How Many Parties???


Partyforumseasia: The last edition of the British News Magazine “The Economist“, January 14th, runs two articles on the ideal number of parties in a parliament. The first one comes with the headline “More choice is a good thing, but within limits”, the second one focuses on the ever more splintered party landscapes in Europe with the headline “That means better representation but clunkier governance”. (LINK)
econoIn contrast to the widespread proportional systems on the European continent, the UK has had little experience with coalitions (conservatives and LibDems under PM Cameron after 2010 are not a good example). The British First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) majoritarian system is probably no longer reflecting the cleavages in the society, and the successful years of ideological parties like Labour and other Socialists are even more outdated.

Now, what does the number of political parties mean in Southeast Asia? And does it have an impact on good or bad governance?
For a start, here is a comparison of the numbers:
number-of-parties

 

 

 

 

 

 

In general, the electoral processes reduce the number of political parties in the parliaments of Southeast Asia but don’t prevent smaller parties or independent candidates to enter. With the maturation of the political systems and the better informed electorate, parties everywhere feel some pressure to accommodate competition and opposition one way or the other.

The “other” way can be seen in Cambodia, where a ruling party under strongman Hun Sen feels threatened by a more united opposition or in Malaysia under similar circumstances. Since the old ways of buying over the voters are not safe enough, the strategy at hand is simply destroying the opposition leaders by physical intimidation and series of dubious lawsuits.

Indonesia has made regulatory efforts to keep the number of parties manageable. In a political culture where leaders, and especially rich ones for that matter, are more important than ideologies or party programs, that is quite an achievement. The enormous flexibility of parties and politicians in this country helps to bridge differences and create sufficient support for the president, who, of course, has jobs and positions to offer in return.

Laos and Vietnam are the remaining Communist one-party-systems, but they are increasingly forced to accommodate dissent for economic reasons. Vietnam is more advanced than Laos, a more open system to observe as paradigm for slowly growing pluralism.

Malaysia has many parties but too many among them are mere component parties, 12 of them are subsidiaries of the dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which is seen by a majority of Malaysians as abusing money politics to stay in power. The ongoing scandal about  vanished billions involving the Prime Minister underlines the suspicions.

Myanmar struggles with her ethnic division and cleavages and is in the beginning of her democratic self-finding process, but the towering popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi has solved the party problem in the parliament by giving her National League for Democracy an absolute  majority of nearly 60%.

The Philippines has a vibrant party scene which does not play a big role, though, because in the presidential system the elected president can count on more than enough party hopping MPs to join him.

Singapore is an interesting case insofar as founding a party is relatively easy, but winning a seat in parliament is rather difficult. Decades of a dominant People’s Action Party (PAP) rule with good results for most citizens have left little space for opposition parties which have no chance to prove that they have administrative skills. Since only the Worker’s Party has made it into the parliament, the PAP-government has introduced a pseudo or ersatz opposition in the form of “nominated MPs” to enrich the debates, and “Non-constituency MPs” as consolation prize for the best losers among opposition candidates.

Thailand has not yet found her balance between democratic aspirations, traditional money politics and military interventionism. Many doubt that the coming new constitution, supervised by the army, will bring at last political stability to the country.

Comparing the increasing fragmentation of the European party scenes with the situation in Southeast Asia yields rather ambivalent assessments:

1. Voter turnout higher in representative systems? The level of politicization and polarization, as well as parties or candidates seem to be more important.

2. Big parties more disciplined than coalitions? Depends probably more on leadership and availability of lucrative positions and funding.

3. Splintering can foster graft? No difference between one-party systems and coalitions, the Southeast Asian way of mixing politics and business is too conducive to corruption.

4. Coalition governments more expensive because they have more mouths to feed? In Malaysia certainly, but all governments have to stay in power and pay to satisfy their clientele.

5. Strange bedfellows in coalitions? Sure, but bigger parties are anything but close to homogeneous.

6. Party membership on the decline? That depends very much on what membership can offer. 3 1/2 million members in Malaysia’s UMNO alone show that members join if they can expect rewards.

7. New policies need new parties to champion them? Not really a successful model in Southeast Asia. New parties normally cannot promise much and deliver even less.

