Partyforumseasia: Indonesia and Malaysia, the two Muslim majority but multi-ethnic and multi-religious countries in Southeast Asia are playing with fire.
Indonesia: “The rally against Mr Basuki has thrust issues of race and religion to the forefront of the upcoming gubernatorial election, turning it into a test of religious tolerance in Indonesia.” (Jakarta Post, 2 December 2016, LINK)
After a first rally on 4 November against gubernatorial candidate Basuki aka Ahok for alleged blasphemy had turned violent at the end, the Indonesian government was more cautious on 2 December. The rally had not been permitted but changed into a mass Friday prayer with more than 500.000 (!!!) participants. Massive security presence, timing in the morning, and the participation of President Jokowi may have prevented worse, but “double minority” candidate Ahok, who is Christian and Chinese, has seen his re-election prospects gliding from clear front-runner to nearly hopeless. Demonstrators are asking for Ahok to be imprisoned though judicial procedures are on the way whether his remarks in a campaign speech were blasphemous or not. Similar rallies were held not only in Jakarta but other places as far away as South Sulawesi or North Sumatra. Religious emotions are boiling over and getting more difficult to control, putting a jinn back into the bottle is famously difficult. The authorities, though, have to be commended for skillfully controlling the crowds. Police officers nearly blended with the protesters if they only could hide their boots…
But the turmoil is not only about the Jakarta governor, religion and blasphemy. On a different level there is a fight against President Jokowi and his reformist government. Described by political scientist Leo Suryadinata as “Indonesia’s ideological war” between entrenched interests and reformists (Straits Times, 2 December). As a proof how serious this struggle is, seven opponents to the Jokowi administration have been detained on the same Friday for allegedly trying to exploit the anti-Ahok rally to overthrow the government. The most prominent among the seven is Rachmawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of the country’s first president Soekarno and younger sister of former president and chair of the PDI-P party, Megawati Soekarnoputri, who supports Jokowi. For the president himself it is a delicate issue because the embattled candidate was his deputy when he was governor of Jakarta himself, and Megawati and her PDI-P are his indispensable political allies and partners.
Malaysia: With cold blood, chutzpah and by firing his party-internal critics, Prime Minister Najib has – so far – survived the enormous pressure of the 1MDB corruption scandal and his personal financial involvement in it. Compared to the 2008 and 2013 election results, dreams have come true for the ruling and dominating UMNO party and its president Najib. Najib is unchallenged in his party, and the opposition, after winning the popular vote in 2013 without getting a majority in parliament, is emasculated to unprecedented levels. After opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is in prison on dubious sodomy charges again, any bonding among the old opposition forces seems more than improbable, and, even worse, UMNO has managed to oblige the Malay Islamist PAS party to move closer to the government by supporting its motion to further empower the Shariah Courts, a parallel judiciary line.
As usual, though, there is also more shadow where the light increases. By its corrupt image and ubiquitous money politics, UMNO has lost much support among the Non-Malays, whose Chinese, Indian, and racially mixed component parties in the broad National Front Coalition (Barisan Nasional) are weakening towards insignificance. It is too obvious for many Malaysians that they have been thriving on generous handouts from the UMNO governments and cozy arrangements for guaranteed mandates. Taking these smaller parties for granted and as guarantors of comfortable government majorities may turn out to be a strategic mistake. As appendices and dogsbodies of UMNO they are more and more losing appeal. But sizable parts of the Malay population are also turning away from UMNO, and not all disenchanted Malay voters feel comfortable with conservative and Islamist PAS.
What remedy has magician Najib in his sleeves? The five day general assembly, ending 3 December, brought together 5.732 delegates from the roughly 3.5 million membership. PM Najib and his deputy in both leadership functions Ahmad Zahid Hamidi are being endorsed by all wings of the party, general, women, young women, and youth. But despite all the positive sides of the party’s current situation the mood sounds defensive. With auxiliary voters from the minority races no longer dependable enough, UMNO is scolding the component parties for not working hard enough. And what is probably even less convincing for them is the support for the PAS hardliners’ Shariah motion. The more UMNO harps on religious issues and the Malay Muslim identity the more its minority supporters will develop doubts. And one of the 191 division chiefs, Jamal Yunos, copies the infamous Thai “red shirts” to fight the “yellow shirt” Bersih (clean) campaign against corruption and election manipulations. But the most worrying messages from this convention are the warnings against the Chinese dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), which would threaten decades of pro-Malay policies and Malay privileges if they should come to power. That, of course, is anything but imminent. The Election Commission has already heavily gerrymandered the precincts in favor of rural Malay UMNO voters against the urban majority. So, though due only in 2018, the general election will be called soon as PM Najib announced during the convention. The racial and religious overtones of UMNO’s policies are certainly not conducive for the racial and religious harmony the country needs. On top, the progressive “Arabisation today is in fact a worrying trend” (Sociologist Syed Farid Alatas, LINK), even more so in view of the terrorist threat in Southeast Asia and the rampant radicalization of Malaysian and Indonesian believers.
In both countries alike, playing racial and religious cards is extremely dangerous. That UMNO and its president want to stay in power and will defend their dominance by all means is understandable. But doubts about the long-term effects and the stability of the country especially in the era of international jihad are more than justified.
The witch-hunt against Jakarta governor Ahok and the underlying power struggle between vested interests and reformers fanning religious passions is equally playing with fire. Both countries are jeopardizing the multi-racial and multi-religious social equilibrium and open the doors for passions and violence. It is difficult to gauge how far the jinn is out of the bottle but it will be impossible to get it totally back.
As “Party of the Functional Groups” (Partai Golongan Karya) Golkar was transformed from a sort of NGO coalition into an electoral machine and power base of President Suharto. It was the ruling party of Indonesia from 1973 to 1999 with deep roots in practically all aspects of governance and statehood, down to the last village, and of course, with much “experience” in state and private sector finances.
After the fall of Suharto and the begin of the democratic era, Golkar had to struggle for survival, but connections and political skills helped a lot. In the presidential election 2014 and under the leadership of business tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, Golkar supported the wrong candidate and landed in the opposition. But experience and power instinct are bringing the party step by step closer to President Jokowi and his ruling coalition. Former presidential candidate Prabowo is not amused but as the loser no longer useful for Golkar.
This pragmatic move in itself is normal party politics. No political party volunteers for an opposition role if it can avoid it. And Golkar’s new leader since May this year, Setya Novanto, is back as speaker of Parliament since 21 November. The little problem with this resurrection is that he had to resign from this post less than a year ago after a major corruption scandal involving a big mining company and allegations that he was asking for a 20% kickback. As former treasurer of his party, Novanto seems to have valuable financial skills, useful for the party but as well for himself. What the New York Times called “A Watergate Moment for Indonesia” (LINK) is being closely observed and investigated by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), the Indonesia Corruption Watch (LINK), and the Ethics Council of the Parliament. Gresnews, a publication focusing on Indonesian legal and political issues, called it “Setya Novanto´s Chain of Scandals” on 17 November (LINK).
Strategy-wise: The broader picture of Indonesia’s complex domestic political scene shows good reasons for President Jokowi to accept Golkar and its controversial leader in his coalition. Golkar as the second biggest party in Parliament adds ninety-one MPs to the President’s Great Indonesia Coalition and finally dismantles the Red and White Coalition of Gerindra leader Prabowo, the 2014 presidential loser. What took only days and weeks after the presidential election in the Philippines by simple party-switching of hundreds of members of Parliament to join Rodrigo Duterte‘s house majority, has been much more difficult in Indonesia and took about two years.
For the Golkar leadership it was a long overdue step to leave the Red and White Coalition and give up its loyalty toward Prabowo who cannot provide any power perspective in the foreseeable future.
Another serious and festering domestic problem is the turmoil around the upcoming gubernatorial election in Jakarta. Protests against incumbent and long time front runner Basuki aka Ahok. He is under investigation for blasphemy after referring to the Koran in a campaign speech. In his double minority position as Chinese and Christian, Ahok may attract attacks from Islamists as well as from enemies of President Jokowi, whose deputy he was during his time as governor of Jakarta. A first big demonstration against Ahok turned unusually violent on 4 November, and another rally is to be staged on Friday, 2 November. More violence would be seen as a weakness of President Jokowi’s government.
Partyforumseasia: The presidential election in the United States has shown new levels of campaign spending. While Jeb Bush burned “only” 130 million $ without getting anything back, Hillary Clinton spent more tan 700 million $ on her campaign (Bloomberg, LINK). Donald Trump managed to win with a much smaller budget. Is this signalling that money is getting less important than the right target group? That a sort of Robin Hood candidate has better chances than big money? And what could that mean for the widespread addiction to money politics in Southeast Asia?
Francis Fukuyama, in an analysis in Foreign Affairs (LINK) on 9 November, summarizes Donald Trump‘s victory success as follows: “He has identified two very real problems in American politics: increasing inequality, which has hit the old working class very hard, and the capture of the political system by well-organized interest groups.”
Let us look into some examples from our region where inequality is the norm:
In Thailand, especially in the North and Northeast, the farming population is similarly left behind or much worse than the old working class in America. With generous handouts and promises they were easy to be nudged into securing billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra’s and his sister’s victories which eventually triggered military coups. And the country’s many other billionaires were not just looking on but actively manipulating the political market place as well.
Conclusion: The disenfranchised could be mobilized though Thaksin was not exactly a Robin Hood type, but old “Bangkok” elite and military managed to stem the tide.
In the Philippines, landed family dynasties with their private armies, coercion and patronage, have monopolized political power over most of the rural areas and remote islands since independence. The recent surprise election of maverick candidate Rodrigo Duterte who won against all the money of the traditional elites, is probably due to better information of the poor and an advanced election system run by the Commission on Elections.
Conclusion: The disenfranchised masses have made it against elites and oligarchs, President Duterte is seen as their Robin Hood and champion . As a former American colony, the Philippines is more similar to the US than other countries in the region.
In Malaysia, due to a sophisticated patronage system controlled by the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and a heavily gerrymandered election system, the left behind rural population provides the necessary majorities in the federal parliament.This vote bank, conservative Muslim Malays, as well as the public service, is being kept loyal by generous government handouts and the promise to safeguard the Malay dominance against the Chinese and Indian minorities as it is enshrined in the constitution. The rural Malays’ loyalty seems rather unshakeable despite the rampant political corruption, culminating in the 1MDB scandal with billions disappearing from a sovereign wealth fund and hundreds of millions being found in the prime minister’s private accounts. Without radical changes in the electoral system the ruling party looks almost unassailable.
Conclusion: The ruling coalition has lost the popular vote but still enjoys decisive majorities in parliament, so it can be seen as a tactical and selective Robin Hood variety.
Indonesia has made remarkable progress in the development of her democratic procedures and institutions since the fall of strongman Suharto in 1998. But the huge archipelago has more than enough left behind rural areas and rural poor. The divided party landscape is characterized much more by rich and therefore winnable candidates and rich “party owners” than by programs and principles. Apart from ethnic and religious cleavages, money politics is a decisive factor in elections and governance.
Conclusion: President Joko Widodo was an outsider candidate who made it against the moneyed elites in the 2014 election. But the wannabe Robin Hoods are probably the Islamists.
Vietnam, one of the last communist one-party systems in the world, has developed quite interesting features of checks on party apparatchiks and performance of the party branches. But entrepreneurial space of maneuvering remains limited and the ruling party is still the best jumping board to get ahead. Competition for power positions and bribing in the widest sense are rampant. Whether daily corruption has been reduced by party policies is a question under debate.
Conclusion: The Robin Hoods by communist definition are in reality not helping the left behind.
The outlier in the regional comparison remains Singapore with very high ratings in rule of law, control of corruption, and good governance. As a city state there is no rural hinterland, but the economic development has of course left behind some groups which are targeted by social programs like housing and health care subsidies and many more. The political competition is not decided by money, but the ruling party, with support of its track record and the well organized administration, could increasingly contain protest votes and win elections.
Conclusion: The ruling party has skilfully institutionalized Robin Hood elements and shows its concern for the left behind in numerous support programs.
Partyforumseasia: The 2016 report of the Electoral Integrity Project (PEI), an academic research project under political scientist Pippa Norris, Harvard and Sidney, is being introduced with the headline “Fraud, rigging and corruption – the world’s elections this year”. From the Scandinavian and some other European countries on top, via the USA ranked no.53 out of 153, and the usual suspects in Africa at the bottom, Southeast Asia, unfortunately, does not do very well:
Starting the Asia-Pacific comparison with New Zealand and South Korea with scores over 70 on top, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Cambodia come dangerously close to African score levels. Yellow means Moderate Electoral Integrity (50 – 59), and Red signals Low to Very Low Electoral Integrity (less than 50).
The PEI – project uses 11 criteria and pertinent questions for each of them, namely: 1. Electoral laws, 2. Electoral procedures, 3. Boundaries, 4. Voter registration, 5. Party registration, 6. Campaign media, 7. Campaign finance, 8. Voting process, 9. Vote count, 10.Post-election, and 11. Electoral authorities.
For Southeast Asia, with the exception of the Communist one-party states Laos and Vietnam, many of the formal criteria are not the problem. The institutions are in place, party and voter registration are acceptably fair, the vote counting works fine, and the days of ballot-box-stuffing are definitely over. But there are serious weak areas nevertheless. The following “performance indicators“, used by PEI as positive or negative (the negative ones underlined below), are telling:
- Boundaries: 1. Boundaries discriminated against some parties, 2. Boundaries favored incumbents, 3. Boundaries were impartial.
See e.g. the ongoing and rather controversial discussion about the blatant gerrymandering in Malaysia!
- Campaign media: 1. Newspapers provided balanced election news, 2. TV news favored the governing party, 3. Parties/candidates had fair access to political broadcasts and advertising, 4. Journalists provided fair coverage of the elections, 5. Social media were used to expose electoral fraud.
Indonesia is not the regional front runner by accident, but maybe the freest country in terms of press freedom and number of media.
- Campaign finance: 1. Parties/candidates had equitable access to public subsidies 2. Parties/candidates had equitable access to political donations, 3. Parties/candidates publish transparent financial accounts, 4. Rich people buy elections, 5. Some states resources were improperly used for campaigning.
Finance is by far the most problematic area in the region. Like in the First-past-the-post slogan “winner takes all” it is safe to say that ruling parties take all the money or nearly all. Finding money for running an infrastructure or for election campaigns is most difficult for opposition parties, apart from other legal and de facto impediments. Rich people can buy a promising candidacy and their own election, and they can choose the party they like more often than not. And above all: Politics in Southeast Asia is big business and makes many politicians rich.The 2016 Report is available here (LINK)
Partyforumseasia: Sure, any among the growing number of index comparisons is debatable in details and might contain some flawed information or not doing justice to every special circumstances in some countries surveyed. But the ranking is very telling nevertheless, especially for Southeast Asia, condensed in the following table:
The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index 2016
Country and Global Ranking:
?? Laos (not mentioned)
The criteria for the ranking are: Constraints on government powers, Absence of corruption, Open government, Fundamental rights, Regulatory enforcement, Order and security, Civil justice, Informal justice, Criminal justice.
