Partyforumseasia: When Mrs. Megawati was Vice-President of Indonesia between 1999 and 2001, the visually handicapped President Abdurrahman Wahid or Gus Dur was describing the two as: “We’re the best team, I can’t see and she can’t speak.” She may not be an exciting public speaker, but the political influence of the daughter of Indonesia’s founding President Sukarno is absolutely remarkable. Last Thursday, August 8th, she was re-elected as chair of her PDI-P party by acclamation, even before her accountability speech for the last five years of her already 20 years of leadership. And she also denied the rumors that, due to her age of 72, she would hand over her day-to-day duties to daughter Puan Maharani and son Prananda Prabowo. Chairing the party since 1999, Megawati, or Mega, in short, is a constant factor in the country’s democratic journey since the end of the autocratic Suharto era in 1998.
Megawati’s authority in the party is unchallenged. The delegates at the national party congress in Bali, representing 34 provinces and more than 500 regencies and cities, as well as the central board leaders, were far from changing their ” winning horse”. With 109 MPs and 19.3 % of the 140 million eligible voters, PDI-P is not only the biggest party in the Indonesian Parliament but has also successfully supported the re-election of President Joko Widodo.
As it happens often enough, a ruling party attracts more and more support and the willingness of smaller parties to join in as coalition partners. For a long time after President Jokowi’s victory in the April 2019 election, his losing challenger, former general Prabowo, had protested against the results because he alleged massive fraud. So, Prabowo’s participation in the Bali PDI-P convention is a possible landmark for reconciliation, maybe even for entry of his Gerindra party into the ruling coalition. Mrs. Megawati may not be a fiery public speaker but obviously a convincing mediator at the end, which certainly is a blessing for the political stability and further democratic development of Indonesia.
Partyforumseasia: The international headlines focus predominantly on radical Islam, sometimes on radical Hinduism in India, from time to time on Christian fundamentalism in the US. Buddhism, all in all, has managed to keep an image of peacefulness, except in Myanmar, where Buddhist monks took part in violent attacks on the Muslim Rohingya minority. Since mid 2013 they are organized in the “Association for the Protection of Race and Religion”, also known under the acronym Ma Ba Tha or “မဘသ” in Burmese. The organization is being described as nationalistic, fiercely anti-Islam, and well connected to the military. Though article Article 364 of the Constitution prohibits the “abuse of religion for political purposes”, Ma Ba Tha leaders are openly supporting the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). During its second anniversary conference in June, Bhaddamta Vimala, a senior monk and secretary of Ma Ba Tha, criticized the opposition as too inexperienced to rule the country and urged the monks to drum up support for the USDP in the upcoming elections on 8 November. Monks cannot vote but their influence among the population is considerable.
After independence the U Nu government tried to introduce Buddhism as the state religion, but the law was never passed after resistance in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Nevertheless, Ma Ba Tha has celebrated “state religion day” on 30 August to commemorate the 1961 move toward Buddhism as official religion. The day’s religious importance derives from Buddha teaching the Metta Sutta, or discourse on loving kindness which seems to be rather irreconcilable with the militant and violent sides of Ma Ba Tha.
The organization was also more than supportive in legislation concerning religious conversions and interfaith marriages as well as compulsory monogamy and population-control – it actually drafted them. The last of the four laws was signed by president Thein Sein on 31 August, the whole package being criticized by the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi as discriminatory for the minorities. But this may backfire in the elections, because Ma Ba Tha has grown into a very powerful nationalistic force which will certainly use its considerable influence to support the USDP and reduce the chances of the NLD. Nota bene: Christian groups in the West should not cry foul too easily. The Christian Democratic parties in Europe have enjoyed the churches’ support for many years, and American Evangelicals still wield considerable influence until today.
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.
Partyforumseasia: For a good overview of the twelve parties competing in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections we strongly recommend the following paper by Ulla Fionna and Alex Arifianto in ISEAS Perspectives, #14, 2014, 10 March 2014.
Partyforumseasia: The Cambodian election campaign is getting a bit more interesting. Two weeks before election day on 28 July, King Norodom Sihamoni has pardoned opposition leader Sam Rainsy who will return from exile in France to Phnom Penh on the 19th. The pardon comes at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen “in a spirit of reconciliation”. Sam Rainsy is not too optimistic on his Facebook page that his return can really challenge the expected CPP victory: “In the short time that has been made available, I hope to be able to meet my fellow countrymen to discuss their concerns and to hold discussions with leaders of all political parties on the best way foward for Cambodia.” He knows quite well that PM Hun Sen would not take the risk of losing just for the spirit of reconciliation. Nevertheless, some gains for the united opposition which runs as Cambodia National Rescue Party can be expected – an interesting development after the Malaysian GE in May and the Singaporean by-election in March this year.
But there is a high probability that PM Hun Sen will keep smiling after the election.