Conclusion: There is not much to learn from European party concepts in Southeast Asia where they were adopted only superficially. Level playing fields are rare and voters are realistically going for governments who can be expected to deliver more.

Ideologies and party programs have lost their appeal in Europe but were never important in Southeast Asia.

Party and Campaign Funding: Is Malaysia Already a Plutocracy?


Partyforumseasia: International IDEA is very clear about the trend world-wide: Big money is taking over:
“…unequal access to political finance contributes to an unequal political playing field. The rapid growth of campaign expenditure in many countries has exacerbated this problem. The huge amounts of money involved in some election campaigns make it impossible for those without access to large private funds to compete on the same level as those who are well funded.” (See IDEA’s Handbook on Political Finance, freely downloadable from their website. (Link here)
The fact as such is not really new, Julius Caesar used enormous sums for his political maneuvers and was never reluctant to go into debt for their funding. But the proliferation of vested business interests in elections from local to national levels threatens to damage the rationality of policies and a balanced accommodation of the broader interests of a society.
Election-FlagsFor a case study of Malaysia see the following article in Malaysia Today, 18 September 2014 (Link here):                                                       by Rita Jong, The Ant Daily
In the mid-1990s, a young politician from a Barisan Nasional component party was picked as a candidate for a state assembly seat. Being a newbie, he naively expected that all component parties in the constituency would campaign for him in the spirit of brotherhood. When that didn’t happen, he asked his party elders and found out that he had to first make “contributions” to the branch chairmen of all the parties to help “pay for expenses like petrol and food and beverages”. His rude awakening to the realities of politics came when he found out the going rate then was RM10,000 to RM20,000 per branch, depending on the number of volunteers involved. “I had to dig deep into my own pockets to pay for their help.” The politician learnt fast that there were big companies he could approach for political donations, and he made use of this channel in later campaigns that even involved throwing expensive dinners underwritten by these companies. It seems such a practice is not confined to elected representatives from the ruling coalition, especially after the watershed 2008 general election. A businessman, who declined to be named, told The Heat that in the last general election, he was instrumental in arranging several opposition candidates in Selangor to meet property development companies for donations to fund campaigns. “The sums were not large; between RM10,000 and RM20,000 each. Some donors asked for help to ease approvals for their projects, while others said they didn’t need anything at that time. This meant they would call in a favour if the need arose,” he said, adding that because Selangor is administered by Pakatan Rakyat, it was easier to seek funding. Election candidates do get funds from their parties, but the amount is usually token. Candidates, especially those in “hot” seats and those with a track record to maintain, will go all out for a win, and often have to spend the maximum that is legally allowed, although it is known that many exceed the cap. Just how much is needed? A 2008 court case gives an idea. In that high-profile case, Elegant Advisory Sdn Bhd claimed RM218 million from Umno for the supply of bottled drinking water, mineral water cartons, posters, buntings, and other election paraphernalia for the Barisan Nasional’s 2004 general election campaign. The company lost the suit on the grounds that there was no written agreement. The Election Offences Act (1954) sets the allowed campaign expenses per candidate at RM100,000 for state seats and RM200,000 for federal seats. Going by such figures alone, and the fact there were 505 state seats and 222 parliamentary seats in the 2013 general election, the BN’s maximum allowance expenses would have been about RM95 million. Using the claim by Elegant Advisory as a guide, it is safe to say the BN would have spent much more than RM95 million in GE13. Dr Wolfgang Sachsenroeder, an associate fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, in a new academic paper published recently, claimed that Umno spent RM1.5 billion in the 2004 election. “Knowing how close the GE13 was expected to be, the estimations of between RM2 billion and RM3 billion don’t seem to be far-fetched,” he wrote. On a request from The Heat, he said the estimations were based on a long list of items like transfers from parties to candidates, transportation, ceramah and concerts, millions of flags and posters, events sponsored by local branches, food and salaries of campaign helpers, cash handouts to the poor, T-shirts and other paraphernalia, and the pay rise for civil servants. He said a big portion of expenses came from state coffers, but there were also a lot of donations from companies. In a paper published in the International Institute’s The Journal in 2003, Linda Lim said political parties in Malaysia “solved this problem by going into business themselves – Umno, MCA and MIC all run some of the biggest business conglomerates in the country, using their political position to earn large profits, part of which are plowed back into electoral campaigns to maintain their political position”. Pakatan Rakyat’s fund-raising is also shrouded in secrecy. Sachsenröder said the component parties of PR had obviously found their own ways to attract funding for their development in the years since 2008 when they managed to challenge the BN dominance for the first time. He said the DAP was probably getting more donations from Chinese businessmen unhappy with the MCA and Umno, while PKR may have received donations from non-Umno-linked businesses and middle-class Malaysians. “PAS has cultivated its image of clean politics for decades and thrifty party management based on volunteer contributions by members.” Despite all this, and considering that all political parties stand to gain from maintaining the status quo, it is unlikely there will be any move to create laws that compel disclosure of campaign funds. It is precisely because of this that the public would not know