“Government spokesman Phay Sipha, however, was dismissive of the report’s findings, which he characterised as “biased”. “Cambodia’s government doesn’t care about ranking, because [the report] serves its own purpose,” he said. “It’s biased and selective; they do their own research for their own interest.”
The Phnom Penh Post, 20 October (LINK)
“The Anomaly in Indonesian Politics”, this is how The Jakarta Post, in April last year, called Grace Natalie and her newly founded Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) (LINK), and Partyforumseasia asked whether it would be a niche party or more (LINK). Founder and chairwoman of the new party, 34 year old Grace Natalie, has come a very big step closer to her dream to establish a youthful alternative to the macho-and-money dominated party scene of Indonesia – against the odds of efforts to reduce the number of political parties. On Friday, 7 October, Minister of Law and Human Rights Yasonna H Laoly officially announced that PSI had been granted a legal entity status. Accordingly, it is allowed to contest in the 2019 legislative election.
PSI is meant to be a “party by young people and for the young people”. Accordingly, only people up to the age of 45 maximum can be elected to the party’s boards of management from the national level down to the sub-districts. According to Law No. 2 Year 2011 on political parties, the requirements for registration are the following:
They must have a chapter in all provinces across the country.
At least 75 percent of the total districts/cities within that province must have a party chapter.
At least 50 percent of the total sub-districts within the district/city must have a party chapter.
All local chapters must have an office that can be verified.
Four other parties who applied at the same time have been rejected for not meeting the requirements. Global Indonesian Voices, a startup publication, speculates that about ten new parties will contest in the next elections, due by 2019 (LINK):
“The 10 new parties may include Partai Persatuan Indonesia (Perindo, or Indonesia Unity Party) owned by prominent businessman Hary Tanoesoedibjo; Partai Kedaulatan Bangsa Indonesia Baru (PKBIB, or National Sovereignty Party for New Indonesia) which is jointly formed by Yenny Wahid and Kartika Sjahrir; Partai Nasional Republik (Nasrep, or Republic National Party) which is owned by Tommy Soeharto; and Partai Solidaritas Indonesia (PSI, or Indonesia Solidarity Party) which was founded by Grace Natalie.”
Grace Natalie, founder and chair of the party, doubly minority with her Chinese and Christian background, is optimistic about the echo among the younger generations, though these days Islamist demonstrations against the similarly minoritarian Governor of Jakarta, “Ahok“, who is running for re-election, are somewhat alarming.
All over the world, anti-establishment sentiments are encouraging alternative movements and political parties to participate in elections and win. Youngspiration is a new localist party in Hongkong, founded in early 2015, and winning two seats in the Legislative Council (Ledgco) recently. Since both elected members are advocating Hong Kong’s independence from China, the establishment majority of the Legco, last Wednesday 19 October, walked out to prevent the “rebels” from being sworn in.
Maybe the oldest youth party in recent history is Fidesz in Hungary, a party which started in 1988 as a student movement against communism, accepting members only up to 40 in order to exclude any communist turncoat, but morphed in recent years into the role of the dominant and ruling party. Victor Orban, one of the founders, is now Prime Minister of Hungary, and seen by the rest of Europe as an authoritarian right winger.
Partyforumseasia: Samdech Akeak Moha Sena Padey Techo Hun Sen ( or Lord Prime Minister, Supreme Military Commander Hun Sen in English) in office (or better in power) since 1985, is one of the longest serving leaders in Southeast Asia and the world. It would be an understatement to say that he is dominating Cambodia’s political scene for more than thirty years. His control of the country is quasi total, but maybe not so easy to maintain. The autocrat par excellence is being challenged by the the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which is popular with the younger generation and all those who are victimized by the regimes repression. Huge parts of Cambodian land have been given away as long term concessions without much concern for the people living there and losing their livelihood. While the regime’s cronies and the bureaucracy flaunt their affluence shamelessly with grandiose villas and “Lexus” in big characters on the sides of their SUVs, the majority is struggling and the cheap workforce is being exploited with difficult working conditions and insufficient salaries.
The CNRP, under the leadership of former finance minister Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha has managed to organize the party nation wide by addressing the problems of the people and the shortcomings of the status quo, thus being perceived as a threat not only to the existing Hun Sen regime but also to the Prime Minister’s obvious plans to install his eldest son, Hun Manet, as heir apparent.
The Prime Minister’s defense-strategy, in tune with his adventurous biography from Khmer Rouge commander via exile in Vietnam and a cunning march to the top, is anything but gentle. His thugs have intimidated and manhandled opposition politicians and supporters again and again, but following a Southeast Asian pattern, he is also making use of a judicial facade to neutralize the opposition. The CNRP-leaders are both under extreme pressure, Sam Rainsy living in self-imposed exile in Paris to avoid imprisonment at home under a long list of rather dubious accusations, and Kem Sokha, under ever new legal threats, trying to avoid detention as well. The newest law suit against Sam Rainsy alleges that Rainsy committed “incitement” and caused “social turmoil” on September 11 by addressing youth activists gathered at the party’s Phnom Penh headquarters via Skype.
The latest intimidation exercise, on 10 October, is a two and a half year prison term for CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An for Facebook posts criticizing the government’s handling of the Vietnamese border. This looks more like a lèse-majesté case than a fair legal sentence, but the Hun Sen regime has never bothered about velvet gloves.
Um Sam An was arrested already in April and the protest of the party ignored. The Phnom Penh Post’s comment (LINK) was telling: “Parliamentary immunity has been no obstacle for police in the past, however, and government officials on Monday were quick to assert that they were within their rights in arresting Sam An, citing a constitutional clause that allows for the prosecution of a lawmaker if they are caught “in flagrante delicto”, or in the act of committing a crime.”
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Partyforumseasia: Cleaning up Malaysia’s Wild East – style political finances?
The National Consultative Committee on Political Financing, established in August 2015 after the 1MDB-Scandal had come to light, has proposed 32 recommendations last Friday, 30 September. Its chairman, Minister in the Prime Minister’s office and former Transparency International Malaysia head, Paul Low, stated that “The good governance of the nation cannot be resolved unless we have political integrity and as such we need regulations for political funding”. Nobody would deny that, but what can be expected if the recommendations will be implemented?
The background: Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak has come under pressure since The Wall Street Journal revealed in June 2015 that the unbelievable sum of nearly 700 million US$ had been found in his personal accounts. So far, he surprisingly got away with the unbelievable explanation that it was a personal donation from the Saudi royal family for his support of Islam. The international pressure is not yet over. Several countries, including the USA, are investigating the obscure money flows, because at the same time billions are missing from 1MDB, a sovereign wealth fund deep in debt, whose chairman of the board of advisers happens to be PM Najib Razak.
What the commission recommends: The media headlines are all highlighting the proposed ban on foreign donations. Surprise, surprise, should Saudi largesse no longer be accepted? Of course, it won’t come again so handily, so better ban it… A new law, the Political Donations and Expenditure Act, will regulate the patronage and money politics heaven the country has been so far, clean it up and control it ever after. According to Mr. Low donations to political parties and individuals will be “robustly regulated” with all donations deposited into a specific designated bank account set up at the federal, state and divisional level. Donations in cash or in kind above MYR 3,000 (725 US$) per annum must be declared to the Controller.
What can be expected in real life: Committee chairman Paul Low carries the Transparency International label, but as Minister in the Prime Minister’s office his neutrality may be questioned. The recommendations will be vetted by the cabinet which decides which to implement and which to drop. The legislative process will take time so that full implementation cannot be expected for the next general election due by 2018 but anticipated much sooner to take advantage of the divided and weak opposition.
On the background of UMNO’s patronage system, e.g. the 50.000 MYR (12,100 US$) which go monthly to the 190 branch leaders for expenses, the cash flows can hardly be changed overnight. In a regional and world wide comparison, political parties have always found their way to cut corners and find the money they felt were needed to win.
The increasingly turbulent domestic scene: With the festering 1MDB corruption scandal, criticism of the ruling coalition has reached new hights. Prime Minister Najib has weathered the storms with remarkable cold-bloodedness, firing internal dissidents and installing cronies wherever needed, but calls for his resignation are multiplying. Since 1 October, a broad reform movement called Bersih (Malay for clean) prepares rallies against Najib. While Bersih supporters wear yellow shirts, an organized counter movement of UMNO supporters wear red shirts and provoke clashes. The development reminds of the infamous street fights in Bangkok which led to the military coup in 2014.
Useful related articles:
Channelnewsasia, Malaysian political financing body recommends new laws, ban on foreign donations (LINK)
Intelligent Money, Political Donations Here & Other Countries: Where Does Malaysia Stand? (Link)
International Idea, Political Finance Data for Malaysia (LINK)
Sachsenröder, Wolfgang, Political Party Finances in Southeast Asia (LINK)
Partyforumseasia: Nurturing Good Political Leaders and Character Screening for Candidates – an Unusual Debate about “Presidential Material” in Singapore:
Foreign Policy, in: Battleground ’16, 15 September ( LINK ) calls it “Unpopularity Contest“. Election campaigns, in the US and elsewhere, come with a lot of dirty tricks, heaps of dubious funds, and increasingly dubious candidates. If they are popular, they are called populist, which is supposed to be a negative qualification but remains rather fuzzy one. The Trump-Clinton competition is alienating sensible citizens who think that both do not deserve their vote, as if the image of politicians and political parties was not bad enough already. Political gurus say it is not a crisis of democracy as such, but more people than ever are fed up with corruption, mud slinging, eternal infighting and bickering in and between the parties, and all too often impunity of their errant leaders.
In Southeast Asia, cultural traditions and social norms of avoiding open conflict and face-saving attitudes in difficult situations should provide a less antagonistic picture on the media surface. But the name of the game is power politics like everywhere else, sometimes skillfully hidden behind a smoke screen or the traditional shadow play screen. Here are some examples:
– In Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak is fighting against the fallout of a huge financial scandal and tries to save his own skin as well as the patronage system on which the dominance of his ruling party is based. The electorate is more divided than ever.
– In the Philippines the new president Rodrigo Duterte, who won with a landslide margin in May, is already under heavy pressure from political enemies and human rights groups for his crime busting trademark and alleged personal participation in the extralegal killing of criminals and drug dealers.
– In Thailand a military coup has created a semblance of political and social calm after the earlier multi-party system had led to years of crippling controversy close to civil war.
– In Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian Peoples’Party are so insecure about their continuing grip on power that they are all out to destroy the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party with law suits, defamation and violent intimidation.
So far the regional backdrop. In stark contrast to the dominance of violent power struggles and aggression in the regional and international political arenas there is a small island state, sheltered from taifuns, earthquakes and other common natural disasters. Singapore‘s hegemonic People’s Action Party (PAP) enjoys uninterrupted rule since independence 51 years ago. Regular elections are sufficiently free and reasonably fair in terms of registration of parties and access to elections, though, like in other (British) First-Past-The-Post electoral systems the playing field is not even. But the dominance of the PAP against a splintered and weak opposition is also based on good governance, control of corruption, a carefully balanced communication strategy with growing participatory and nudging policy implementation, as well as the successful creation and maintenance of a conducive economic environment.
A review of the elected presidency, a widely ceremonial office but also called “the second key” because the president is supposed to safeguard the republic’s financial reserves against a potentially spendthrift and less responsible parliament is on the way. One of the reasons for a review are the eligibility requirements which would formally qualify many more candidates if not updated. In the 2011 election a former PAP member of parliament, running as an independent, came dangerously close to victory. The PAP’s candidate, President Tony Tan, won with 745,693 votes against 738,311, a margin of 0.35 % only.
Singapore is now adopting many of the recommendations of the Constitutional Commission. An article in The Straits Times, 16 September, page A4, summarizes: “Potential presidential candidates will have their reputation, character and integrity assessed more stringently by the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC). (…) Applicants would also be required to list any “negative incidents”, such as disciplinary proceedings by professional bodies and market regulators in and out of Singapore, bankruptcy orders, personal protection orders for family violence and whether they have been the subject of legal proceedings of any sort.” The PEC will also be enlarged to six members, one from the private sector who will assess candidates without experience in the corporate world.
One may belittle these procedures as a luxury problem of a city state already known for exceptionally good governance and cleanliness. But after a world-wide check of the political reality, dominated by too many aggressive and power hungry alpha males and females in leadership roles, caring about old fashioned personal qualities like character and integrity cannot be dismissed as naive. Ambition is necessary in politics, but especially in Southeast Asia’s predominant money-politics-model it can be more dangerous than we want.
Many political parties in the region would be well advised to think about character if they really care about their country and the citizens.
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Partyforumseasia: Malaysia’s political landscape has seen enough dramatic maneuvers but the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has withstood the storms so far with the First-Past-The-Post election system and heavy gerrymandering in the narrowly won federal election in 2013, but also with the help of a widespread and costly patronage system. Prime Minister and UMNO President Najib Razak is under growing pressure with the 1MDB financial scandal after nearly 700 million US$ were found in his personal accounts. Few Malaysians are convinced that this money was a donation of the Saudi royal family when at the same time billions of Ringgit are missing in the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund. The dubious money flows are being investigated by several countries while the domestic clearance by a hand picked Attorney General are far from whitewashing the Prime Minister in the public perception. All the missing millions, and billions in the local currency, might signal emerging problems to maintain the patronage system. Many citizens see it anyway as appalling political corruption.
With the incarceration of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, once again on alleged sodomy grounds, UMNO and its dependent coalition parties looked like having achieved their dream of splitting and emasculating the opposition. But they have also created a number of internal and external enemies. Among the sacked, resigned or retired UMNO members who are concerned about the future of party and country, one enemy is standing out: Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003 and 91 years old, is probably the keenist and most influential political figure in the country to bring down the Prime Minister. Many accuse him of abuse of power and growing money politics during his own term, but many voters may now support his fight against Najib.
The new player: Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM)
Mahathir’s latest maneuver is the formation of a new Malay-based party which has been registered in principle by the Registry of Societies (RoS) on September 8. Cleverly avoiding a popular uproar by denying them the registration, the RoS is not really facilitating the start of the new party. It ruled that it cannot use the word Bersatu (United) in its name because there were already six parties or organizations with this name, ironically the ruling party UMNO or Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Bersatu in Malay… Full registration will only be possible when a changed name is acceptable.
The racial orientation of the new party has been criticized, but strategy-wise it is correct. UMNO as entrenched as it is in the rural Malay constituencies can only be defeated there. The Chinese and Indian minority parties will take care of the urban voters anyway.
Another shrewd maneuver is a surprise meeting between Mahathir and his former deputy and later victim Anwar Ibrahim. The two have not met since Anwar’s sacking in 1998, but many believe that at least a strategic reconciliation and tactical alliance between the two is possible. The enemy of my enemy is my friend is a viable and common pattern in politics. Since the fall of PM Najib may trigger Anwar’s release from prison and his return into the political arena, the personal bitterness should be overcome. Anwar’s smile, handshake and their 45 minute tête-à-tête discussion seem to signal that.
The noose around the Prime Minister’s neck looks like tightening with these domestic developments and the international financial investigations, but Najib and his faithful cronies will certainly fight on. As Partyforumseasia has argued before, they cannot concede defeat because a collapse of the patronage system would be more than a disaster for too many people involved.
