that any coalition which will manage to cobble together a majority, probably wafer thin as before, will consist of strange bedfellows. Unfortunately, the democratically unhealthy typical feature of these coalitions is that they are forced to close ranks and make decisions more for their political survival than for the interest of the country.

The case of Malaysia and its political woes and tribulations is fascinating in many ways, not only for the electorate and the political pundits, and the above quoted analysis is a good introduction for outsiders as well. But let us focus on two remarkably unusual candidatures here, the former Prime Ministers Najib Razak und Mahathir Mohamad.

Najib Razak is in prison since end of August this year when he started a twelve-year conviction for corruption and abuse of power (see the previous post for details). This is only the first conviction, a slew of other indictments is pending, and his spend-thrift wife is also confronted with related indictments. The surprising and unusual fact is that Najib is convicted and in prison but could remain a member of parliament, nevertheless. He is still popular with many voters and, of course, his network of cronies who have profited from the money cascade organized by his ruling party UMNO. It was not a Ponzi scheme, no, maybe the opposite. The money was not stolen from trusting investors but from the state coffers and the taxpayers, who did not notice it until the 1MDB scandal came to the surface. At the moment, related tricky business moves are making waves internationally with the vanished billions in a series of military procurement cases involving foreign companies and their bogus sub-contractors organizing the deals. As if the continuing parliamentary mandate is not unusual enough, Najib’s constituency wants to nominate him as a candidate in the upcoming election. The argument is that after being eventually released the elected MP could give up the mandate and pass it on to Najib. Many Malaysians view the urge for snap polls by UMNO leaders as a maneuver to return to power and protect themselves against the pending court cases and further criminal charges.

The second unusual case is the candidature of the other former Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad. His has reached the ripe old age of 97 years, and some assume that his political ambition includes the desire to become PM for the third time… When he predicts a possible victory for UMNO in the imminent election, it is rather an attempt to prevent it. He knows quite well that this could bring about a return of Najib. Both of the two would be bad for Malaysia which urgently needs a convincing political leader and a strong and clean government.

At age 97 Dr Mahathir is as defiant as ever

The Unglamorous End of a Scandal-Ridden Political Career? Malaysia’s former Prime Minister in Prison

A visibly shaken Najib Razak during his last court session

Partyforumseasia: The investigative website Sarawak Report, which helped to bring the 1MDB scandal to light and relentlessly published details of political corruption and money politics in Malaysia, summed up the final outcome of the former PM’s two year-long battle appealing his conviction to twelve years imprisonment from July 2020, in one short sentence:
“Najib had assumed that power would prevail over justice, which has so long been his experience and that of his ilk.” (Linkhttps://www.sarawakreport.org/2022/08/najib-this-was-just-a-fraction-of-the-crimes-committed/)
His ilk mainly means the party he had helmed and increasingly dominated for so many years, the United Malays National Organisation or UMNO and its coalition partners. First elected as member of parliament in 1976 at the age of 23, when he replaced his deceased father, Malaysia’s second PM after independence, he rose continuously through the ranks and assumed the premiership in 2009 after a string of different ministerial posts, including defence. The latter may now add another criminal charge to the already long string with another black hole discovered in a huge procurement scandal over war ships.

The refusal of the Federal Court to accept more manoeuvres of Najib’s lawyers to delay the final decision on the appeal and the immediate transfer of the former Prime Minister into a jail on 23 August, sent shock waves through the country. With his joviality and easy communication skills, Najib had kept many followers among the UMNO voters despite the 1MDB scandal which starts to be forgotten by many. On the other hand, the patronage, and the sort of Ponzi-scheme-like cash distribution system within the party, cemented strong loyalties. However, getting more used to this special variety of money politics demanded ever growing sums. The help of a shady businessman, with a penchant for a luxurious lifestyle, shared by Najib and his wife, led to the creation and exploitation of the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund which made it possible to siphon away billions of dollars. Najib and UMNO blamed the businessman, who managed to disappear and is still in hiding, for most of the wrongdoing, but the courts heaped Najib and several of his closest allies with hundreds of charges of criminal breach of trust, corruption, money laundering, and abuse of power.
The shockwaves culminated last week and did not end on Tuesday 23 August. For Najib und his cronies the whole lawsuit is “politically motivated”, the court “denied him a fair trial”, a man who sacrificed his family for “serving the people”, begs for pity, and so on. The former PM is in prison now, and according to the Prisons Department “without VIP-treatment”. But the public debate speculates already about the chances of a royal pardon or a premature release for good behaviour or medical reasons.
Apart from this spectacular fall of the “dramatic hero” and its highlighting by the media, Najib’s imprisonment is affecting his party. Even with the legal sword of Damocles visible for everybody, the former leader’s popularity helped UMNO to win a series of by-elections and fanned its hopes to regain a majority and return to power – and funding. Even the possibility of Najib coming back as Prime Minister seemed to be realistic, not least for the other UMNO grandees whose corruption cases are still pending. Their relationship with Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who ranks only third in the party hierarchy after president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and deputy president Mohamad Hasan, is difficult. Thus Najib’s elimination could give the PM more control over UMNO and stabilise the shaky political landscape.