how such funding affects them later in the form of public policies and enforcement of rules. As American political journalist Theodore H. White once said: “The flood of money that gushes into politics today is a pollution of democracy.”Sources told The Heat tycoons and industry captains are willing to make huge donations to government leaders and heads of political parties for their campaigns, with the hope that they would be favourably treated when these people were appointed to powerful positions.When these candidates get elected, it would be payback time. The projects that are carried out by the candidates’ beneficiaries may get the nod, despite protests by the people. It is, however, difficult to prove such interference without disclosure of the names of campaign fund donors.Although most contributions given to candidates come mostly in the form of cash, there are different forms of favours they can pledge. Fund-raising dinners where everything is paid for by benefactors is one of them.Former MCA member and five-term Subang Jaya assemblyman Datuk Lee Hwa Beng tells The Heat that political funds can come from individuals as well as companies, mostly developers.“This is because developers are the ones who would be most affected by the outcome of an election. Hence, developers would usually give both sides of the political divide though the amount may vary,” says Lee, who lost in the 2008 general election.The retired politician says these ‘contributions’ would sometimes be offered voluntarily, or they would be approached at times by the political parties.“Businessmen with no self-interest would also give to the political party they support. Besides that, friends of the candidates would also lend their support,” says Lee.“These contributions would normally be given in cash, so that it would not be traced back to them. The money would be given directly to the candidate alone and not through a political party’s bank account.”Lee admits that based on his experience, most candidates from both sides of the political divide could actually make money from campaigning. The problem is, he says, no one keeps a check on the amount spent and if there is any money left, no one would be the wiser.“In the 2008 general election when the then state government gave us an allocation to contest, I actually had money left over and I returned it after I lost the election.“I do feel it is time we look into regulating this like how they do it in the United States. There is nothing wrong with people donating or contributing to election campaign funds, but the money must be declared. This would then be submitted to the Election Commission to show how the money is spent,” he says.PKR’s Yusmadi Yusoff and former one-term Balik Pulau member of parliament (MP) says that during the 2008 general election, he was given RM15,000 by the central party to campaign and that was all he used to win the election.“I did not source money from any individual, except that a businessman donated two boxes of mineral water for my supporters,” Yusmadi saysHe says sourcing of funds for election campaigns actually makes democracy more expensive. “I know parties like PAS and DAP are quite active in raising their funds during ceramah. They can raise quite a lot, particularly in the urban areas,” says Yusmadi.He says since the 2013 general election, his party’s treasurer at the central level appointed a campaign director for each constituency to monitor campaign donations.“The nexus between political finance, dynamics or leadership can be interpreted based on the local development of the area. For example in Balik Pulau, some development projects are still being carried out despite complaints by locals who claimed they were victimised through forced eviction,” he says.According to the Malaysian Corruption Barometer 2014 released by Transparency-International Malaysia (TI-M) recently, Malaysians ranked political parties as the most corrupt among six key institutions. The police scored second place, followed by public officials or civil servants, the judiciary, parliament or legislature, and business or private sector.TI-M called for more transparency in political financing expenditure for campaigning to curb corruption and stop money politics. It urged the government to regulate financing for all political parties where all forms of contributions and funding must be channelled to an official party account and not into political candidates’ personal bank accounts.DAP election strategist Dr Ong Kian Ming, who is also Serdang MP, says the proposal to regulate political finances would only be viable if there is a genuinely level playing field.“My fear is that this may be used as a tool to ‘scare’ people off from contributing to opposition parties, without controlling the flow of funds to the BN parties through official and non-official channels,” he says.“For example, legislation may be introduced to make it compulsory for political parties to disclose the identity of supporters who make donations above a certain amount but does not stop companies or individuals from giving to BN parties through non-official channels.”Ong says as far as DAP is concerned, the party’s election funds are obtained from supporters who attend ceramah and those who contribute to the party’s bank account.He says candidates also get donations directly from friends, family members and their supporters. He adds that he was not aware of donations from companies.“Some funds are given to the party through its official bank accounts while other funds are channelled to the party branch account to be used for individual candidates. The decision on which account to bank the contributions into is up to the individual supporter,” says Ong.The interdependence of party politics and business sectors – once dubbed as an “incestuous relationship” by veteran opposition politician Lim Kit Siang – is prevalent in low-income and developing nations, more so in Southeast Asia.In reality, political parties and their candidates need the political funds to reach out to voters and to ensure governance. To ban such donations to parties would leave them high and dry, incapable of running an effective campaign.The acceptable compromise would be for clear rules to be created to usher in an era of transparency, so that the “dark money” may be brought into the light. Big companies should donate because they support the party they think will do a good job of governing the country, not because they would get favours from it.

