Malaysia: Politics for God, for the People, or for the Party?


Partyforumseasia: During the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Christian Democrats have been strong in several Western European countries. With over 40% they are still the dominant force in Germany, though the Christian element (the “C”) in its name does not play a big role in practical politics because under a secular constitution religion is considered to be private.
Hadi 2PAS president Hadi Awang has some reason for concern

In predominantly Muslim countries like Malaysia religion plays a bigger role, and at least for the Friday prayers mosque attendance is much more subject to peer-group control, in rural communities more than in bigger cities. Religious credentials are important factors for political careers and open support for Islam is a must for Malay candidates in election campaigns. The competition for Malay Muslim votes between two big mainstream parties, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) has triggered even more importance on religious issues for a couple of decades. Both are targeting the same Malay constituencies, especially in the rural areas, because of the relatively small number of voters per precinct and the better chances to get elected.
With the “holier than thou”- competition the nation has changed from a more relaxed religious atmosphere only two or three decades ago to much more peer-group pressure on the Muslims with elements spilling over to the minority religions. Restaurants have to be halal, alcohol is no longer flowing so freely, and gender relations are getting more difficult. The world-wide Muslim resurgence including fundamentalist currents are finding a lot of open doors in the country.
In the last few months, but festering for much longer in the background, the introduction of Muslim criminal law elements (or hudud), especially corporal punishment, has highlighted the fault lines in Malaysia’s society, though the constitution is giving equal rights to the strong minorities and their religions, and the British-inherited legal system is basically secular.
The PAS-controlled federal state of Kelantan has passed a law on the implementation of HUDUD in the local parliament on 18 March, and UMNO had no choice but to support the motion. For its final implementation the law needs approval from the national parliament, and many politicians and lawyers think it is unconstitutional.
Though the requirements for male (!) witnesses are high, the punishments are harsh in the 21st century. For theft (2 witnesses) a hand or both have to be amputated. For extramarital sex (4 witnesses!!!??) it is 100 lashes for unmarried and stoning to death for married persons. Drinking of intoxication substances (2 witnesses) costs 40 to 80 lashes. If this sounds archaic for modern Muslims already, the reaction of non-Muslims is also strong, though hudud is supposed to apply only to Muslims. In a multi-religious society like the Malaysian there a many mixed families and many non-Muslims can be affected.

Strategy-wise:   In this complex situation there a rather different outcomes for the Malaysian political parties:

1. PAS is proud of higher religious standards than UMNO anyway. Stating it again is not providing much additional mileage. But they have a leadership problem after their spiritual leader Nik Aziz passed away. Party chairman Hadi Awang, also a Muslim scholar, is not uncontested internally. His dogmatic attitude and his alleged openness for cooperation with UMNO are criticized by the so called “Erdogan faction”. Hadi is heading the more conservative “ulama faction” and may face a grassroots revolt. More than half of the party’s committee in its Batu branch has resigned in protest a few days ago.

2. UMNO has been leading a coalition of 18 parties, maximizing its votes with the help of the Chinese, Indian and indigenous ethnic component parties. These allies are against the hudud implementation, though they know that UMNO cannot be seen to be against it in the Malay constituencies in more conservative rural areas on whose support UMNO’s survival depends. But the threat of being voted out is only there as long as the opposition coalition is united and strong. Its leader Anwar Ibrahim neutralized in prison for the next five years, dividing the opposition and maybe even splitting PAS would mean practically ending the threat. But strategies often backfire, and the hudud dilemma could add to the pressure on Prime Minister Najib by Dr. Mahathir and his friends.

3. Pakatan Rakyat, the opposition coalition composed of PAS, Chinese dominated DAP, and Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, is actually close to breaking up. All non-Muslim members are against hudud and have suspected PAS of secretly dealing with UMNO for quite some time already. With Anwar in prison the “coalition of strange bedfellows”, united only by its fight against the government, is more unstable than ever.

