Electing Robin Hoods? The Voting Power of the Left Behind


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 robin_shoots_with_sir_guy_by_louis_rhead_1912(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 Thaksinhandouts and promises they were easy to be nudged into securing billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra’s and his sister’s victories which eventually triggered military coupsAnd 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 candidateDuterte 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 theNajib Nov. 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 Jokowiarchipelago 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.

Banharn Silpa-archa: The King of Thai Money Politics Dies at Age 83


Partyforumseasia: The province of Suphan Buri hast lost its patron and benefactor for decades. The 21st Prime Minister of Thailand, Banharn Silpa-archa, has so Ban 2successfully channeled subsidies and development projects to his home turf and power base that the province was also known as Banharn Buri
Banharn, who was also long term leader of the Chart Thai Pattana Party, died on April 23 at a hospital in Bangkok. After a royal sponsored funeral ceremony, attended by all top political leaders of the country, his urn was transferred to Suphan Buri.

Ban 1

The funeral convoy in Suphan Buri

The origins of his political career sound a bit like a fairy tale. The son of a Chinese shopkeeper in Suphan, he came to Bangkok as a teenager and helped his elder brothers in their coffee shop. Bringing coffee to the nearby Public Works Department, he met officials from his home province. When he later started a construction company they granted him a 10 year monopoly for tap water installation all over the country which made him rich. And he spent much of his money in his home province, building schools and hospitals and bringing in the royal family for their openings. The role of benevolent and generous businessmen in Thai politics has been enormous. And Banharn may be one of the most interesting examples of their ascendance to huge political influence and control of their home turf. The local denomination for these men is „chao pho“ or „nak leng“, oscillating between patron and godfather. But this influence was also promoting massive vote buying. Banharn brought money by truckloads to the rural areas which owned him the dubious nickname of “Mr. ATM” or Mr Automatic Teller Machine… Consequently, his serial re-elections were landslide victories between 60 and 90 %!!
The endemic proliferation of vote buying with vote-traders ( „hua khanaen“ ) offering their services, including a guaranteed win, to the highest bidder, irrespective of which party, was detrimental to Thailand’s once famed democratization. It is noteworthy that during the democratization process since 1973 many of the patron-godfathers moved up into party politics, the parliament and the cabinets, which allowed even bigger financial benefits and direct influence on the distribution of development projects. Banharn’s Suphan Buri province has thus been blessed with the best roads, schools, hospitals, and general infrastructure in Thailand.

Could the death of Banharn Silpa-archa be “the end of an era” like some commentators suggested, or even symbolize an end to money politics in Thailand? Unfortunately, that sounds too nice to be true. What Banharn has started in big style has been perfected by Thaksin Shinawatra, money politics extended to the whole country.

One persistently festering problem of the country is “A Culture of Impunity”, highlighted recently (27th May) by the Bangkok Post (Link):
“…a long-standing problem in our society – the inability to enforce the rule of law. (…) Money, power and connections can influence the enforcement of the law in other countries too. But in Thailand, we have examples that are more glaring and blatant. (…) While we despise and condemn the fact that the rich and wealthy can get away with murder, we must also accept that the general public here do not respect the rule of law.”

The military regime declares that it stands for law and order and against the dirty politics of the political parties. Cleaning up money politics, however, is a daunting task nearly everywhere, but especially in Southeast Asia.

 