The Straits Times, Singapore, reports that the boundaries of voting districts have been changed, which may indicate that PM Najib will call early elections before a new opposition coalition can regain strength: “The changes, so far, lend credence to the suspicion that the redistricting exercise will likely be at the opposition’s disadvantage,” said Merdeka Centre director Ibrahim Suffian. Most changes, he said, are to the states of Perak and Selangor – home to a large number of opposition lawmakers – where “significant changes make previously safe opposition seats become marginal”. LINK
For details on UMNO’s patronage system see:
Edmund Terence Gomez, Resisting the Fall: The Single Dominant Party, Policies and Elections in Malaysia, in: Journal of Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 46, 2016, issue 4, pp. 570-590.
Partyforumseasia: Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (64) had a moment of exhaustion during his National Day Rallye speech on August 21 and needed a break behind the stage to recover. The audience in the lecture hall and in front of the TV sets all over the island was scared, being so used to his marathon speeches on these occasions, delivered in Malay, the national language, Mandarin, and finally in English in a row. Lee came back to the rostrum after a while and continued his speech with a reminder that his government is working on renewal and succession – including his own. After the incident, he said to applause and with a big grin, that the problem of succession was more urgent than ever.
Singapore’s dominant party rule by the People’s Action Party (PAP) – in power since 1965 and returned with nearly 70% in the last election – has not enjoyed a very positive international media image since the more authoritarian times of the country’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew. But it is difficult to deny that the style has changed and that the city state is well governed and by far the cleanest and least corrupt in Southeast Asia. It pays its civil servants and politicians quite well, which helps to attract capable people to serve the country. But the legacy of the late Lee Kuan Yew goes beyond that material incentive. He rigorously screened candidates and stressed the importance of character in politics and public administration.
That may apply to other countries as well, while so called populists and rather “flamboyant” personalities are considered electable by majorities, say in the US or the Philippines, not to mention the dictators in other parts of the world. The bad image of politicians and political parties in most countries in Southeast Asia suggests that instead of good character and inclination to serve less desirable qualities are helpful in political careers. The greedy and power hungry personality types shape the public perception of politics as dirty business. As a case in point the positive outcome of the military-controlled referendum in Thailand shows the degree of the Thai people’s disappointment with corrupt political parties and their hope for a cleaner regime to come, be it under the army’s supervision.
In Malaysia, many citizens are fed up with Prime Minister Najib and the blatant money politics of his ruling coalition. But Najib, under pressure by international financial investigations for an unbelievable sum of nearly 700 m US$ which he declared a donation from the Saudi royal family, and beleaguered as he is, does not think of stepping down and has instead fired all potential successors. If he is not innocent he is remarkably cold blooded. But as Partyforumseasia has argued before, with a patronage system like UMNO’s they cannot afford to lose…
In terms of political psychology, at least in open and competitive regimes, there is a rather fine line between leadership qualities and charisma on one side and the talent to keep possible competitors at arm’s length or worse on the other side, also called killer instinct. There is still enough internal criticism of the Singapore system and the PAP. But planning and scouting for, preparing and grooming future leaders is a feature few other regimes or parties practice or never even think about. As the 18th century French diplomat-politician Talleyrand said: The most difficult farewell in this world is the farewell from power, but an orderly handover should be more normal in democratic systems.
The succession problem in older posts:
See: How Communist Are Vietnam’s Communists? LINK
Partyforumseasia: The Philippines has not been famous for a stable party system, clean politicians or a level political playing field. But this year they have moved ahead of their neighbors in Southeast Asia in a remarkable way: Against all the odds of their developmental shortcomings and demographic and logistical problems, the 9 May elections have surprised and deserve recognition and praise for at least three achievements:
1. Successful Electronic Vote Counting
In the 7000 islands archipelago of the Philippines an electronic counting and transmission system has worked without major problems. For all the potential technical difficulties and sheer number of voters and polling stations this achievement deserves greatest respect. Processing nationwide the presidential votes plus 12 seats to the Senate; 297 seats to the House of Representatives; all governors, vice governors, and 772 seats to provincial boards for 81 provinces; all mayors and vice mayors for 145 cities and for 1,489 municipalities, all members of the city councils and 11,924 seats on municipal councils; and governor, vice governor and all 24 seats in the regional assembly of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, is simply herculean.
2. The Maverick Anti-Establishment Candidate Wins the Presidency
For the first time an outsider from the poorest island of the country, Mindanao, and with limited campaign funding has won against the Manila establishment. The campaign expenses differ significantly: Duterte officially spent USD 8 m, Grace Poe, the second runner up USD 11 m, and Binay, 3d runner up 10 m, while runner up Mar Roxas’ expenses are not yet filed.
Duterte’s Mr. Clean-up image as mayor of Davao City has hit a chord with voters fed up with patronizing Manila and the many chaotic facets of life in the Philippines, from crime and corruption to poverty and slums and traffic jams.
3. Duterte’s Low Cost Media Campaign is the Ultimate Trend Setter in the region!
The man behind this media campaign is Nicanor “Nic” Gabunada Jr., an entrepreneur, marketing consultant and media executive. According to Duterte’s campaign spokesman Peter Tiu Laviña, social media was a “game changer” in the 2016 presidential elections, providing a large contribution to the electoral victory of the president elect.
According to the Rappler (Link), Gabunada said that “The undeniably huge force behind the presidential bid of Rodrigo Duterte was organic and volunteer-driven.”, and “that the lack of funds forced them to be creative in organizing the online presence of the Davao city mayor’s campaign.” “Because of their “creative” strategy, Gabunada said they weren’t really able to spend the entire P10 million ($214,199) budget given to them.”
The Rappler article reveals more details of the campaign:
– “Gabunada estimated there were around 400 to 500 volunteers but each volunteer had his or her own network to tap. “We were able to amplify in the sense that each one of the volunteers was handling groups with members of around 300 to 6,000,” he explained. “I think the biggest group had 800,000 members.”
– “For a person on the other side without knowledge of community organizing, the sudden surge of online sentiments for Duterte looked like it was made by “bots.” However, Gabunada insisted that his social media team did not make use of them but instead relied on “influenzers” on social media who were actual people with a strong following.” “We used live people, not bots,” he emphasized. “When we want certain things to trend on Twitter, we have our Twitter warriors who post like anything or keep the same post just to have a quick trend.”
According to slideshare.net (Link) the Philippines ranks only narrowly behind world leader Brazil in the time spent daily on the internet: it is a staggering 5.2 hours on desk- or laptops and 3.2 hours on mobile devices. This must have helped Duterte’s keyboard warriors a lot.
The lesson from the Philippines: A volunteer-driven and low-cost social media campaign can be the ultimate equalizer in all future elections in countries with sufficient internet penetration, which means nearly all ASEAN members. But the political system must be open enough, of course.
Partyforumseasia: Political parties in the Philippines are known for their volatility. Not that parties are much more stable in other countries in the region, at least as long as they are not in power and don’t have much money to offer. Party hopping and offering positions to rich candidates are quite common in Southeast Asia, ideology and programs are not important, but that is increasingly true in Western democracies as well.
The presidential system of the Philippines has developed a unique and smooth ritual once the new president has been elected. As everywhere, politicians scramble for positions, but faster than in any other country, losing parties join the presidential camp and MP’s leave their party and join the president’s. Call them opportunists, unprincipled, turncoats or traitors, it is a pragmatic and realistic way of providing the new president with a parliamentary majority that works from day one. And at the same time the party switchers retain the perks they are used to. President Jokowi of Indonesia could not even dream of such a smooth transition.
The changes look dramatic with the underlying figures: The Liberal Party (LP) more than tripled its presence in congress with the election of president Aquino in 2010. According to Asiasentinel, 17 June (LINK) between 80 and 90 of its 110 MP’s are prepared to join Duterte’s PDP-Laban party. Outgoing house speaker and LP vice chair Feliciano Belmonte declares that the Liberals will eventually coalesce with what president elect Duterte calls the Coalition for Change. His policy priorities, a federal system, fighting crime and corruption, and re-introduction of capital punishment, should easily find support in the congress. After Duterte’s tough crime buster talk during the election campaign, anticipatory obedience seems to set in already among the police. Since the election 42 suspected drug pushers have been killed in shootouts with the police. But what the president elect has promised, eradicating drug related crime within six months, remains a tall order.
Partyforumseasia: The word game is too nice to be only used for the two bye-elections scheduled for coming Saturday, June 18th, in two constituencies in Malaysia. Both are necessary because their MPs died in a helicopter crash in Sarawak during campaigning beginning of May. in the last election Sungai Besar was won by Umno with a wafer-thin margin of 399 votes (or 49.6% of votes cast) while Kuala Kangsar was won also by Umno with 1,082 votes (50.4% of votes cast). The numbers show already that both constituencies are quite marginal on the national level, but the upcoming bye-election is of utmost importance for the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Najib to show that he is unassailable despite all the scandals he is involved in. With the recent triumph in Sarawak which he did not really earn himself, Najib is in dream situation vis-a-vis a splintered opposition. But taking no risks, Umno spends big in its campaign.
For readers with a special interest in Malaysian politics, we recommend the FREEMALAYSIATODAY-article (LINK), with the wonderful word game headline. But all interested in elections in Southeast Asia and beyond should remember the “Buy Election” as a wide-spread and successful campaign concept. And in the cases where the incumbent is too sure that he will win and forgets to buy the victory, it can be a bye-bye-election as well…
Partyforumseasia will collect the newest examples and highlight them here!
Partyforumseasia: The election was on 22 May but given remaining logistical problems in rural areas and some other incidents, the National Election Council (NEC) announced the final results only on Thursday, 9 June.
Political parties world wide can only dream of winning 96 percent of the seats, but most of them have a big handicap, they have to compete with other parties. Vietnam’s Communist Party has no party competitors in the single party system, but this year independents and activists have tried to make inroads into parliament in bigger numbers than ever before. True to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin‘s advice “trust is good control is better”, the authorities have painstakingly screened the 100 odd independent candidates. According to the constitution, every citizen of Vietnam over 21 has the right to run, but the umbrella organization of all Vietnamese mass organizations, the Vietnam Fatherland Front (VFF) has a mandate to screen all candidates, whether fielded by the Communist Party, other mass organizations or self-nominated. In the 2015 Law on the Vietnam Fatherland Front Article 19 stipulates: “The Vietnam Fatherland Front shall organize in accordance with law consultations, selection and nomination of candidates for deputies to the National Assembly or People’s Councils;…” With the authorities already alarmed before the nomination deadline on March 13, the VFF has done the required job by eliminating all but 11 self-nominated candidates for the National Assembly, two of them being finally elected. Since the vetting process is not transparent, the rejected candidates and their supporters are not happy. A prominent victim of the screening, the “five gates”, was pop star Mai Khoi, also called Vietnam’s Lady Gaga. For her campaign posters she had dressed down considerably, showing herself as a serious conservative candidate, which was obviously not enough to make her trustworthy.
Only two elected self-nominated candidates, one of them a businessman from the North, and a hematologist, means 50 % less than in the last election, when four had made it. Another 19 non-party members have been nominated by state institutions, down from 42 non party members altogether last time.
Among the other results, published so far, are:
– An enormous voter turnout of 99.35 %
– National Assembly: 496 members (317 first-timers) elected out of 870 candidates Four seats remain vacant because of insufficient turnout in four provinces. Maybe the same shortcoming has been reported in Singapore’s Straits Times (Link): “Deputy assembly chairman Phung Quoc Hien said the high national turnout showed the ballot was a success, even with some instances of fraud and calls on social media for a voter boycott.” Oh-oh!
– To be elected were also 3,918 provincial councilors, 24,993 district councilors and 294,055 commune councilors for the 2016-2021 period. The official announcements so far focus on the National Assembly. It is not excluded that the local results are not everywhere as expected…
– The chairperson of the NEC acknowledges that “There were some errors on voting cards that led to invalid votes and forced a re-election in some cases. There were also some cases of negligence when it came to controlling the number of ballots issued and the number received. Many constituencies didn’t elect enough representatives, especially at communal level, and some people voted on others’ behalf” (VNExpress, June 8)
– 62.5 % of elected delegates have a master’s degree or higher; 36.3 a bachelor’s degree; and 1.2 percent, or six delegates, don’t have a degree at all. The party does not mention workers and farmers any more.
– 133 delegates are women, 26.8 % and slightly short of the 30 % target
– Vietnam’s ethnic minorities hold 17.3 % of the seats
– 182 candidates (36.7 percent of total NA delegates) have been nominated centrally, 312 delegates were nominated by local organizations
But nearly half of the centrally nominated candidates in Ho Chi Minh City have not been elected and about a third in Hanoi, with a few more in smaller places, altogether 15. The alleged national unity seems to have some risky corners.
– All top leaders were re-elected, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong with 86.47 %; President Tran Dai Quang with 75.08 % ; Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc with 99.48 %; and NA Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan with 91.46 %
The lowest score went to the minister for Natural Resources and Environment, probably because of the dead fish crisis, but his 65 % would still be a dream result in more competitive systems
Open Questions to follow up:
Behind the official fanfares about the feast of democracy in Vietnam it will be interesting to wait for more information about the provinces with insufficient turnout and the four vacant seats. But even more interesting will be detailed results of the Peoples’ Councils elections on all levels from province down to the municipalities. Communication and social networks won’t make it easier for the party to control nearly 100 m Vietnamese.
Partyforumseasia: The province of Suphan Buri hast lost its patron and benefactor for decades. The 21st Prime Minister of Thailand, Banharn Silpa-archa, has so successfully channeled subsidies and development projects to his home turf and power base that the province was also known as Banharn Buri…
Banharn, who was also long term leader of the Chart Thai Pattana Party, died on April 23 at a hospital in Bangkok. After a royal sponsored funeral ceremony, attended by all top political leaders of the country, his urn was transferred to Suphan Buri.
The origins of his political career sound a bit like a fairy tale. The son of a Chinese shopkeeper in Suphan, he came to Bangkok as a teenager and helped his elder brothers in their coffee shop. Bringing coffee to the nearby Public Works Department, he met officials from his home province. When he later started a construction company they granted him a 10 year monopoly for tap water installation all over the country which made him rich. And he spent much of his money in his home province, building schools and hospitals and bringing in the royal family for their openings. The role of benevolent and generous businessmen in Thai politics has been enormous. And Banharn may be one of the most interesting examples of their ascendance to huge political influence and control of their home turf. The local denomination for these men is „chao pho“ or „nak leng“, oscillating between patron and godfather. But this influence was also promoting massive vote buying. Banharn brought money by truckloads to the rural areas which owned him the dubious nickname of “Mr. ATM” or Mr Automatic Teller Machine… Consequently, his serial re-elections were landslide victories between 60 and 90 %!!
The endemic proliferation of vote buying with vote-traders ( „hua khanaen“ ) offering their services, including a guaranteed win, to the highest bidder, irrespective of which party, was detrimental to Thailand’s once famed democratization. It is noteworthy that during the democratization process since 1973 many of the patron-godfathers moved up into party politics, the parliament and the cabinets, which allowed even bigger financial benefits and direct influence on the distribution of development projects. Banharn’s Suphan Buri province has thus been blessed with the best roads, schools, hospitals, and general infrastructure in Thailand.