No More Unaccounted Stacks of Cash – The Catharsis of Malaysian Money Politics at Last?

Partyforumseasia: We use the word catharsis, as it was coined by Aristotle in his Poetics about 2,300 years ago, as the purification and purgation of emotions through dramatic art. Since politics is sometimes even more dramatic than art, big scandals might trigger a catharsis in terms of policy and legal changes as well. After the purification of emotions, in this case the widespread indignation about the infamous 1MDB financial scandal in Malaysia, legal consequences might help to purify the cancer of money politics. With a quote worth remembering, “There will be no more unaccounted “stacks of cash” by politicians once laws on political funding are in place”, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, announced the planned rather radical policy changes of the government concerning the funding of political parties and election campaigns. A Political Funding Bill is set to be tabled this October. Eradicating money politics and political corruption is a tall order, as their ubiquity in practically all political systems shows. One can only wish Malaysia good luck and success in reducing this national scourge.

Dr Wan Junaidi

Though money politics is widespread in the region, Malaysia has ruined her reputation with the disappearance of 4.5 billion US$ from her 1MDB sovereign wealth fund, which were presumably syphoned away into political pockets and the numerous cronies who surrounded the ruling parties. The scandal started to erupt in 2015 and was declared “the largest kleptocracy case to date” by the US Department of Justice. Then Prime Minister Najib Razak, in whose personal accounts 700 million US$ were detected, lost the following election in 2018 together with his job and reputation. Accused of many related offenses, especially abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering, he was convicted to twelve years in jail and a fine of nearly 50 million US$ in July 2020. Nevertheless, he remained a member of parliament and continued to be popular among his former voters. He and his political friends managed to slow down the lawsuit with several legal manoeuvres until today.

Ironically, in parallel to the announcement of a stricter party funding law, Najib and his legal team are trying these same days, as a last straw, his final appeal at the Federal Court to avoid the incarceration. So far, his and his closest allies attempts to regain power and thus have a chance to squash the sentence have failed.

Najib Razak in court

More information on the 1MDB scandal and money politics in Southeast Asia can be found in:

Frogs Out – Malaysia Bans Party Hopping

Don’t you dare hopping over to another party!

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

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

Malaysia’s party landscape:

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

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

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

Transborder Party Contacts in Southeast Asia

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Marcos Clan:  Back to power after 36 years

An electoral triumph with a professional social media campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Najib Razak has successfully reinvented himself”.   

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

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

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

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

Southeast Asia’s Biggest Democracy

Partyforumseasia: An excellent and timely analysis by John McBeth

A subversive game of thrones in Indonesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theorising about party systems has kept generations of political scientists busy, and – no surprise – there is still no clear winning theory which system is best. The scholarly debates are influencing the even greater number of journalists and political commentators who try to explain what happens within the governments, coalitions, and political parties. As good and bad examples of political practice develop and erode constantly, the paradigms for theories change as well. The dramatic fallout of the Trump presidency created headlines like “The two-party system is killing our democracy” in the USA, or the increasing fragmentation of the Western European party systems yielded skeptical assessments like “A kaleidoscope of novel political coalitions are taking shape around Europe as old two-party systems crumble.
Southeast Asia is saddled with a wild mix of most of these problems and more. Two recent developments are worth a debate on the party systems in the region. One is due to the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 in Malaysia, effective since 15 December last year, where four new parties are eying a share of up to 5.8 million first-time voters with many of them supposed to be fed up with the performance and the politicking style of the old parties. While political leaders who have dominated the scene for decades, like Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir Mohamad, Najib Razak, and Lim Kit Siang are slowly fading out of the picture, the bet on younger voters looks reasonable enough. Political Party Forum has already introduced the Parti Kuasa Rakyat, helmed by Mr Kamaruzaman Yaakob, the elder brother of Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob. The second new party is the youth-based Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda), registered by former Cabinet minister Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman. In addition, the multiracial Parti Bangsa Malaysia (PBM) has been set up by two MPs along with a former aide to current federal minister Zuraida Kamaruddin. Parti Warisan Sabah, which previously led the Sabah state government in east Malaysia for two years, has announced that it is expanding to Peninsular Malaysia.
See details in Singapore’s Straits Times HERE

