False Hope for the Alliance of Hope?


Partyforumseasia: 

With the wild rumors swirling about an early date for the next general election in Malaysia, everybody wonders about the chances of the opposition to win in its third attempt. 2008 and 2013 saw important advances against the ruling National Front (Barisan Nasional or BN) coalition, but the gerrymandered election system, expensive gifts to certain voter groups, clever fear mongering, and insufficient co-ordination among the opposition parties kept UMNO and BN comfortably in power.

Prime minister Najib Razak, who is also president of UMNO, quite shrewdly managed to dismantle the People’s Pact (Pakatan Rakyat or PR) by eliminating its leader Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister, probably the only politician who could unite the opposition. The seventy-year-old leading figure of the People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat), is still in jail with a controversial conviction for sodomy and banned from politics for five years. For the ruling BN coalition, the end of the Pakatan Rakyat in 2015 was a dream come true.

PM Najib, in the meantime, had other dangerous problems. The 1MDB financial scandal with billions disappeared from this state fund and hundreds of millions discovered in the prime minister’s private accounts would have led to his resignation or unseating in most other political systems. Not so in Malaysia. With remarkable cold blood and chutzpah, Najib has not only survived the storm so far but cemented his leadership in party and coalition as well.

But the opposition is reorganizing itself as well. And 91-year-old veteran politician and former long-term prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is playing an interesting role in this new game. He has left UMNO and started a new party, the United Indigenous Party (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia or PPBM) and just joined the new opposition coalition, the Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan).
This new coalition unites now four opposition parties, namely Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a Chinese-dominated party with a socialist approach, the National Trust Party (Parti Amanah Negara), a splinter from Islamist PAS, and Mahathir’s PPBM as newest member since 20 March. The PH coalition is planning to optimize its forces by campaigning with a common logo and without competing against each other in any constituency.

With PAS keeping a hostile distance toward Pakatan Harapan because of the “anti-Malay” DAP and the “renegade” Amanah, the opposition has lost a former ally with a stable number of seats in the national parliament. The BN coalition of UMNO and twelve component parties holds 132 of the 222 seats. To oust BN and PM Najib, the opposition would need at least 112 seats. This looks like a tall order at the moment, up from 75 in the sitting parliament.

The next general election is formally only due by August 2018, but in the British tradition, the prime minister can call it earlier at his discretion and sense of opportunity. Najib is obviously playing the guessing game for all, has started the BN campaign machinery, and, most importantly, has survived the financial scandal so far with gaining more strength and power in his own party and coalition. His power to fire any internal critic and any civil servant or legal office bearer, and his grip on the government’s and the party’s cash flows, make him look more or less unbeatable. Large parts of the population, especially his Malay vote banks, seem to be relatively unfazed by the financial scandal, and the new proximity with PAS and its Islamist hudud (Muslim criminal punishments) project makes it even more difficult for the opposition.

But no election victory is ever guaranteed. With all the instruments in his hand, from the Election Commission to the money supply and distribution, the prime minister may still be feel too sure about winning. If the Pakatan Harapan coalition manages to unite and avoid all three cornered fights, and, of course, find the appropriate central message to the voters, nothing can be excluded.

The Same Jinn in Two Bottles?


Partyforumseasia: Indonesia and Malaysia, the two Muslim majority but multi-ethnic and multi-religious countries in Southeast Asia are playing with fire.

jinn-out-of-the-bottle

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)

rally-from-videoAfter 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 police-at-rallyemotions 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.

jinn-out-of-the-bottle

Can Malaysia’s Ruling Party Survive Without Donations From Abroad?


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 Corruption 2away 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.

bersih-1The 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 bersih-2called 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)

 

 

 

Not Only in Malaysia: “Buy or bye- or by-elections”


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 Bye electionnecessary 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!

 

 

Politics and Religions in Southeast Asia


Somdet Chuang

Going to be appointed Supreme Patriarch? 90-year-old abbot Somdet Chuang

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:

Madonna

Madonna has rather different target groups

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.