Could the death of Banharn Silpa-archa be “the end of an era” like some commentators suggested, or even symbolize an end to money politics in Thailand? Unfortunately, that sounds too nice to be true. What Banharn has started in big style has been perfected by Thaksin Shinawatra, money politics extended to the whole country.
One persistently festering problem of the country is “A Culture of Impunity”, highlighted recently (27th May) by the Bangkok Post (Link):
“…a long-standing problem in our society – the inability to enforce the rule of law. (…) Money, power and connections can influence the enforcement of the law in other countries too. But in Thailand, we have examples that are more glaring and blatant. (…) While we despise and condemn the fact that the rich and wealthy can get away with murder, we must also accept that the general public here do not respect the rule of law.”
The military regime declares that it stands for law and order and against the dirty politics of the political parties. Cleaning up money politics, however, is a daunting task nearly everywhere, but especially in Southeast Asia.
Partyforumseasia: With the high voter turnout of 81.62 percent, president-elect Duterte’s landslide lead was so clear that his victory could be announced long before all votes had been properly counted. The very successful electronic vote counting system left no doubts only 17 hours after the polling stations closed when already 95 percent of the results were available to the Election Commission (Comelec). Technically and organizationally, this is an admirable success story. Runners up Mar Roxas and Grace Poe gracefully conceded defeat immediately and congratulated Duterte.
The race for the vice-presidency, which is a separate election in the Philippines, not a running mate solution like in other presidential systems, turned out to be a more complicated story. Only on Friday, May 20th, at 7 p.m., eleven days after the election, the paper thin lead of Leni Robredo was finally confirmed by the Comelec. She won over Ferdinand Marcos, eldest son of the infamous dictator with the same name, with just 263,473 votes. This is a mere .92 percent of all 28.57 million valid votes, but clear enough. With some local results contested or coming in late from remote islands, the lead was sometimes attributed to Marcos and sometimes to Robredo. She can now smile, first for herself and her victory, but also for possibly keeping open a door into the new government for her party, the Liberal Party of the Philippines (LP).
President-elect Duterte, who will take over from president Aquino end of June, had offered her a post in his cabinet but changed his mind already. He may have preferred Marcos. Duterte is considered to be a social democrat and open to the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), to which he has offered four cabinet portfolios, namely agrarian reform, social welfare, environment and natural resources, and labor. “Thanking his former student for the “magnanimous offer,” exiled CPP founding chair Jose Maria Sison politely declined the cabinet positions, clarifying, however, that the offer would be studied seriously.” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 21st, 2016, LINK).
A government with Socialists and Communists would be quite a game changer in the Philippines and threaten the cozy power arrangements of the elites and the traditional politicians called “trapos“. Duterte himself is backed by his party Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan or PDP Laban with now 82 out of 292 seats in the House of Representatives.They have already signed a coalition agreement with the conservative Nacionalista Party (20 MP’s and 5 senators), the center right National Unity Party (24 MP’s) and the conservative Nationalist People’s Coalition (36 Mp’s and 2 senators). Altogether 162 members of Parliament will give Duterte already a comfortable majority of 55 percent, but the opportunistic political tradition will certainly see more elected members switch into the presidential camp.
A big question is now whether Leni Robredo as vice president will open a door for her Liberal Party which, otherwise, would lose all the jobs in government and administration it held during the six Aquino years. In terms of ideology and compatibility it might look awkward to coalesce with Socialists and Communists, but since at the end ideology is not that important, not in the Philippines and no longer in Western democracies, a flexible solution will be found. May it help the country to catch up and improve the living conditions of the neglected part of the 100 million Phillipinos.
Partyforumseasia: President Joko Widodo of Indonesia is not yet in full control of the political machinery 19 months after assuming office in October 2014. If the election of Setya Novanto as new chairman of Golkar, the second largest party, will end the
internal rivalries and the party joins the presidential coalition, the President will control over 60 % of the parliament. But control may be exaggerated as description, as the coalition, see the colorful chart on the left, consists of seven parties,with Golkar already included by Wikipedia after the party convention in Bali last weekend. Running a country as diverse as Indonesia without a majority in parliament is certainly extremely difficult but maybe facilitated by the flexible nature of Indonesians and the very wide range of gray tones between black and white compared to the normal confrontations in Western democracies. The support of Golkar will help President Widodo to push more forcefully for stalled but necessary reforms. But it will remain a daunting task to balance the government coalition and satisfy all party leaders and dignitaries with sufficiently powerful (and profitable) posts and positions in government and public service.
In the Philippines the post-election political situation looks very different. The country of over 100 million citizens, with a median age of 24.4 years, and still a high poverty rate of 26%, has not developed a strong party system. During the political developments after the fall of Marcos and the “People Power or Edsa Revolution” in 1986, the Philippines have in many ways managed to strengthen their democratic institutions albeit with a weakness of enforcement in important details. With 70 % of legislators coming from political clans and thriving on oligarchic and partially even violent patron-client relationships, the 55 million voters were tired of elite politics and provided maverick candidate Rodrigo Duterte with a handsome majority of 38.6% over the runner up establishment candidate Mar Roxas with 23.45%. The latter’s running mate, Leni Robredo, is still waiting for the final and official results because her lead over “Bongbong” Ferdinand Marcos, eldest son of the late dictator, is paper thin. In case her victory is confirmed, Duterte will give her a cabinet post.
President-elect Duterte has pushed his campaign with a very tough image after two decades as mayor of Davao and plenty of tough talking and promises to clean up with corruption and crime. Elite candidate Mar Roxas, whose grandfather was a president, has graciously conceded defeat and congratulated the winner, but establishment and intellectuals are anything but happy with the outcome. Duterte may manage to cut painfully into their privileges and redistribute the benefits of the country’s economic growth under the Aquino administration to the poorer parts of the society.
As usual in the Philippines, after the president is elected politicians move into his or her camp irrespective of party affiliation. Duterte is holding court in his Davao home and the friends, old and new, queue up to get appointed for positions from minister to ambassador.
Expectations among Duterte’s voters are sky high, but there is also a herculean task ahead. Despite economic progress under Aquino the poverty level is still the second highest in Southeast Asia.
The organization of the elections on 9 May has worked remarkably well given the geographical challenges of the 7000 islands nation. On top of the election of president and vice president, the voters had to decide on12 Senate seats, all 297 seats to the House of Representatives, all governors, vice governors, and 772 seats to the boards of the 81 provinces, all mayors and vice mayors for 145 cities and 1,489 municipalities, all members of the city councils and 11,924 seats on municipal councils, as well as the governor, vice governor and all 24 seats in the regional assembly of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
As the largest electronic vote counting exercise in history with 92,509 vote counting machines being used to digitize voter-marked ballots and transmit the results to the Municipal Board of Canvassers, the 2016 election is an incredible achievement which is not adequately appreciated by the international media, probably too much overshadowed by the victory of Rodrigo Duterte.
Partiforumseasia: According to traditional political wisdom and experience in the Philippines, the real meaning of the Golden Rule is the rule of those who have the gold.
In this presidential election, however, there are candidates outside the plutocratic establishment. And if the polls are sufficiently reliable, one anti-establishment candidate has a good chance of being elected: Rodrigo Duterte (nickname “Digong“) is so popular because of his cleaner but more brutal law and order policies as mayor of Davao city, including a huge number of extrajudicial killings of criminals. The contrast to the ruling Liberal Party’s candidate, Mar Roxas, could not be bigger. Roxas is a cultivated, well traveled intellectual politician from the quasi aristocratic upper class and successful minister in Aquino’s outgoing cabinet. In the latest polls Roxas stands at 20 % behind Grace Poe with 22% and Duterte with 33%! Duterte seems to be totally eligible for the poor masses and big parts of the middle class as well, who are already soul searching before the election on 9th May. Imelda Deinla from the Australian National University sees the failure of the elites to establish a minimum level of the rule of law and to reduce the rampant corruption and inefficiency of the civil service. See her comment “Rule of law deficit behind voter dismay in Philippines” (LINK) in the East Asia Forum. Narciso Reyes Jr., a former journalist and diplomat, has a deeper psychological analysis of the voters and the darker side of their hopes and aspirations. Here is short passage of his article in the 4th May Inquirer (LINK):
“Duterte’s incredible popularity, despite his crude blunders (…) is evidently being fueled by an atavistic, primal instinct among our people who crave order and a better life under the strong arm of a man with a seeming license to kill.”
The elite is in panic mode! The latest move, supported by President Aquino, is warning against a Duterte dictatorship and urging the candidates Mar Roxas and Grace Poe to join forces in order to prevent Duterte…
On a different level, but rather interesting is a comparison with the US presidential campaign. A frightened elite is exploring ways to prevent Donald Trump, who has money himself and will attract more donations now. Duterte is probably not that rich but will not be short of funding either. According to media estimations presidential campaigns in the Philippines cost between 2,5 and 3 billion pesos (or 53 to 65 m US$), and 80% of it going into political ads. Nielsen Media reported that even before the official campaign period started on 9 February, 7.5 billion pesos (nearly 160 m US$) had already been spent for ads of all kinds. But the media campaign is being dwarfed by the carnival atmosphere in the streets when the candidates show up in person. Being the most important crossroads decision in the country’s politics, the 55 million voters in the Philippines are politicized on a high voltage level. When the counting works well, the country is running the elections technically quite professionally, we will see the result within a few days.
Partyforumseasia: In February we had last commented on the ongoing brutality against opposition members in Cambodia’s Parliament. While CNRP leader Sam Rainsy is in exile again and a well orchestrated campaign is trying to destroy his deputy Kem Sokha over an alleged extramarital affair, there is a not really expected follow-up to the brutal beatings of CNRP members in front of parliament.
The thugs were masked and escaped easily under the eyes of police deployed in front of the Parliament building. It all looked like the usual impunity for many dubious happenings under supervision and responsibility of the ruling party and its government. The traditionally rather indulgent international observers and embassies in Phnom Penh are getting more vocal with their protest, but with traditionally little results on the Cambodian side.
But, surprise, surprise, now the authorities have identified and indicted some of the thugs who beat up the unprotected parliamentarians:
Under the headline “Of 16 who assaulted MPs, only three, all Bodyguard Unit members, face trial” the Phnom Penh Post (Link) gives the latest details. The three accused are all “members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal Bodyguard Unit – while additional evidence suggests further involvement by the elite unit.”
At least three (scapegoats?) indicted, but the whole scheme highlighted. That is not party competition but partisan warfare. Political hardball is quite common in Southeast Asia, but even a lot harder in Cambodia. Let’s wait for the justice system for results and final assessment.
Partyforumseasia: By coincidence, but not completely surprising, the similar presidential systems in the United States and their former colony, the Philippines, are heading for the election of their next president. The Philippino voters will go to the ballot boxes on 9 May, the US voters will follow half a year later, on 8 November. There are striking similarities in the campaigns of the candidates, some rather, even extremely shrill and – compared to many former presidential races – increasingly populist. The political parties supposed to support a candidate in both systems are being more or less eclipsed as party membership, affiliation or quiet support are increasingly vanishing in both countries. Popularity at any price and fundraising are a big factor. But credible narratives as trademark and emotional identifier of the candidates are increasingly playing their role as well.
Just a month before the election, political scientists Julio C. Teehankee, De La Salle University and Mark R. Thompson, City University of Hong Kong, offer a fascinating insight and overview of the electoral situation in the Philippines in an article published 8 April in the EastAsiaForum (full text here LInk):
Here are some glimpses into the article:
“Commentators often view Philippine presidential campaigns as determined purely by popularity, name recall or money. But this overlooks the importance of the enduring narratives that candidates draw upon to woo voters’ support, via widespread political campaigning both on air and on the ground.
While political parties are relatively weak in the Philippines, presidential candidates have based their campaigns on the major narratives of reform, pro-poor populism and neo-authoritarian calls for ‘peace and order’.
Those looking for a ‘safe pair of hands’ to maintain internal political stability and guide the Philippines through both a difficult world economic environment and tense relations with China may look to Mar Roxas, who prospered under the current administration. But Roxas, who has a long record in government, has struggled to gain traction with his promise to continue the ‘straight path’ (daang matuwid) — a reference to Aquino’s anti-corruption reform agenda. (…)
The most promising candidate in many ways is Grace Poe. Poe combines the pro-poor ‘populist’ appeal of her adoptive father — actor-turned-politician Fernando Poe, Jr. — with her image as a competent and serious-minded reformer. Where Duterte offers an iron fist, Poe offers a velvet glove. But her message is failing to take root.
Poe narrowly avoided disqualification for becoming a US citizen before returning to the Philippines over a decade ago. This has led to worries that she is out of touch with the average Filipino. On top of this, the endorsement of the Nationalist People’s Coalition and her defence of its founder — former Marcos crony Eduardo ‘Danding’ Cojuangco Jr — have led to charges she is a ‘puppet’.”
Partyforumseasia: The peaceful handover from a military junta to a victorious opposition in Myanmar notwithstanding, Southeast Asian domestic politics is hardball from the textbook. Eliminating opposition when it develops into dangerous competition is not the most elegant or democratic way of staying in power, but it works. Challengers easily land in prison, like Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia, or in exile, like Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, and Sam Rainsy in Cambodia. Neither of these standard solutions can completely silence them, though. Especially the exile solution is being undermined by advanced communication technology. The Phnom Penh Post (31.8.2016, LINK) gives an example of opposition leader Sam Rainsy addressing a group of followers at home via Skype from his exile in Paris:
The CNRP opposition, obviously seen as too dangerous by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP ruling party, has come under growing pressure by a remarkable arsenal of “torture instruments”. It’s lawmakers are being beaten up outside Parliament by thugs difficult to identify, Sam Rainsy prefers to stay in Paris because an older defamation lawsuit has been warmed up. The court refuses to hear his arguments via Skype and insists that he has to appear in person. With a string of other lawsuits and convictions pending, two years for defaming foreign minister Hor Namhong in 2008, a potential 17-year sentence for forgery and incitement, and other defamation suits, he understandably prefers to stay abroad.
Legally more than dubious, as the Phnom Penh Post reported on 30 March, the chief of Cambodia’s Anti-Corruption Unit threatened to investigate Sam Rainsy for corruption “if he continues to speak out against the graft case (Link) currently levelled at his deputy, Kem Sokha.” Trying to silence a politician by threatening another investigation is indeed a desperate level of political competition.
CNRP vice president Kem Sokha is under a very different type of pressure. Based on a number of taped phone calls with alleged mistresses the media are reporting for weeks already about a so called “infidelity scandal” while Kem Sokha and the supposed mistresses deny the relationships. It is not infidelity alone, alleged are also expensive presents like money and a house. While it is unclear why students might want to demonstrate against the popular politician as they are reported to do, the manoeuvre looks like a good old character assassination.
The whole campaign against the opposition signals the threat and growing insecurity felt in the ruling party. “Neutralizing” the top leaders of the opposition in time before the next general election, due only by July 2018, may work, but especially the younger generation of Cambodians signals less patience with the CPP-Hun Sen rule. The ongoing brutality against the CNRP might produce a bigger backlash than expected.