4. The greater public: Non-Muslims anyway, but also Muslims with doubts about the more than creeping religious intolerance in the country are not fully convinced that the hudud policies are only religiously motivated. Leadership struggles in PAS and UMNO make it rather obvious that the hudud drive is not totally for God or the people but all too visibly party politics. Like in countries like Iran, where the clerics in power are detrimental to the acceptance of Islam, the turmoil created by PAS may turn out to be negative for the political development and the religion alike.

5. The social climate: A presenter at business radio station BFM 89.9 who discussed the question whether the hudud implementation would help to fill the country’s rice bowls in a video published on YouTube received death and rape threats and is under police investigation. She has apologized publicly saying that she regretted her tone and demeanor in the video and that she would never mock or insult any religion, let alone her own. The incident shows the raw nerves in the domestic debate and cast doubts on Malaysia’s  image as a moderate Muslim country.

Political Parties As They Come and Go…


Partyforumseasia: Three pieces of advice were quite shocking for the editor of this page when he joined a party as an idealistic young student: 1. Former German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s warning about inner-party competition in three steps, “enemy, mortal enemy, party comrade”… 2. Former US President Theodore Roosevelt’s warning that if you need a friend in Washington you better buy a dog, and 3. The claim of a party veteran, “No power in the world can destroy our party, only we ourselves…”
Political parties come and go, some rather fast, some more slowly. Southeast Asia has many of the first kind, but also quite a number of very resilient ones, most of them in power for decades. The self-destruction by infighting and power struggles can be observed in three interesting cases at the moment, namely Golkar and National Mandate Party (PAN) in Indonesia and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).

GolkarGolkar is the oldest party in Indonesia with decades of a very privileged ruling monopoly under President Suharto. Adapting to the democratic era it has survived so far (with 91 out of 560 seats in parliament), but ambitious chairman Aburizal Bakrie‘s failed gamble in the presidential election and sticking to the losing coalition may eventually destroy the party. An anti-Bakrie faction may prefer more flexibility and has elected a rival chairman, former welfare minister Agung Laksono. On 3 March, two of the four judges on the internal party tribunal have voted for him as legitimate leader, two others avoided a decision and want the case to be decided by a court of law instead. The Central Jakarta District Court had already earlier refused to invalidate the party’s Bali congress which re-elected Bakrie. This way Golkar has two competing factions with two chairmen fighting for legitimation. Without a binding decision of the internal party tribunal and the obvious reluctance of the courts to tip the scale, the party risks to break up and become irrelevant without a role in government. A European-style way out would be a ballot including all party members, but the fluidity of party membership in Indonesia might exclude this alternative anyway.

PANThe leadership feud in the National Mandate Party (PAN), with 49 out of 560 parliamentary seats, has similar roots as the one in Golkar. Chairman Hatta Rajasa, who was Probowo Subianto‘s running mate in their unsuccessful candidacy against President Jokowi, was narrowly defeated (292-286 votes) by challenger Zulkifli Hasan. The new chairman’s victory was supported by party stalwart Amien Rais who alleged in the party congress that Hatta Rajasa had secretly met with Jokowi and was not faithful to the Prabowo coalition, known as Red-White Coalition or KMP. Loser Prabowo’s inability to concede defeat after the presidential election in July 2014 is still creating ripples in the political party scene of Indonesia.

MICThe Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) was for many years the useful vote getter among Malaysia’s Indian citizens on behalf of UMNO and its National Front or Barisan Nasional coalition but is down to 4 seats out of 222 in parliament in the 2013 election. The crisis followed a decision of the  Registrar of Societies to nullify the internal elections in November and directing the party to hold fresh elections for the three vice-presidential and 23 Central Working Committee (CWC) posts. Since then members of the CWC are challenging the Registrar of Societies order in court in order to maintain the November results. Once at the courts it looks impossible to find an internal compromise. As usual, voters are disappointed and question the quality of the leadership, a common paradox in democracy, which is about debate over policy solutions and compromise.
Dangerous for the party and its survival is above all a public debate about its relevance for the Indian Malaysians. Not surprisingly, prominent Indians and many letters to the editor of Malaysian newspapers say very clearly that the MIC is not serving the Indian community at all.
Nota bene: Political parties are all and always work in progress and turn easily into endangered species!