This article was first published in the June 21, 2014 issue of The Heat

For further reading see also:  Aboo Talib, Kartini: The Political Parties in Malaysia, in: Sachsenröder, Wolfgang (ed.): Party Politics in Southeast Asia, Singapore 2014, available at Amazon, Barnes&Noble and other internet book distributors.

Who is Funding Bangkok’s Street Protests?


Partyforumseasia:     According to Akanat Promphan, spokesman of the  People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), the protest activities cost between two and five million Baht (up to 160,000 US$) per day. Where’s the money coming from? That is the headline of the Singapore Straits Times’ Thailand correspondent in an article on January 9th, page A18.
THB donations

Rumours on the internet seem to suspect big companies, especially the ones sidelined by the Puea Thai government. Akanat denies that as “rarely” and holds that ordinary people support the protesters with money, food, tents, or blankets for the cooler nights. He also reports that protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, with declared assets of more than six million US$, has even sold family land to start funding the protests.
The truth is probably a mix of the two and more possibilities, but the sophistication of the operations, including toilets, mobile kitchens, stages, big tents, sound systems and tens of thousands of people, suggest that there is quite a big logistical and planning effort behind it. And given the level of money politics in the country, the cui bono (for who’s benefit) question must be appropriate. If Suthep and the Democrat Party are right in criticizing the Shinawatra corruption (Suthep criticizsed Thaksin’s insider trading already in 1997 in Parliament), they themselves have quite a big skeleton in the cupboard. They narrowly escaped dissolution for an undeclared donation of more than 8 m US$ by a cement company (the legal donation threshold stands at 300.000) in 2005 and were acquitted in 2010 on technical grounds, because the prosecution had failed to follow proper procedures. Many Thais are not convinced that the Democrats are cleaner than Puea Thai and the Thaksin clan.
With the planned shut down of Bangkok coming Monday, 13 January, all friends of Thailand can only hope for a predominantly peaceful continuation of the standoff which is a most dangerous result of the country’s elite failure and political brinkmanship.

Philippino Supreme Court: Throwing out the Baby with the Bath Water?


Partyforumseasia had taken up the pork barreling saga in the Philippines recently. babyYesterday, November 19th 2013, the Supreme Court has declared  the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel fund “unconstitutional”. Many concerned citizens welcome this decision with a sigh of relief, first letters to the editor thank the Lord for this decision.
See (link here) The Manila Times of November 20th.

For the political parties and politicians it will be a severe blow, cutting them off from the most important funding source for their activities and election campaigns. But their shamelessness in the practical handling of kick-backs from development funds in the billions of Pesos and millions of $ has triggered the loudest ever public outcry and the radical decision of the Supreme Court.