Partyforumseasia: Is happiness a political category or can it be a political goal?
The Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson introduced a new political interpretation of happiness in his 1725 treatise “An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue“. His formula “The greatest Happiness for the greatest Numbers” influenced the political thinking of the 18th century and made it into the American Declaration of Independence.
In 1972 the notion was re-introduced into the international arena by the King of Bhutan as “Gross National Happiness (GNH) and an alternative to the western concept of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Today, March 20, we celebrate the International Day of Happiness (or Happiness Day) which was instated by the United Nations on 28 June 2012 in a rare unanimous vote of all 193 nations as resolution 66/281 (Link).
In our predominantly Hobbesian world with endless wars, exploitation, hunger and oppression the ideal of a better society is nice and worth supporting. The UN and charitable organizations have created programs and comparative rankings of happiness among the world’s nations. The criteria used by the UN are as follows:
Not surprisingly, the richest countries are rated as the most happy ones, starting with Denmark (no. 1), Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Finland, followed by Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, and Sweden (no. 10).
Singapore’s GDP-beam in yellow is rather visible, but good and clean governance as well as increasing social support for the needy have at least created a strong absolute majority of voters happy with the ruling People’s Action Party. The small and splintered opposition may be unhappy politically but quite happy privately…
Second runner up, Malaysia, has also seen happier days in its political development. PM Najib may survive through all the scandals surrounding his government, but many Malaysians are not really happy with the status quo.
The Philippines have been known as mastering economic and political hardship with a big smile. The administration of President Aquino has presided over quite a number of positive developments. Partyforumseasia would rate the country better than no. 82!
Myanmar is just entering a new political era under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. The popular mood is very upbeat and optimistic, so the low UN-ranking seems to be outdated. In terms of new chances and happiness Partyforumseasia would rank the country much higher.
Cambodia comes last in Southeast Asia, probably due to the domestic struggle between the ruling CPP and the opposition CNRP, as well as Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy. International help and ODA have been flowing in for decades now, there is progress, true, but the situation could be better. The young generation is certainly more optimistic and happier than the older one still haunted by memories of the Khmer Rouge nightmare and the Vietnamese occupation.
Politics and Happiness? Understood as life chances and choices for the individual citizen, political happiness is not a pipe dream. As we see all over the world, wrong policies and the wrong type of political leaders are spoiling or destroying the lives of hundreds of millions of people. May the happiness ranking contribute to more awareness of the importance of good governance and political responsibility.
Partyforumseasia: Politicians cannot be everywhere in person but they can be omnipresent in the media and especially the social media. Facebook has been discovered as a popularity gauge and booster by practically all leaders world-wide and of course in Southeast Asia. The higher echelons have their support teams who constantly feed the perceived or imagined demands of voters and respond to online questions coming in.
Cambodia has made sufficient progress in internet penetration to make Facebook accounts for the leaders attractive. But boasting about increasing numbers of visits and likes can be a trap as well, as shown in the recent “Facebook war” between Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader in exile Sam Rainsy.
On 6 March the Prime Minister had thanked his “national compatriots and youths in the country and overseas” for pushing his likes over the three million mark. Only a few days later, the Phnom Penh Post (Link) revealed that, over the last 30 days, only 20% of the likes had originated from Cambodia (see chart above):
“The biggest influx, 255,692, came from India, where a total of 332,475 Facebook accounts “like” Hun Sen. Further, over the past 30 days, 98,256 accounts from the Philippines liked the premier, as did 54,972 from Myanmar, 46,368 from Indonesia, 26,527 from Brazil, 12,980 from Mexico, 4,783 from Turkey and 3,952 from the United Arab Emirates.”
Honi soit qui mal y pense or in English: Shame on whomsoever would think badly of it is the motto of the British Order of the Garter. But beware of suspecting Mr. Hun Sen or his staff of buying Facebook likes in countries as far as India, Brazil and Mexico.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is already in self-imposed exile because of an old defamation suit against him, is burning his fingers once more. On his own Facebook site he exposed instructions from Som Soeun, a Delegate Minister Attached to the Prime Ministers Office, that all rank and file party members shall support the Prime Minister’s Facebook site whenever they can. The prompt retaliation from Som Soeun was another defamation suit against Sam Rainsy.
Facebook likes can easily be bought from “click farms” in poorer countries. Be it overzealous underlings buying the Facebook likes for their leader or anything higher up, the story is as embarrassing as hilarious, if not outright ridiculous.
Partyforumseasia: The re-election of 72-year-old Nguyễn Phú Trọng as Sectretary General of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) seems to signal that the old guard is still pulling the strings. But there were also rumors during the 12th Party Congress (20-28 January 2016) that he may step down before the next congress in five years time and make way for a younger leader. How much compromise behind the scenes will be necessary for such a handover is difficult to gauge. The CPV is still communist enough not to display internal power struggles too openly. But among the published political resolutions of the congress were:
“Strengthen the party, repulse ideological decay, prevent “self-evolution”, and “train and prepare quality cadres, especially at “strategic level”.
All that sounds very much like concerns about the ideological coherence of a single ruling party which must, like other remaining communist parties, uphold its justification to rule over an increasingly complex citizenship. But it betrays as well the dilemma of the leadership to keep its grip on power while talking more openly than ever before about failures and shortcomings it is being held responsible for by the electorate. With internet penetration close to 50% and the ubiquity of mobile phones more Vietnamese can see that the country’s economic performance is well below its real potential. Maintaining Communist domination is still possible, as in China, but getting more difficult with the success stories of some neighbors in ASEAN with less interference into the markets.
NB: The party is more cautious than five years ago. The industrialization development goal has been changed from 2020 to “soon“….
The membership has increase by roughly one million to 4.5 m, meaning that the party has softened its elitist approach, and more citizens find it rewarding to be a member, probably because of some material or other privileges.
NB: The newly elected Central Committee (CC) is younger ( average age 53 ) and many members have better educational credentials, but only 10% are female.
Reunification Day, Victory Day or Liberation Day is dating back to April 30, 1975, nearly 41 years ago. But only 22 % of the members represent the South in the new CC. There is some lingering resentment about that in the CC and the population of the South.
What can be expected from the new team? The party maintains its strong grip on power and control. The reform process must and will continue but pace and effectiveness are uncertain. The constraints within the system will not unleash the full potential of Vietnam as fast as it could be done.
Partyforumseasia: So far, Prime Minister Najib Razak has managed to weather the months of heavy political head winds with remarkable cold blood. His former mentor turned nemesis, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, so far, has been the driving force in a sort of “Oust-Najib-Movement” and recently brought together a group of Najib enemies described in the Malaysian media as “strange bedfellows”, especially because Mahathir’s earlier victim, Anwar Ibrahim, has joined from behind bars. He has been imprisoned under Mahathir and is now serving a five year term under Najib, again for alleged sodomy and again perceived as politically motivated.
Last Monday, 7th March, in a speech at the opening of parliament, Malaysia’s 88-year-old King, Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah, “told Malaysian legislators that they should stop playing politics of narrow interests, as this has gone on for so long that it has become stressful for the people and the government.” (Asia One). Given the circumstances of the entrenched war between the PM and his domestic foes, the king’s admonition sounds rather in support of Najib and very probably won’t end the war of attrition by Mahathir and partners including the opposition. But Mahathir has a credibility problem himself. Many see him guilty of starting the level of money politics he is accusing Najib of, only that Najib with the hundreds of millions in his private accounts has pushed it to unprecedented levels and triggered international suspicion.
Money politics under Najib: If the king may not wield much political influence, there are other strong arguments for the Prime Minister’s supporters in the UMNO party hierarchy to keep the number of defectors relatively small. “He didn’t invent the system but Najib has perfected the art of sleaze”, writes the AsiaSentinel on 2 March (Link), and continues with very concrete figures:
“Once a month, each of the 191 loyal district chiefs that make up the hierarchy of the United Malays National Organization receives RM50,000 for “expenses.” It doesn’t come from Malaysia’s fiscal budget. It comes from Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal accounts at Ambank in KL. Multiplied out, that totals RM114.6 million annually (US$27.498 million). It is a system that has sustained party loyalty through several premiers for 35 years, if Najib is to be believed, and it points to the deep, long-running corruption of the entire Malaysian political system. It is just part of what keeps Najib in power against the combined investigations of five countries on allegations of money laundering, fraud and bribery.”
The Wall Street Journal is also in the forefront of questioning PM Najib’s personal finances by publishing beginning of March new estimations that he has more than a billion US$ in his personal accounts and that much of it originates from the mismanaged and debt-ridden 1MDB investment fund whose board of advisers happens to be chaired by Mr. Najib.
In regional comparison money politics and patronage are common and sophisticated. Members of parliament as well as local office bearers of political parties are expected to “help” their voters, from waving parking tickets to funding businesses. But it seems that relatively rich Malaysia has reached levels which a majority of voters is no longer prepared to condone. Najib seems to be in control so far, not least because the opposition is divided, but the scandals may change the public mood so much against UMNO that Najib will be more of a liability than until today.
Strategy-wise, though, Najib follows the (immoral) textbook prescriptions: Business as usual, deny everything until you can’t deny it any more and in thin slices, attack the attackers, and eliminate your internal enemies.
Partyforumseasia: Rumors had it that the long wait for the nomination of Myanmar’s next president was due to attempts on a last minute arrangement with the military to eventually accept Aung San Suu Kyi herself. Her own hopes were obviously being shared by many voters, but now it looks most likely that she has to stick to her first plan of choosing a sufficiently loyal “proxy president“. It will be an awkward solution, but justifiable under the assumption that the constitution has been drafted only to prevent “The Lady” and does not reflect the new democratic reality of Myanmar any more.
“Far from a remedy to the NLD’s presidential quandary, the proxy arrangement is riddled with its own practical pitfalls and political vulnerabilities. Analysts fear that dividing the centre of power into two camps – the proxy president and the puppet master – could cripple the NLD’s administration from its outset.” writes the Myanmar Times ( Link ) on 2 March with the cartoon above.
The main danger may lie in Aung San Suu Kyi’s political style which is being described as “imperious”. Assuming that the titulary president cannot be seen as a mere lap dog by the public either, the selection may be as difficult as the future working relationship.
Power is certainly helping older politicians to stay healthy and sharp – see the recent activities of 90-year-old Dr. Mahathir in Malaysia – but Aung San Suu Kyi, going to be 71 in June, is only starting with the full governing burden and responsibility in April. The transformation of the multi-ethnic country with countless minority problems among many others has a long way to go to catch up with the more successful ASEAN partners. A failure of the democratic awakening would endanger Myanmar’s economic recovery even more than the military takeover does in neighboring Thailand.
Partyforumseasia: The Asian Values – Debate of the 1990s is history. It was centered on traditional values like close knit families, group cohesion over individualism, filial piety, and last but not least respect for the authority of political leaders. Religion was not in the center of the debate but played an important role in the background, like in most countries. The exception is Europe where the established Christian churches which were in support of social status-quo-order and government authority for centuries are shrinking and losing influence.
The ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of Southeast Asia makes it difficult to think of a regional theory of politics and religion. But in several countries religion and religious groups wield considerable influence in politics. Here is a short and preliminary list of recent problem areas:
In the Catholic Philippines the Bishops Conference called on the faithful to boycott a planned Madonna concert as the devil’s work. In secular and multi-religious Singapore, the Catholic archbishop and the Anglican bishop warned against Madonna as well, but added that they would leave it to the members of their flock to decide themselves. They even added that they did not want to impose their view on non-believers (sic!). But it is easy to understand that the artist’s name of the singer is a provocation for Catholics and Protestants alike.. It is noteworthy, though, that there is no Christian party in the Philippines, and Singapore is secular anyway with countless sects and denominations among the main religions.
In Buddhist majority Myanmar monks have been involved in sometimes rather violent attacks on Muslim Rohingya immigrants from Bangladesh under the pretext that Buddhism is threatened by them and has to be defended as state religion. Internationally, Buddhism enjoys a positive image of peacefulness and non-violence which it does not live up to everywhere, though. See our earlier post, Sept.4, 2015 “Radical Buddhism Meddling in Myanmar’s Politics” (Link).
The Muslim majority in Mindanao, Philippines, has created resistance against the perceived Christian domination from Manila with a festering guerilla-war for decades. It seems that even far reaching self-rule arrangement within the statehood of the Philippines will not pacify the region completely.
Because Mindanao is so close to the north of the East Malaysian federal state of Sabah on the huge island formerly known as Borneo, religious undercurrents of migration have created growing problems. Trying to create a vote bank for the ruling coalition in Kuala Lumpur, the immigration of Muslims into Sabah has been encouraged and legalized (see “Project IC“, Link). The percentage of Muslims has increased from 38% in 1960 to over 65% in 2010. And the rather bizarre claims of a Sultan of Sulu to regain sovereignty over Sabah have religious undertones as well and potentially terrorist implications difficult to control by the Malaysian authorities. This is one of the examples where playing the religious card in national power politics creates dangerous side effects. But the competition of UMNO and opposition PAS for the votes of the Muslim Malay majority has led both of them to play the religious card for many years already. In an era of growing Arab influence on Malaysia’s Islam and IS feelers into Southeast Asia this is increasing the political instability after Prime Minister Najib has come under pressure for the financial scandals in his party and his own accounts.
Thailand has similar problems with her Malay-Muslim minority in the South, bordering Malay-Muslim Malaysia. Mishandling the urge for self-rule and independence there by police and military has created a powder keg like Mindanao with lots of terrorism. But as usual, the distinction between terrorists and freedom fighters depends on partisanship, standpoint and definition.
The Military Interim Government actually has another problem with the country’s influential Buddhist associations. The 90-year-old abbot Somdet Phra Maha Ratchmangalacharn or Somdet Chuang has been nominated as Supreme Patriarch by the powerful Supreme Sangha Council which rules over Thailand’s monks. But the nomination has created criticism, not least by a more outspoken and more political monk (Phra Buddha Isara, 60), a former soldier in the Queen’s Guard, the same unit as the Prime Minister’s. Legislation passed in 1962, the Sangha Act, has given the Sangha council control over 300,000 odd monks, and the financial resources of the monasteries. Strings of scandals, including doubts about Somdet Chulang’s vintage Mercedes have shocked the public and undermined the credibility of the religion. See the article in the Bangkok Post (Link) which criticizes the Sangha’s policy of taking subsidies from the state while claiming independence and defending its status quo. The Sangha Act leaves the last step of nomination before confirmation by the King to the Prime Minister, who hesitates, understandably so.
Regional outlook: With growing Middle Eastern influence on Southeast Asia’s supposedly milder and more peaceful version of Islam, Indonesia witnesses already widespread violence against Christian churches and communities. In Malaysia the competition between the ruling and an opposition party ,which both emphasize their religious credentials, has given an ever growing role to clerics and their often narrow interpretation of Islam as well as lack of tolerance vis-á-vis the other religions. In Myanmar and Thailand Buddhist-Muslim relations are already difficult and seem to create more political turmoil in the near future. The religious diversity of the region needs tolerance and mutual understanding between the denominations. But “religious harmony” as discussed and officially promoted in Malaysia and Singapore is not easy to achieve. Practically all these groups believe in absolute truths which tend to exclude each other even when they – historically – worship the same God.