Another case in point is the addition of a new party to the already rather diversified party scene in Thailand by former finance minister Uttama Savanayana. The name and leadership of the party have not yet been revealed but according to Mr. Uttama the registration should be finalized before the end of this month.
For details see the Bangkok Post HERE

Malaysia and Thailand have multi-party systems and changing coalitions among them which are equally confusing for the citizens and observers from outside. Both countries are probably candidates for something like a “Too-many-parties-system”.
The ruling coalition in Kuala Lumpur consists of a leading “sub-coalition”, called Perikatan Nasional or National Alliance, encompassing already five single parties, namely the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (BERSATU), Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), Homeland Solidarity Party (STAR Sabah), Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) and Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (GERAKAN). A second “sub-coalition”, Barisan Nasional, consists of the former ruling party UMNO plus its long-term partners Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), and the United Sabah People’s Party (PBRS), plus the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), the Parti Bangsa Malaysia (PBM), and the Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) as appendix members. With twelve member parties this can be called a world class coalition, only topped in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, and Iraq.

In Thailand, the situation is similar, with the ruling coalition consisting of the following 18 parties: Palang Pracharath, Democrat Party, Bhumjaithai,  Chartthaipattana, Action Coalition for Thailand, Chart Pattana, Thai Local Power, Thai Forest Conservation, Thai Nation Power Party, People’s Progressive Party, Thai Civilized Party, Palang Thai Rak Thai Party, Teachers’ for People Party, Prachaniyom Party, Thai People Justice Party, Thai Citizens Power Party, New Democracy Party, New Palangdharma Party.

Coalitions with so many parties are the result of a splintered party landscape and many of the smaller or regional parties contributing only a few elected MPs or only one. They also reveal that the ruling coalition is close to a very slim majority in Parliament and needs every MP to pass its legislation. As in many other and much smaller coalitions worldwide as well, it is difficult to define any ideological cohesion except the determination to govern. What Paul Taylor called “Europe’s Odd Couple Politics”, also known as “strange bedfellows coalitions”, is rather common in Southeast Asia. It does not necessarily delegitimize the democratic system as such but confusing as it is for the voters, it does not strengthen the democracy either. And when it is, as unfortunately rather widespread in the region, saddled with money politics and visible corruption, skepticism and low voter turnout don’t come as a surprise. If politicians, especially former top office holders, are being seen as just fighting to make it back to the spoils of power, they cannot fool the people that they are dying to serve them.

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

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

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

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

See the Malay Mail article here

The “Frogs” of Southeast Asia


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

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

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

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

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

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

Malaysia’s Covid and Political Crisis


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

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

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

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

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

The Myanmar Impasse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remarkable Autocrats in Southeast Asia: Hun Sen

Hun Sen before and after 36 years in power

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

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

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

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

Can the Tatmadaw keep up its murderous discipline?

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

Myanmar Now, March 1, 2021:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rule by law

Rainsy sentenced to 25 years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phnom Penh Post, 2 March 2021 No comment necessary

Are Singaporeans ready for a two-party system?

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

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


Source: Straits Times, 2.10.2020

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

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

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

The Myanmar Election

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

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

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

More detailed election results here:



Déja vu or new normal?


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

USDP cries election foul

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Myanmar Times, 11.11.2020

Malaysia’s “Katak” Parliament

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

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

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

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

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

Milk Tea for Democracy

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

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

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

Political Change in Thailand: For a Change without Coup ?

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

Malaysia’s Najib Razak: “We are innocent”

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

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

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

Great Expectations in Singapore



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

Overview: Straits Times, 11 July 2020

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

The Upcoming General Election 2020 in Singapore

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

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

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

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

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

A Majority is a Majority or What?

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

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

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

Mahathir (2)

At age 94 Dr. Mahathir is as defiant as ever

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

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


Elections During the Covid-19 Pandemic?

Partyforumseasia:  Korea has done it. Other elections in Southeast Asia are pending. A recommended paper by International IDEA in Stockholm.
Technical Paper 2/2020   Available in English and Bahasa Indonesia
For free download Click here:


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

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

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

Tumultuous Political Landscapes, Not only in Malaysia

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

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



Rule of Law and Rule by Law in Thailand

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

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

22 February 2020   by Wolfgang Sachsenröder

Thailand’s Future Without Military Coups?

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

Party leader Thanatorn (left) and secretary general Piyabutr

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

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

Wolfgang Sachsenröder