The question is now how the political system can find a legal and socially acceptable way of funding parties, politicians and election campaigns. As e.g. the German example shows, even generous public funding is not sufficient. In 2013 the “Campaign Cost Reimbursement” for political parties will amount to 154 million €, but the combined budgets of all eligible parties are being estimated at 450 to 500 m €. Donations are indispensable in every political system but not easy to control and protect against influence peddling and lobbyism.

Philippines: End of Pork Barrel Politics? Party Financing Endangered…


Partyforumseasia: Scandals can speed up necessary reforms. At a time when the strongest ever tropical storm hit the Philippines, one of the ugliest political corruption scandals has started to change the political porklandscape in Manila. Triggered by a whistle-blower, businesswoman and alleged “Pork Queen” Janet Lim Napoles has been exposed as central facilitator for abusing development funds for kickbacks to congressmen and senators. This method of funding politicians and political parties, partially via fake NGOs, was widely known, but never exposed like now. And the alleged dimensions are certainly outrageous in a country with the remaining poverty level of the Philippines. One of the prominent accused is veteran politician Juan Ponce Enrile (89), who only some months ago had to resign as president of the senate because of abusing senate funds. The alleged kickbacks for the multimillionaire are supposed to be 363 million Pesos (more than 8 million US$!!), half of his pork allocation. Other colleagues are liable for similar sums, that means that development funds earmarked for infrastructure projects in the respective constituencies have been used for campaign and party funding, maybe for private purposes as well.
In the face of massive demonstrations during the last few months, also against President Aquino, who won his election with an anti-corruption campaign, politicians have started to back-paddle. As of November 12th, nine senators had already declared that they are waiving their PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) – allocations for 2014.
The political establishment may find other ways of refinancing, though, similar to creative new money politics in Indonesia. Cash transfers being too dangerous now, credit card payments, insurance policies, fixed assets and landed property seem to be a way out…

Appendix: 1 billion Pesos are nearly 23 million US$
PDAF

Political “Dynasties” in Southeast Asia


Partyforumseasia: Political families are not uncommon in party politics, take for example the 41st President of the United States, George H.W. Bush and his son, the 43d President, George W. In Europe it happens less on the top level, but often enough in regional and local politics. The corruption and enrichment scandal in Indonesia’s Banten province and the remarkable career of Mukhriz Mahathir in Malaysia have brought the issue back into the media. MukhrizIn the Mukhriz case two narrowly lost elections, his candidacy for one of UMNO’s vice-presidential posts and the recent by-election in the federal state of Kedah, where he supported the local party candidate, are interpreted as defeat and the campaign support by his father Mahathir Mohamad, 88, a liability, signalling the end of father Mahathir’s overpowering influence in Malaysia’s and UMNO’s politics.
RatuThe Banten case (already posted by Partyforumseasia) has much broader ramifications with family members of the governor Ms Ratu Atut holding seats in the national parliament, mayors, deputy regents and numerous business positions close to politics and administration. Continuing practices of money politics remind many Indonesians too much of Suharto’s family clan and the enrichment of his sons.
If the Banten-related corruption case involving the chief justice of the Constitutional Court should turn out as the tip of the iceberg, as it looks like, it will be more than difficult to fight family dynasties and money politics throughout the huge Indonesian archipelago.
By the way: Partyforumseasia has other (possible) family dynasties on its radar:
Thailand: Not only sister Yingluck, but also son Panthongtae Shinawatra
Malaysia: Mukhriz Mahathir from UMNO and Nik Abduh from PAS
Singapore: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, a successful succession with a long break after his father resigned.

New Overview Paper: Party Financing in Southeast Asia


GlasbergenPartyforumseasia’s editor, Wolfgang Sachsenröder, has presented a comparative paper on party finances at the ICIRD Conference (22-23 August 2013) at Chulalongkorn University Bangkok.