Partyforumseasia: While Prime Minister Hun Sen attends the US-ASEAN meeting in California and ignores exile opposition protests against him in the USA, the life for opposition lawmakers at home is getting more and more dangerous. Words can hardly describe the brutality of thugs beating two CNRP MP’s unconscious in front of Cambodia’s parliament. This is why we refer to the following video link from The Phnom Penh Post (16.02.2016):
To watch the video click CTRL + click on the above URL or behind it.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) had asked the government for police and security protection but the intimidation continues. See an earlier post published October 27th, 2015. Link: No Velvet Gloves in Phnom Penh
Since it is rather improbable that the thugs are doing their dirty job because of strong political convictions, guesses about who gives them the orders and pays them are allowed. The next election will be only in 2018, but a strong and popular opposition CNRP is being seen as a serious challenge to the long rule of the Cambodian People’s Party and its supreme leader…
Partyforumseasia: Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir, son of former prime minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, has finally resigned from his post as chief minister of the federal state of Kedah after only 30 months. As the rumors go he was asked three times in a week to sign a prepared resignation letter. Claiming that he was forced out because of his (and his father’s) criticism of prime minister Najib Razak and the series of financial scandals he is alleged to be involved in, Mr. Mukhriz did not hesitate to counterattack:
“Sorry to say that as long as Najib is still there, Umno is at its weakest point right now. Scandal after scandal, I think we can’t take it all, it is too much for us. It is really traumatising to all of us. We can’t hold our heads high. Now I will have more opportunity to fight on and speak out for the people because this will not shut me up,” he is quoted as saying by Singapore’s Straits Times (Link).
Prime Minister Najib’s control of their common party UMNO looks more than total at the moment, but with Swiss and Singaporean banks being involved in the 1MDB scandal the shells are landing ever closer. And never underestimate estranged and sidelined party members. The roles of hunted and hunters can change:
In the first German children’s book, first published in 1845, the hare steals the hunter’s rifle and starts to hunt the hunter…
Partyforumseasia: Under much pressure because of a personal donation of nearly 700 million USD from an undisclosed Middle Eastern source in his private account, Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia has shown remarkable cold blood. Knowing that he dominates his party UMNO practically unchallenged by lack of possible successors, he sacked a critical deputy president and the Attorney General who was daring enough to look deeper into the donation case. The replacement, Apandi Ali, closed the case on 26 January and stated that there was no evidence of corruption on the side of the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, two oversight panels, the Operations Review Panel and a Special Panel, have asked the AG to explain how he came to this conclusion. The move seems to signal that the Prime Minister’s narrative is so unusual that Malaysia’s public and voters are not yet ready to close the case as readily as the new Attorney General.
In terms of his communication policy PM Najib is in line with political strategy textbooks, namely admit only what you cannot deny and admit only in thin slices. In the meantime, the source of the donation has been revealed as the Saudi royal family. According to a Reuters-based article on Channelnewsasia (Link), Najib has paid back to the donors a sum of 620 million USD. While there are no explanations about the rest of the money, the Saudi side is not confirming nor denying the transaction.”Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir, during a visit to Malaysia late October 2015, did not deny when asked whether his government donated money to Najib. “Saudi and Malaysia are close allies and partners we work closely together on regional issues as well as international issues that affect Islamic world,” he said. “We coordinate our political position with regards to events in the Middle East and other places. This is something we do.”
Meanwhile, also from the political strategy textbook, Najib attacks his harshest critic and pre-predecessor Mahathir Mohamad by obviously allowing an internal party initiative for the sacking of the latter’s son Mukhriz Mahathir from his post as chief minister of the federal state of Kedah.
This strategy may work, but the fight is not over. The Latin saying “audacter calumniare, semper aliquid haeret” means “slander boldly, something always sticks”, but nota bene: The Saudi donation saga is not just slander but a web of facts and fiction where nobody can be sure that more and more will come to light. The UMNO leadership may be backing Najib as long as he controls the financial snowball system, but the dangers for the tainted reputation of the party are lingering for too long already.
First rumors are here that Najib is preparing for a face-saving exit with guarantees of immunity. See The Diplomat on 22 January: “Will Malaysia’s Najib Finally Quit? Speculation is mounting that the embattled premier may seek a face-saving exit.” (Link)
Partyforumseasia: The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party or LPRP is one of the most secretive political parties in Southeast Asia. But from time to time, or every five years, a party congress elects the members of politburo and central committee, the power centers, and allows a glimpse into the internal changes. The 10th party congress which ended on 22 January, elected 78 year old Bounnhang Vorachit as secretary general. Communist and authoritarian parties tend to play it safe with experienced leaders who are not likely to rock the boat with experiments and hasty reforms. Mr Bunnhang has already been serving as prime minister (2001–2006) and as vice president since 2006. He is one of the last veterans of the revolutionary generation at the beginning of the country’s independence and close Communist co-operation with Vietnam and China.
There are interesting election results nevertheless, if not yet a real rejuvenation. Re-elected as number two was Ms Pany Yathotu (65), chairperson of the National Assembly and former governor of the central bank. Laos observers see her as a potential future prime minister, when the new cabinet is expected to be announced later this year. The party seems to promote a certain gender balance, more women being elected in the party committees in ministries and organizations.
Some details of the outcome (according to Vientiane Times, Link here):
“The 69-member Party Central Committee was elected on Thursday by 685 Party members, who represented 252,879 Party members …”
“The 10th Party Central Committee elected 11 Politburo members, namely: Mr Bounnhang Vorachit, Mr Thongloun Sisoulith, Ms Pany Yathotou,” (et alia)
N.B.: Outgoing party chief and president, Choummaly Sayasone (79), Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong (71) and two deputy premiers were retired.
“In his remarks at the closing ceremony of the congress, Secretary General Bounnhang Vorachit described the outcome of the congress as ‘successful as expected’. He said that all the elected members were qualified as most of them had been tested on the battlefield during the struggle for national liberation, while the rest had been tested through their work in national development and protection tasks.
“Participants also reviewed shortcomings resulting from the fact that some goals set in the resolution adopted by the 9th Congress had not been achieved, and discussed ways to address the situation.” N.B.:No details are mentioned in this article…
As one of the last few remaining communist parties in the world, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party has understood that the country is economically lagging far behind the neighbors in Southeast Asia. During a review of the constitution in December 2015, the National Assembly has confirmed that the national economy is socialist but market-oriented. “Article 13 stipulates the national economy of Laos was market-oriented economy in line with socialism directive.” (Vientiane Times, 8 December 2015, Link here)
Partyforumseasia: MALYSIA’S CHANGING COALITION ARCHITECTURE
UMNO stands for UNITED MALAYS NATIONAL ORGANISATION, but the nation’s Malays are not as united as UMNO leaders like them to be. In fact they are divided since 1951 when Muslim clerics split from UMNO and founded Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) or Pan Malaysian Islamic Party. PAS developed into a leading opposition party with a cleaner public image than UMNO which is perceived as corrupt by many Malays, but also as the better defender of Islam. The decades of competition for the same voter pool of rural and pious Malays had a number of detrimental effects in a country with strong ethnic and religious minorities. Trying to harp on religious credentials in an era of growing international Salafism and Jihadism and the continuing attempts to introduce hudud, the harsh Muslim criminal law, had rather polarizing effects and undermined the multi-cultural concept of the country.
But as old as the PAS-UMNO rivalry are discussions about reunification:
There are weaknesses on both sides. The now defunct opposition coalition without imprisoned Anwar Ibrahim tries to resurrect as Pakatan Harapan (or Hope Alliance, consisting of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Democartic Action Party, and Parti Amanah Negara which last year splintered from PAS). The three parties just inked an agreement on ideology and dispute settlement on 9 January. And the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition is losing the anaemic component parties of the Chinese and Indian minorities. This is why a rapprochement between UMNO and PAS could be easier than ever before since the split in 1951.
The debate is on in the media and among party members. Here are some recent headlines:
(Deputy Prime Minister) “Zahid is confident of Umno-PAS compatibility” (December 26, 2015, The Malay Mail Online, Link here),
“Despite decades of bad blood, PAS members ready to work with Umno“, (December 27, 2015, The Malaysian Insider, Link here),
“PAS advising BN to save Malaysia, says Hadi”, (the PAS president, December 26, 2015, The Malaysian Insider, Link here).
So far only mildly challenged by the break-away group Parti Amanah Negara in the renewed opposition coalition, the remaining more clerical “ulama faction” in PAS must nevertheless be concerned about the Malay dominance which they share as central concept with UMNO. To convince skeptics in his party, Hadi has packaged his insinuated co-operation in religious terms: “We start by advising the people in power to abandon what is wrong and do what is good, and if in the end they do not change their ways, we take over as saviours, without any rancour. (…) In defending PAS’s new advisory role, Hadi cited verses of the Quran and a few hadith, or prophetic traditions, on the importance of good counsel. “Advice is one of the words in the Quran (a miracle of knowledge) that has vast meaning, to the point that it encompasses all words and methods used to enjoin others to what is good and forbid what is bad.”
For UMNO the partnership with PAS would certainly be a safety belt of sorts, but difficult to get used to. As a Spanish proverb says, partners are also potential bosses, so PAS might be a rather uncomfortable partner for a party like UMNO that is used to rule more or less alone for 60 years.
Partyforumseasia: World wide, there is a certain connectivity between law and justice, but the law, in most cases a result of politics anyway, is rather often a sharp political instrument as well. Some argue that the laws are just petrified political power to preserve the established structures of elite domination.
The newest twist of a long rivalry between Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy is unfolding these days with the announcement of Hun Sen that he will introduce legislation to ban dual citizenship. Sam Rainsy’s French passport, which is helpful for his newest self-exile in Paris to avoid imprisonment at home (for a rather obviously politically motivated conviction) would neutralize him as challenger to Hun Sen’s hold on power. Under the headline “PM’s pledge: ‘No pardon’ for Rainsy” the Phnom Penh Post (Link here) on 29 December is quite blunt about the move:
“Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed to create a new law barring political party leaders from holding dual nationalities, an apparent move to further incapacitate beleaguered CNRP president Sam Rainsy.In his latest tirade against his long-time political rival, the premier also vowed to never again request a royal pardon for Rainsy, who in November entered his third stint of self-imposed exile to avoid prison on charges widely perceived as politically motivated.”
Other countries in the region might have inspired the Cambodian Prime Minister:
In Malaysia the only dangerous opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is in prison once again after a dubious conviction for sodomy. Without him the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat or People’s Alliance has fallen apart, and Prime Minister Najib Razak survives a string of scandals.
In Myanmar election winner Aung San Suu Kyi cannot run for president because her sons have British passports.
In the Philippines a citizenship drama is still unfolding. The Election Commission tries to disqualify the presidential bid of Senator Grace Poe because she is a foundling without sufficient proof of being a real born Phillipina, plus her former US citizenship. The Supreme Court has challenged the decision, so she may eventually run in the upcoming presidential election in 2016.
In Thailand former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is facing a law suit for negligence with the rice purchasing program of her government. The move is widely seen as a last and decisive attempt to exclude her brother Thaksin from any chance of coming back to the political scene.
Who says that politics is fair? At the moment all these legal battles show the ugly face of Southeast Asian hardball politics.
See also the chapter “Hardball: Power and Party Politics in Southeast Asia” in:
Also available at Amazon
Partyforumseasia would like to extend our best wishes for the new year to all readers:
See also some interesting figures about Southeast Asia from (Link here)
Partyforumseasia:One important advantage of democracy over all other systems is the possibility to exchange an unsuccessful government against a new team and new hope for the voters. Sometimes it happens after internal power struggles like the recent transfer from Abbot to Turnbull in Australia, sometimes it is growing unhappiness among the voters and defeat in elections. With a more open and less gerrymandered electoral system PM Najib would have lost his job already in 2013. But even under
unprecedented pressure from voters, many of whom have lost trust in him, and internal opposition in his own party, Najib seems unassailable. In this week’s ongoing party convention with 2,654 delegates from 191 divisions he shrugs off all the attacks and calmly pretends to be in fighting spirit. An admirable level of self-confidence.
His long career as a politician has been a jump-start but accompanied by a series of scandals. At the age of 23 he took over the parliamentary seat of his father, a prime minister like an uncle, and moved into the cabinet as deputy minister only two years later. Prime Minister since 2009, his former mentor and predecessor Mahathir Mohamad has now turned into his most prominent critic. Mahathir’s constant call for him to step down seems unsuccessful by now, and the UMNO-internal challenge looks neutralized. As incredible as it sounds for Malaysians and outsiders, the scandalous mismanagement of 1MDB, a sovereign wealth fund with billions of debt, and the more than dubious campaign “donation” of 700 million US$ from undisclosed Middle Eastern sources into Najib’s private account (!), seem to be swallowed by most leaders of the 3.4 million strong government party. His enemies never imagined that he got get away with that.
There are four main reasons for the strong position of Najib:
1. There is no competitor who could replace him at short notice. All party comrades who speak up are being sacked, like former deputy prime minister and deputy party president Muhyiddin Yassin, and replaced by yes-men. Najib even declares that it is a Muslim religious duty to support the leader.
2. With the imprisonment and effective elimination of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and the ambivalent stand of Islamist opposition party PAS, the threat by a strong opposition coalition has more or less vanished.
3. Starting from Mahathir’s time, the powers of party president and prime minister have been strengthened continuously. On 3 December, Malaysia’s parliament has approved the National Security Council Bill which gives the prime minister quasi unlimited discretion to detain people and declare a state of emergency. The criticism of Mahathir sounds somewhat hollow, though, because he used the former internal security act against his challengers during his term rather extensively.
4. The main reason, however, is the pervasiveness of money politics. Widely the norm in Southeast Asia, it has been developed and fine-tuned in Malaysia, ironically again since Mahathir’s premiership. Najib, born with the famous silver spoon in his mouth, has made full use of the UMNO patronage system. As Partyforumseasia has argued earlier, UMNO cannot afford to lose an election because the whole enormous scheme would collapse and leave hundreds of thousands of party officials and supporters in the cold. And Najib cannot afford to step down because more dirty linen suspected by critical Malaysians might surface and destroy party and patronage.
The system, described as “the patronage networks that flow downward through UMNO, and that ensure the loyalty of party cadres” (Council on Foreign Relations, Link here) is a tool for which many parties worldwide may envy UMNO. But its refinancing comes from state funds and corrupt government-business links at the expense of tax payers.
As aptly as ruthlessly playing racist and religious cards, party and prime minister seem to get away with this cancerous system among the profiteers and voters. And far from being as scandalous as it sounds for most observers, the 700 million “donation” might even strengthen Najib’s position by boosting his financial discretion even more. As the saying in the Philippines goes, the Golden Rule simply means that he who has the gold will rule…
John Stewart Mill in his Considerations on Representative Government published in 1861 had warned already against money politics: “Of what avail is the most broadly popular representative system if the electors do not care to choose the best member of Parliament, but choose him who will spend most money to be elected?”
