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.