PS: To be continued…

“Southeast Asian Elections Worst in the World” ?


Partyforumseasia: Max Grömping, researcher and co-author of the Electoral Integrity Project (see our last post) has published an article on elections in our region in University of Sydney’s New Mandala (Link here). El. SEA 1

We take it up as an important follow-up, though the headline “Southeast Asian Elections Worst in the World” sounds a bit too bad to be completely true. The 2013-2014 survey is covering only 107 countries, so the worst performers in Africa and Latin America are not in and drag Southeast Asia to the bottom of the comparison.

El. SEA 2Even with this caveat the Perception of Electoral Integrity (PEI) index for Southeast Asia is certainly disappointing enough and cries for reform and improvement in order to match the growing economic weight of the region.
Please read and evaluate Grömping’s assessments and conclusions yourself. Unfortunately, there is nothing much to add in favor of the five countries covered and the local electoral shortcomings. As Partyforumseasia repeatedly highlighted, the political finance or money politics issue is probably the most important Achilles’ heel, where even top rated Western Europe is not fully in the green area.

But Max Grömping offers some hope in his conclusions as well: “But if nothing else, the post-election protests in Malaysia and Cambodia, the small but continuous signs of discontent in Thailand, as well as the vibrant civil society efforts to strengthen electoral integrity in the Philippines and Indonesia show that citizens across the region are fiercely protective of their vote. This demand for democracy is currently met with an under-supply. But it does not need to stay that way.”

Clean Elections in Southeast Asia?


Partyforumseasia: Political parties, when in power, make vital decisions on behalf of their countries and populations. But not surprisingly, they also keep an eye on their own interests, especially regarding their re-election. “Free and fair elections” is a nice promise, but many political parties are not too keen on creating or maintaining the level playing field which could make it more difficult for themselves and more fair for their competitors. From grey areas in the electoral legislation to more or less visible gerrymandering and hundreds of other  tricks to manipulate the outcome of elections, nothing is unknown to Southeast Asia.

The Electoral Integrity Project at the University of Sydney, Australia, (www.electoralintegrityproject.org) has published a very relevant report called “The Year in Elections, 2014“, subtitle “The World’s Flawed and Failed Contests” (Link here).

Electoral Integrity 2014 map

Similar to the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) by Transparency International, the project has compiled a database which allows to measure the level of fairness in elections, the Perception of Electoral Integrity (PEI) index.
The list covers 127 countries, led by, no surprise, the usual champions in Northern Europe with Norway on top (PEI 86.6). The criteria applied are: electoral laws, electoral procedures, district boundaries, voter registration, party and candidate registration, media coverage, campaign finance, voting process, vote count, results, and electoral authorities.
Where does Southeast Asia fare with the last elections? Here are the results for 2013 and 2014:

Nr.                                       election date                    PEI index
____________________________________________________

51  Indonesia                        9.7.2014                          68.1
82  Indonesia                        9.4.2014                          62.3
88  Thailand                          2.2.2014                          60.6
91  Phillipines                      13.5.2013                          58.8
114  Malaysia                         5.5.2013                         48.4
120  Cambodia                     28.7.2013                         45.6

Surprise? Not really, but chances for improvement…

First Book Covering Eight ASEAN Countries Is Out


Partyforumseasia: Before the start of this blog there was a research project in the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore. It tried to add a more hands-on approach to the often theory laden political science literature on political parties in Southeast Asia, to study and describe their organizational structures, the internal hierarchies and funding mechanisms, and especially to cover as many countries as possible. We managed to bring together a team of authors from eight of the ten ASEAN countries. Since Brunei Darussalam has no parties, only Laos is missing because we could not find a local scholar willing or allowed to join. ISEAS accepted our manuscript for publication already in 2012, but due to unexpected delays did not finalize copy-editing and printing in time. This is why we decided to publish the book with the super-efficient Create Space, a subsidiary of Amazon. The book is now available at http://www.amazon.com, a very affordable e-book version should be out shortly.

Amazon Party Politics SEA