Partyforumseasia: Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia is known to be a strongman with a very sharp sense of power and how to preserve it. His move to let opposition leader Sam Rainsy return from his exile in Paris in July 2013 was signalling that he felt safe and in complete control of his party, the army and the government. His idea of an arrangement with the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) seems to have underestimated the continuing popularity of the main opposition party. In return for the arrangement the CNRP gave up its boycott of the election results and took up its seats in parliament. But the honeymoon was not really meant to last for long because there is a groundswell against the everlasting CPP and Hun Sen rule on one hand, and maybe even more annoying for the prime minister, the ambitions of Sam Rainsy as “Prime Minister in waiting” and his deputy Kem Sokha successfully working the grassroots all over Cambodia to maximize the groundswell.
At least some alarm bells must have been heard by Mr. Hun Sen. The idea of seeing the opposition taking over seems to be more than bewildering an idea for a politician who is used to being in power for more than three decades and probably grooming his son for succession. The Cambodia Daily stated in its October 26th edition rather bluntly “Hun Sen, Pondering Defeat, Has War on Mind”. At that time, the PM was sketching a bleak scenario with possible civil war in case the opposition should win in the 2018 (!!!) election.
Since then a series of calamities is hitting the CNRP:
– October 26th: Two of their lawmakers are severely beaten up upon leaving the parliament. Concurrently, there is a CPP demonstrations demanding that Kem Sokha be ousted as deputy speaker of parliament which has been achieved since then.
– November 13th: Citing a seven-year-old defamation case, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court issues an arrest warrant for Sam Rainsy, who is abroad at that time and prefers to stay abroad. He actually has enough experience with self exile.
– November 16th: Sam Rainsy is ousted from parliament. “His Excellency Sam Rainsy has lost the rights, parliamentary privileges and membership as a member of the National Assembly for the Kampong Cham constituency” (Assembly President Heng Samrin)
– November 18th: Sam Rainsy calls his ouster and arrest warrant a “constitutional coup”, but an unofficial intermediary suggests that there could be a deal if he returns.
– November 27th: Sam Rainsy attends a session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where MEPs pass a resolution condemning the ruling CPP government’s recent persecution of the opposition.
The whole legal battle saga can be found in an interactive timeline by the Phnom Penh Post in the following LINK
Strategywise: Like Anwar Ibrahim in Malysia, Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar and other political leaders in Southeast Asia, Sam Rainsy is facing constant pressure by legal and political maneuvers from the powers that be. Many have tried to garner at least moral support from more democratic governments or the United Nations. That may help morally but is often simply ignored by their opponents in power.
Partyforumseasia: The victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD was widely anticipated, sometimes cautiously though, in view of the deficits in the not completely free and fair voting system. But the peaceful voting process won international approval and the final triumph is probably beyond the expectations of the party itself, if not even its charismatic leader. The Lady’s more than two decades long role as martyr, democracy icon and symbol of hope has triggered this exceptional landslide victory, securing 57.95 % of the seats in the House of Representatives and 60.27 % in the House of Nationalities, the upper house. See the detailed charts below.
This gives the NLD an absolute majority even with the junta’s safeguard of 25% of the seats reserved for the army. The long rule of the generals which lasted half a century may come to an end if Aung San Suu Kyi resists any temptation of “landslide-hubris” and finds a modus vivendi with the still powerful army. But the leading generals conceding defeat and promising a smooth transfer are very positive signals.
With the huge expectations of her voters and the broader public, the emerging leadership of The Lady (“above the new President” as she declared already before the election) will be confronted with enormous political challenges. These range from the minority problems aggravated by the dismal election results for their ethnic parties to the huge deficits in infrastructure, legal framework for foreign investment, smuggling and drug trafficking black markets to possible obstruction by the civil service so far controlled by the army.
But there is another immediate and enormous challenge: The victorious NLD as a political party is hardly prepared to take over all the responsibilities of ruling the complex country in a more than complex period of her history. Switching from decades of opposition to government roles is not easy, especially for those who have suffered imprisonment and feel entitled to rule. It will be a most urgent task to select and prepare future government officials for their role, including the next president who will be coming from the NLD. Many commentators seem to deplore the long transition period and the Thein Sein administration staying on until the presidential election next spring. Partyforumseasia sees it more as a blessing and a grace period for Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD to get better prepared for their government role.
The final election results as of November 15th, 2015 (Wikipedia)
Partyforumseasia: Well, the hour of truth and the final results of Sunday’s election will take some time to be announced. Logistically this election is a formidable challenge given the size of the country, the diversity of ethnic groups and ongoing violence, and the deficits in transport and communication infrastructure. What the New York Times called “the country’s first relatively free elections in 25 years” (Link here), will certainly be a milestone in the development of the political and economic latecomer among the ten ASEAN countries. Since last year, though, the military dominance is no longer such an exception. Neighboring Thailand, which used to look down on Myanmar and her military rule, is under a military junta herself. The example of the chaos in Bangkok may be on voters’ minds on Sunday, even if many are tired of the generals and dream of a more open democratic era under Aung San Suu Kyi.
The democracy icon has been pulling huge crowds during her campaign with charisma and her personal history as victim of the generals. The military, sure, has not honored her victory in 1990, but the house arrest in her villa in Rangoon was not as cruel as incarceration could have been, and audiences with her followers over the garden gate were tolerated for many years.
What might psychologically happen to Aung San Suu Kyi is not easy to guess, but there are some telling facts:
1. Aung San Suu Kyi is getting old(er). With 70 most politicians are closer to the end of their service for the country than to the beginning. Exceptions are possible: Konrad Adenauer was 73 when he was elected as first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, and he ruled until 1963. At the ripe age of 87 then, he unsuccessfully tried to become president…
2. Aung San Suu Kyi dominates her National League for Democracy in a way that some see as more authoritarian than liberal democratic. Tactical campaign moves like snubbing the Muslim minority and courting the radical Buddhists of Ma Ba Tha, betray her urge to make it this time even at the price of ignoring the democratic values she embodies for many Myanmar citizens and maybe even more for international observers.
3. The actual gamble of Aung San Suu Kyi to get the votes out for her party and herself is being reported by Reuters and AFP after an interview yesterday, 5th November:
“If we win, and the NLD forms a government, I will be above the president. It’s a very simple message. I will run the government and we will have a president who will work in accordance with the policies of the NLD.”
That would be difficult in a presidential system and is against the constitution which can’t be changed against the will of the generals. So the message for her followers and supporters is: Make sure that we win, then I will take care of the formal questions when I’m in power. But it could produce a backlash from the supporters of the military and their USDP as well because of the potential chaos which may follow an open power struggle. Myanmar voters want stability and economic recovery, the ethnic conflicts going on for much too long already.
4. Coming back to the political psychology: Many victims of oppression and violence against opposition, many in prison for long years, have developed a sense of entitlement to high office. Shih Ming-Teh of Taiwan (25 years in prison) could not even convince his own party that he should be the president. Only Nelson Mandela (27 years in prison) made it to the presidency of South Africa. Partyforumseasia hopes that Aung San Suu Kyi will approach the election results as sober and level-headed as possible!
Partyforumseasia: On December 10, 2014, we were asking whether Golkar was close to a suicide by internal power struggle (Link here). Party leader Aburizal Bakrie was more than disappointed with the result of the presidential election on July 9, 2014. After he could not be the top candidate himself or promote another Golkar candidate, his political gamble to support Gerindra leader Prabowo Subianto failed. Neither his Golkar party nor many million $$ from his family business could prevent the victory of Joko Widodo.
Against instinct and inclination of the Golkar leadership, Bakrie managed to prevent the party from switching from the losing Prabowo camp to the winners around the new president. This was splitting the party, leading to rival factions, competing party conventions in 2014 and the election of two party leaders, Bakrie being supported by the Prabowo camp and Agung Laksono by the faction open to president Jokowi. The rivalry was brought to the courts, producing different rulings, until on October 20th, 2015 the Supreme Court finally decided that Bakrie is the rightful chairman, one day after the 51st anniversary of Golkar.
Factional strife is absolutely normal in political parties but the visibility of this one has certainly affected the image of Golkar among Indonesia’s voters on top of their image problem after decades of being the political vehicle for president Suharto‘s authoritarian rule. Compromise, though, is the essence of democracy, and it was high time to give up the sulking attitude of the election loser. Indonesia has enough problems to solve and supporting the Jokowi administration is certainly more patriotic than obstructing him in parliament. Golkar’s 91 seats will make it much easier for the president to speed up legislation.
Affiliation of the parties in the Parliament so far(Wikipedia):
The Golkar factions and their leaders will now have to organize the practical part of their reconciliation and bring the party back to unity. But one may wonder whether the urge to save the party from suicide has been boosted by more concrete advantages. So far it is not clear that calls for a cabinet reshuffle will result in any ministerial posts for the party leaders. But it is not necessary to be a political cynic to expect that in due course…
Partyforumseasia: With huge amounts of development aid and investments flowing into Cambodia, relatively low paid jobs and industries have been created, giving at least to the capital Phnom Penh a veneer of success and normality compared to the other big cities in the region. But underemployment and poverty are still too visible and contrast with posh villas and the big SUVs of the rich. Belated trials against Khmer Rouge criminals in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) are bringing back memories but the younger generation is not very interested. The country has gone through so unspeakably cruel times and experiences that the older generation of survivors probably prefer to forget as much as possible. But the deadly memories may still linger in the social fabric of the country.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre, is certainly not known for a soft style with political opponents. With his survival instinct he rules Cambodia since 1985 and ranks now as no. 7 on the “List of current longest ruling non-royal national leaders” world wide (Wikipedia). Two very recent news items, both dated 26 October and concerning Mr. Hun Sen are remarkable:
1. “Opposition lawmakers Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Saphea were beaten and severely injured by protesters outside the National Assembly on Monday morning during a demonstration demanding that CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha step down as the parliament’s vice president.” According to the Cambodia Daily (Link here) the demonstration was supervised by heavy police presence, but the traffic police closer to the cars of the victims did not interfere. Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself confronted with protests in Paris, signaled from there that he respects the right to demonstrate, and an official of his ruling Cambodian People’s Party CPP denied that the demonstration was organized by them. Party spokesman Sok Eysan regretted that the demonstration got out of control but has doubts that the perpetrators can be found.
2. Under the headline “Hun Sen, Pondering Defeat, Has War on Mind”, the Cambodia Daily (Link here) reports a series of threats the Prime Minister is publishing for the case that the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) should win the next election in 2018. Though CNRP leader Sam Rainsy has already announced that he would not remove the CPP supporters in the army and the public service, Hun Sen seems to feel that he has to dramatize the possibility of losing power already three years before the election. His horror scenario goes from civil war to the return of the Khmer Rouge. Probably one can trust his power and survival instinct. If he feels that early intervention is necessary to nip an opposition victory in the bud he must have sufficient evidence and background as well as secret service information. Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha will take it as an encouragement, but the attacks on the two MPs should be a warning. There are no velvet gloves in Phnom Penh.
Partyforumseasia: Thailand is holding some dubious world records, namely the number of military coups and the number of constitutions. Since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, the average life span of a constitution was about four years. The military government under general-prime minister gave up on the last draft after nine months of gestation under rejection pressure from practically all political parties. The most controversial among the 285 articles was the creation of a so called National Strategic Reform and Reconciliation Committee (NSRRC) with the commanders of all the military services and the police and sweeping powers to interfere even after successful elections and the establishment of civilian government. Abandoning the draft constitution extends the military rule through mid 2017.
Meanwhile, the discussions within the new drafting committee (CDC) may give some clues about what the generals want to avoid. Last week a panel of the CDC was discussing the future electoral system and the Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system which was part of the rejected draft constitution. The proponents and supporters had studied the German system which works well for decades now. It gives two votes to the voters, one for a candidate and one for a party of his preference. One argument against its adoption was that it would necessitate an electronic system not available so fast in Thailand, which it does not have in Germany either, though. The system was seen as a safeguard against one-party rule and favoring coalition governments and smaller parties. For the generals, meanwhile, coalition governments with possibly a multitude of small parties may seem too weak to reconcile the country and push for consolidating necessary reforms.
A viable reform of Thailand’s democratic institutions hits the ceiling of decades of wrong developments. This was openly addressed by Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, former chairman of the political reform committee under the now-defunct National Reform Council, by saying that the major challenge to the Thai system was that most of the MPs came to power through election fraud. Century-old patterns of leadership in the social structures have undermined the establishment of really free and fair elections and advanced the continuous proliferation of vote buying and violent intimidation of voters. The collusion between dubious local business elites („chao pho“) who enjoy profitable concessions and monopolies which often cover partially unlawful activities on one side and politicians, bureaucrats, police and military on the other side as well as more and more „chao pho“ in parliament themselves. The system has been “perfected” over the last few decades by a variety of vote canvassers („hua khanaen“) on local, provincial and regional level who sort of guarantee a mandate to the candidate who offers the best price. To be fair, it must be mentioned that Thailand is not the only country in the region with this problem, among others Indonesia can compete on that level.
The ongoing political uncertainty is aggravated by another major uncertainty, the pending royal succession. But it is not excluded that the military may have a better chance to control the transformation than any unstable coalition government.
For a detailed overview on Thailand’s party politics see: Dusadeeisariyakul, Pimrapaat, Stability and Performance of Political Parties in Thailand
in: Sachsenröder, Wolfgang (ed.), Party Politics in Southeast Asia, Singapore 2014
Available at Amazon, at Barnes & Noble also as e-book
Partyforumseasia: Like in a few countries in Southeast Asia and many more world wide, voting in Singapore’s parliamentary elections is compulsory. As the Elections Department (ELD) announced last week, 155,180 voters did not vote in the recent election. That is 6.3 % of the eligible voters, whereas the voter turnout was 93.7 % out of 2,462,926 voters, a dream turnout compared to most countries, even those with compulsory vote. But casting your vote is easy in a small city state where polling stations are normally well in walking distance from your home.
The non-voters are automatically struck from the registers, but have an easy way of being restored to the voters’ list by explaining their missed opportunity to the Election Department. Acceptable reasons are living overseas or traveling, illness or delivering a baby. Voters can do that online via http://www.eld.gov.sg.
But even if you don’t have an acceptable excuse you can still apply for being restored to the register by paying a fee of S$ 50 ( approx. US$ 36 ). It may be difficult to find out how many Singaporeans have completely dropped out because they did not apply for their restoration to the list, but the high turnout is an argument for the compulsory voting regime. For the tens of thousands of citizens living and working abroad the embassies offer local voting facilities, but only in places like London, Sidney etc. with a sizable number of eligible voters.
Regionally and internationally compulsory voting is not very common. Here is a world map from Wikipedia (Link)
The enforcement is normally as lenient as in Singapore, though the list looks tough for countries like Egypt, Australia and Fidschi, where imprisonment is possible, and Bolivia where the non-voter risks to lose his or her identity card and closure of bank accounts. Doubts about the real enforcement may be allowed, though.
Most countries impose a relatively small fine, but in Luxemburg it can reach up to 250 and in Turkey 130 Euros. Older voters over 70 or 75 are exempted, but all countries remove the non-voters from the registers.
In the overview Wikipedia lists 19 countries with sanctions and 13 with compulsory voting but no sanctions.
Since some countries have given up on compulsory voting one can assume that the decision depends on the expectations of the ruling parties or coalitions, whether they can count on better results with or without. Considerations about how to develop and improve democratic behavior might play a role in the debates but less so in the final decision of the parliaments.