Below you find an abstract.
If you are interested in the topic see the whole paper here:
Political Party Finances in Southeast Asia 1

Party Funding and Party Finances in Southeast Asia(Abstract)
by Wolfgang Sachsenröder, visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, and editor of www.partyforumseasia.org

Southeast Asia, riding on a wave of economic and asset growth in the last few decades, has developed an exaggerated level of money politics and enrichment opportunities for all sorts of political entrepreneurs. The part of political parties in this game and the different methods of securing enough funding for the management of the party machineries and the increasingly costly election campaigns vary from country to country. But the basic pattern can be described as a skilful move to blur the distinction between big business, state funds, and political parties in order to control and manipulate cash flows as the main instrument for coming to power and secure it.

Based on traditional patron-client relationships and the remaining big income gap between mostly rural poor and limited mostly urban middle classes, “pluto-populism” and “pork-barrelling” have become prominent features of party politics everywhere. The overrepresentation of businessmen and bankers in parliaments and governments reflects the interdependence of party politics and business sectors, once dubbed as “incestuous relationship” by veteran opposition politician Lim Kit Siang in Malaysia. And the rising cost of being selected as a candidate or branch leader as well as the goodies to be showered on potential voter groups and party supporters are only a logical consequence of these developments which have hardly been affected by progress in democratic and institutional development. Frustration with the level of corruption is high in Southeast Asia, but the vicious cycle of political cash flows and party politics remains below the necessary domestic debate threshold to lead to radical reforms.
As the Malaysian election campaign for the 5 May 2013 “GE13” has shown, anti-corruption rhetoric strikes a strong chord with large sectors of the electorate, but the well-oiled machinery of the incumbent government coalition could not be defeated. In Indonesia, and certainly similarly in other parts of the region, the anti-corruption sentiments seem to be superseded by resignation. Since all parties are more or less involved, and people are so used to the daily petty corruption, the argument is losing appeal in campaigns, also because even the most corrupt parties use it strategically.

State funding for political parties, not to speak of the generous levels in many European countries (e.g. 154 million Euros in Germany in 2013) is widely unknown in Southeast Asia. An exception is Thailand, which has introduced – after long debates since the mid-1990s – a quite generous party funding system.
Membership fees are more or less symbolic in the region (e.g.Democrat Party, Thailand 20,- THB, PAP, Singapore S$ 18 / year) if collected at all. These contributions to the party funding are practically negligible and certainly no serious part of the parties’ income.

The elections in Malaysia (May 2013) and Cambodia (July 2013) suggest that the electorates are increasingly aware and sick of political corruption and vote for the opposition which they expect to be cleaner.

Will Political Corruption in Southeast Asia Come to an End?


Pork1Partyforumseasia: The funding of party activities and election campaigns is closely related to corruption in many countries in the region. This is why many businessmen are in politics or close to politicians and vice versa. But the enormous cash flows in the political arena are more and more tarnishing their image and creating a public outcry and demonstrations. Demonstrations alone would not bother the beneficiaries of this “incestuous relationship” too much, if there were not a backlash against corrupt parties in elections. Malaysia’s GE 13 in May and Cambodia’s July election ended as a very close shave for the ruling parties perceived as very corrupt.
These days it is in the Philippines that citizens demand an end to the infamous pork projects and President Aquino will have to show some results in the second half of his term.
Partiforumseasia will soon publish a comparative assessment of party financing and corruption in Southeastasia which was first presented in the ICIRD Conference in Bangkok last week.
Pork2

Source: Straits Times, Singapore, 27 August 2013

Political Party Funding in Southeast Asia


Corruption 4

Partyforumseasia is preparing an overview on party funding in Southeast Asia, a region where public funding for political parties is widely unknown, though Indonesia and Thailand are experimenting with it. The party laws prescribe certain minimum infrastructures like the number of branches in so many provinces, etc. And election campaigns cost in the billions, not only in the US but also in Southeast Asia. So, where do the political parties get their funding from? Donations, sure, but why give businessmen and corporations money to the parties?
At the same time, the general perception of corruption, except Singapore, is comparatively high. See here an excerpt of Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perception Index (CPI):
TI 2012

Partyforumseasia: What can be expected in the practice of political party funding in this environment?
Contributions, examples, comments will be most welcome for our study. Please send them to:

webmaster@political-party-forum-southeast-asia.org
Corruption 1