For more details on Singapore’s political system see: Tan, Netina, Institutional Sources of Hegemonic Party Stability in Singapore, in: Sachsenröder, Wolfgang (ed.), Party Politics in Southeast Asia, Singapore 2014.
The book is available at Amazon and at Barnes & Noble also as e-book:
The upcoming presidential campaigns in the Philippines and the USA
Partyforumseasia: Self-confidence is certainly a prerequisite for candidates running for leadership posts. And as political psychologists have found out, even overblown self-confidence seems to signal competence and leadership qualities to the voters. In the USA the top job attracts surprising numbers of “wannabes” despite the grueling burden of responsibilities. C-Span website “Road to the White House 2016” (Link) lists 24 declared candidates, and Politics1 (Link) includes all sorts of hopefuls in the hundreds. Internationally in the media and quite high in the polls in the US is flamboyant candidate Donald Trump who has at least highly developed skills in self marketing. Jeb Bush with his handicap of being son and brother of former presidents obviously comes across as too boring though he would probably be much more qualified for the job than Trump.
In comparison, the Philippines are even more open to colorful and flamboyant candidates than the US. Partyforumseasia has taken up the topic already on 24 September. But the pre-campaign is getting more colorful by the day. According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Oct. 6th, (Link) “Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. is going solo in his quest for the vice presidency.” Since the elections of president and vice president are held on the same day but separately (Article II Sec. 13 of the OMNIBUS ELECTION CODE OF THE PHILIPPINES) a president elect can be confronted with an unwanted vice president elect.
Bongbong Marcos is a senator since 2010 and seems to be acceptable to the voters despite the shadow of his father. Support by political fossils like his 86 year old mother Imelda, former president and now mayor of Manila Joseph Estrada (78), and controversial “eternal politician” Juan Ponce Enrile (91) may not be very appealing to the young voters, bu help him at least to keep his campaign budget healthy. Playing down his privileged youth and education he says: “I humbly ask them (the voters) to judge whether or not I am worthy of their trust to be Vice President on the strength of my performance as a public servant in the last 26 years: first as former vice governor and governor of Ilocos Norte, then as representative of the second district of Ilocos Norte and finally, as a senator of the country.”
Somewhat more disturbing for Non-Philippinos is the candidacy of another senator. Gregorio Ballesteros Honasan II, better known as Gringo Honasan, participated in the EDSA revolution ousting president Marcos, but staged an unsuccessful coup in 1987 against democracy icon Cory Aquino. Imprisoned and escaped, he was pardoned by president Fidel Ramos in 1992. According to an interesting Wikipedia formulation, Honasan “utilized his rebel infamy to enter politics in 1995, becoming the first independent candidate in Philippine history to win a seat in the Senate”, and is serving his fourth term now.
During last week he declared that he is not teaming up with vice president Jejomar Binay because of unbridgeable differences in policies, but his flamboyant and somewhat adventurous image may give him a realistic chance.
Whereas the entertainment value of flamboyant candidates is evident, the Liberal Party candidate Manuel “Mar” Roxas may be more presidentiable, but at least at the moment he remains in the media shadow of the flamboyants, a bit like Jeb Bush with Trump and others in the US. But Roxas has found an attractive running mate with Leni Robredo, the widow of popular politician Jesse Robredo who died in a plane crash in 2012. Their poll results are improving since the announcement of the team agreement.
If we ask whether flamboyant politicians can be good leaders, Partyforumseasia tends to be skeptical. From Mussolini, Hitler and Mao Tse Dong to Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi and the Kim dynasty in North Korea, flamboyant leaders may be successful in a certain sense but for good governance the dependable and sober “paperclips” are certainly a much better choice.
Partyforumseasia: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is campaigning hard for the upcoming elections. But strategic shortcomings of the NLD campaign threaten to damage her aura as democracy icon. Like many politicians who have suffered under authoritarian governments for so long she feels entitled to lead the nation. But she might miss the right timing and see the political development bypass her. Without diminishing her merit and service to the nation by keeping up democratic hope against the military regime, a sad end to her political career is not excluded.
See the analysis by Nicholas Farrely in the Myanmar Times (Link)
Partyforumseasia: The United States of America and the Philippines have quite a few things in common.One feature they share rather visibly at the moment is the long preparation for the next presidential election, due in the US in November 2016 and in the Philippines in May. Since President Aquino‘s term has boosted the Liberal Party, they understandably try to continue with a liberal candidate and field interior secretary Manuel Roxas. His hopes to get popular senator Grace Poe as team mate have failed since Grace Poe seems to run increasingly away in all polls and “offers herself” for the post. The Philippine Daily Enquirer praises her sensible stand on many raging issues which has earned her plaudits from the public, her clean persona and intimate connections with show biz royalty, another similarity with the USA. But with Francis Escudero, a fellow senator, as her choice of running mate she may undermine her “presidentiable” image. Escudero has a record of supporting former president Estrada who was impeached for corruption but resurfaced as mayor of Manila.
Another quite popular team of candidates is formed by vice president Jejomar Binay who is facing a corruption probe and Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. , son of ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos who allegedly syphoned away between five and ten billion US$ during his terms in office.
Voters in the Philippines, either a forgiving lot or cynical about their political class or both, seem to enjoy the presidential race and its entertaining aspects and don’t mind the expenses, like the American voters.
Historical links between the US and the Philippines:
The USA indirectly supported the Philippine Revolution which ended about 350 years of Spanish colonial rule by their own war against Spain in 1898. Spain ceded the Philippines to the US for 200 million $. One of the leaders against the Spanish occupation, Emilio Aguinaldo, born in 1869 was the first president of the Philippines from 1899 to 1901.
The contemporary illustration in a French journal (1901) shows Aguinaldo’s capture by US forces:
But the US quickly ended the dream of independent statehood by establishing her own colonialism in 1901. Limited self-rule granted in 1935 under president Quezon was soon interrupted by the Japanese invasion, full independence came only in 1946.
The Spanish heritage is still visible in the family names and many Spanish words in the national language Tagalog. What persists from the US-rule is widespread English with local pronunciation, the presidential system and many other legal features, the education system, close military cooperation, and 3.4 million Philippinos in the US.
Partyforumseasia: Founded in November 1951, PAS was itself splitting from the United Malay National Organization UMNO, but allowed dual membership in the beginning. It championed Malay and Muslim rights and the recognition of Islam as state religion which was somewhat contradicting the founding principle of Malaysia as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country with full citizenship for the massive Chinese and Indian immigration under the British colonial rule. The contradiction has festered until today and generated a party system along racial lines with UMNO and PAS competing for the Malay Muslim vote, especially in the more conservative rural areas.
The opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat or People’s Alliance consisting of Anwar Ibrahim‘s racially open Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), PAS and the Chinese dominated DAP seemed to blur the ideological divisions until PAS president Abdul Hadi‘s push to introduce Hudud (Muslim penal code regulations) in Kelantan exposed the internal fault lines in PAS and triggered the break-up of the Pakatan Rakyat.
But not all PAS members are following the hard-line Muslim clerics under Hadi Awang, the so called “ulama” faction. A minority formed the “Erdogan” faction, when the Turkish president was still considered a moderate Muslim leader, but lost all leadership posts in internal party elections earlier this year.
Splitting from PAS in big numbers now, the moderates have founded a new party under the name of “Parti Amanah Negara” (in short “Amanah” = trust or fulfilling one’s obligations in Arabic).
The new party’s president Mohamad Sabu aka Mat Sabu was a deputy president of PAS since 2011 and moderate challenger of the clerical hardliners. In a statement during the launching of the party he said the new political platform is committed to continue the legacy of political Islam, but realizing that Malaysia is a country of people from diverse social and religious backgrounds, Amanah interprets Islam in a more holistic and inclusive manner. In an era of increasing Arab influence in the country a shift to moderate and more open alternatives should be welcome.
Amanah was officially launched on 17 September with thousands of supporters attending and claiming that more than 30,000 members are already joining, including non-Muslims and over a hundred lawyers.
With DAP veteran Lim Kit Siang also attending the meeting it is clear that the new party is most welcome to replace PAS in the opposition coalition. Amanah, though, states its openness to co-operate with PAS, but president Hadi Awang as leader of the hardliners has immediately excluded any truce with the “traitors”. Nevertheless, discussions on the rejuvenation of the opposition coalition as “Pakatan Rakyat 2.0” are underway with PKR and DAP, because without the massive remaining membership potential of the old PAS there is no chance of ousting UMNO and its coalition partners from their entrenched power position, despite the extreme pressure on prime minister and UMNO-leader Najib Razak with the embarrassing 1MDB financial scandal.
If the break-up of the opposition looked like a timely relief and victory for the government, it is matched by the slow erosion of the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional by the marginalization of smaller component parties which were kept alive by massive financial support from UMNO anyway.
Malaysia needs urgently strong and united leadership to get out of the crisis. Unfortunately, the ruling and government coalitions look equally weakened.
Partyforumseasia: Political charisma comes in many different forms. Dictators like Hitler, Stalin or Mao didn’t have to smile because they instilled fear and terror to everyone around them, and they continue to fascinate many people until today. According to Max Weber’s classical definition they are set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional qualities. But Weber also cautions that the recognition on the part of those subject to their authority is decisive for their power. This brutal type of charisma has nothing to do with the ancient Greek meaning of χάρισμα (khárisma) as “gift of grace”.
In democratic systems, even the flawed ones, leaders and candidates have to be attractive in more charming ways. One of the most important tools of anybody who tries to attract others is of course a smile. From sales personal and pick up artists to preachers and politicians all get advice from psychologists and strategy gurus. For all the basics of an attractive and bonding smile the French physician Duchenne has done the groundwork more than 150 years ago. For being convincing it must come from the limbic system, the emotional steering centre of the brain, and most people can detect the difference between a sincere “Duchenne smile” and an artificial looking “cheese smile” by the raised cheeks and crow’s feet around the eyes. They are correct at a rate of sixty per cent, but leave a chance of forty per cent for the fakers to fool their target group.
Many politicians are not sufficiently informed about the difference but could get useful coaching from the more sophisticated sales promotion industry. There is plenty of literature, training seminars and research on how to fake a genuine smile, constant smile exercise in front of your mirror being a must for success in sales. So far the grey zone how convincing “fake sincere smiles” can be is still unknown. And, also in terms of a scientific approach, the genetic roots of smiles are ambivalent enough.
Apes bare their lower fangs as a warning that they may bite, and chimpanzees differentiate between a submissive “fear face” which resembles already a human smile and a “play face” with corners of the mouth and eyes drawn upwards. According to psychologists the human smile is serving the same purpose, showing that you are not threatening and asking to be accepted on a personal level. Signalling a fake smile is also the baring of the bottom teeth, among primates a clear sign of aggressive attitudes. And if you observe your political candidates, genuine smiles are late-coming, they don’t appear instantly on demand.
Dominant persons like president Putin and his foreign minister Lawrow or Margaret Thatcher and Charles Bronson don’t smile because they don’t want to be seen as submissive in any way.
On this background the effects of smiling leaders are politically rather interesting. Once the big boss ventures a smile, the whole entourage smiles automatically as well. And even more intense, followers and admirers are so pleased to be close to their idol that their smiles come close to extacy.
Messianic expectations of voters and supporters can go into unbelievable dimensions, but are frequently matched by overblown self-confidence of politicians. And psychologists (Link) have found out that over-confident leaders are seen as strong, competent and charismatic and not as potentially failing because of their unrealistic self-image. Another study (Link) concludes “When managed well, the social status conferred by overconfidence has an aura just shy of magical, capable of keeping our attention diverted from measurable results. (…) Belief sells, whether it’s true or not. In the case of overconfidence, the belief in one’s ability—however out of proportion to reality—generates its own infectious energy. Self-deception is a potent means of convincing the world to see things your way.”
Overconfidence is often very close or overlapping with narcissism, one of the motivations for self-styled candidates. A study on “Narcissistic Personality and Politics: Smiling while Insulting” (Link) states that “Personality disorders are represented in politics to a larger degree than the general population” and concludes that politicians “require excessive admiration. Just take a look at the rallies and gatherings they experience on a regular basis with people holding signs and calling their name. Politicians and actors are the only people who experience that kind of adulation. It certainly isn’t unique to see actors becoming politicians and politicians becoming actors. They have very similar personalities.”
Under the title “Humble leaders build high-performing companies” a recent (December 2014) study by Arizona State University (Link) the research team found for business leaders: “With top management working together, an empowering organizational climate emerges, prompting middle managers to become more engaged and committed and to perform better at their jobs, according to the model.” The study is also suggesting to study the influence of Confucianism on leadership in Asia. The article is too new to have influenced Singapore’s PAP, but it seems to describe its successful cooperation style in the top management.
Election results world wide seem to confirm the above findings in many ways, but, fortunately, in many places as well, rational and responsible leadership prevails nevertheless…
Partyforumseasia: Singapore’s dominant and long-term government party PAP has surprised everybody from political observers, journalists and the opposition to its own membership with a sweeping victory of 69.9 % in yesterday’s (11.09) general election.
In a rather colorful nine day official campaign Workers’Party (WP) and Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) especially managed to pull huge crowds and rouse the expectations of their supporters.
And nota bene: These results still look rather mild for the opposition parties because they calculate their percentage on the votes in constituencies they contested. Only the PAP had fielded candidates for all 89 seats. If calculated on the total number of valid votes the two main opposition parties look much more miserable:
Total number of valid votes: 2,257,016 Invalid/rejected votes: 47,315 (2%)
Voter turnout: 93.56%
Workers’Party (WP) share of all valid votes: 12.48%
Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) share of all valid votes: 3.75%
The Workers’Party narrowly retained the group constituency in Aljunied and more convincingly one single member constituency, losing one other it had won 2 1/2 years ago in a by-election. All seven other opposition parties did not win any seat but three candidates will be offered a seat as Non Constituency MP as “best losers”.
The media are talking about a two thirds majority which in reality is closer to four fifths. But calling the results “undemocratic” or “reminding of North Korea”, as losing party leaders said in their disappointment, is certainly far from justifiable. The first-past-the-post electoral system is not helpful for small opposition parties, sure, but all in all space of maneuvering, access to mainstream media including TV coverage, allocation of big open spaces for rallies, canvassing, and publication of pamphlets were free and fair enough. The ruling party could bank on its track record of running the country with exceptional and corruption free success plus the financial means to improve nearly on all practical aspects of the citizens’ lives. Attacking the government for underground train disruptions or increasing prices for food and health care did not resonate with the PAP supporters, nor could criticisms of the compulsory savings fund CPF, which includes in the meantime a lifelong pension scheme after retirement, mobilize a population of (close to 90 %) home owners against the government. The privileges of citizenship in the city state contrast quite favorably with what most other countries have to offer, including the neighbors in Asia. So the opposition parties tried to harp on the importance and usefulness of opposition voices in parliament as checks and balances but obviously the silent majority does not care too much for more controversial debate. Nearly 70 % seem to think that the PAP government is caring enough and has sufficient foresight to lead Singapore into an even better future.
Winner takes all
Loser loses all