Cambodian Opposition Fights Back With IT-Solutions


Partyforumseasia: The peaceful handover from a military junta to a victorious opposition in Myanmar notwithstanding, Southeast Asian domestic politics is hardball from the textbook. Eliminating opposition when it develops into dangerous competition is not the most elegant or democratic way of staying in power, but it works. Challengers easily land in prison, like Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia, or in exile, like Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, and Sam Rainsy in Cambodia. Neither of these standard solutions can completely silence them, though. Especially the exile solution is being undermined by advanced communication technology. The Phnom Penh Post (31.8.2016, LINK) gives an example of opposition leader Sam Rainsy addressing a group of followers at home via Skype from his exile in Paris:
rainsy-page-3
The CNRP opposition, obviously seen as too dangerous by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP ruling party, has come under growing pressure by a remarkable arsenal of “torture instruments”. It’s lawmakers are being beaten up outside Parliament by thugs difficult to identify, Sam Rainsy prefers to stay in Paris because an older defamation lawsuit has been warmed up. The court refuses to hear his arguments via Skype and insists that he has to appear in person. With a string of other lawsuits and convictions pending, two years for defaming foreign minister Hor Namhong in 2008, a potential 17-year sentence for forgery and incitement, and other defamation suits, he understandably prefers to stay abroad.

Legally more than dubious, as the Phnom Penh Post reported on 30 March, the chief of Cambodia’s Anti-Corruption Unit threatened to investigate Sam Rainsy for corruption “if he continues to speak out against the graft case (Link) currently levelled at his deputy, Kem Sokha.”  Trying to silence a politician by threatening another investigation is indeed a desperate level of political competition.

CNRP vice president Kem Sokha is under a very different type of pressure. Based on a  number of taped phone calls with alleged mistresses the media are reporting for weeks already about a so called “infidelity scandal” while Kem Sokha and the supposed mistresses deny the relationships. It is not infidelity alone, alleged are also expensive presents like money and a house. While it is unclear why students might want to demonstrate against the popular politician as they are reported to do, the manoeuvre looks like a good old character assassination.

The whole campaign against the opposition signals the threat and growing insecurity felt in the  ruling party. “Neutralizing” the top leaders of the opposition in time before the next general election, due only by July 2018, may work, but especially the younger generation of Cambodians signals less patience with the CPP-Hun Sen rule. The ongoing brutality against the CNRP might produce a bigger backlash than expected.

 

The Law As Political Weapon In Southeast Asia


Cambodia Compromise

From handshake to kicking out…

Partyforumseasia: World wide, there is a certain connectivity between law and justice, but the law, in most cases a result of politics anyway, is rather often a sharp political instrument as well. Some argue that the laws are just petrified political power to preserve the established structures of elite domination.
The newest twist of a long rivalry between Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy is unfolding these days with the announcement of Hun Sen that he will introduce legislation to ban dual citizenship. Sam Rainsy’s French passport, which is helpful for his newest self-exile in Paris to avoid imprisonment at home (for a rather obviously politically motivated conviction) would neutralize him as challenger to Hun Sen’s hold on power. Under the headline “PM’s pledge: ‘No pardon’ for Rainsy” the Phnom Penh Post (Link here) on 29 December is quite blunt about the move:

“Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed to create a new law barring political party leaders from holding dual nationalities, an apparent move to further incapacitate beleaguered CNRP president Sam Rainsy.In his latest tirade against his long-time political rival, the premier also vowed to never again request a royal pardon for Rainsy, who in November entered his third stint of self-imposed exile to avoid prison on charges widely perceived as politically motivated.”

Other countries in the region might have inspired the Cambodian Prime Minister:

In Malaysia the only dangerous opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is in prison once again after a dubious conviction for sodomy. Without him the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat or People’s Alliance has fallen apart, and Prime Minister Najib Razak survives a string of scandals.

In Myanmar election winner Aung San Suu Kyi cannot run for president because her sons have British passports.

In the Philippines a citizenship drama is still unfolding. The Election Commission tries to disqualify the presidential bid of Senator Grace Poe because she is a foundling without sufficient proof of being a real born Phillipina, plus her former US citizenship. The Supreme Court has challenged the decision, so she may eventually run in the upcoming presidential election in 2016.

In Thailand former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is facing a law suit for negligence with the rice purchasing program of her government. The move is widely seen as a last and decisive attempt to exclude her brother Thaksin from any chance of coming back to the political scene.

Who says that politics is fair? At the moment all these legal battles show the ugly face of Southeast Asian hardball politics.
See also the chapter “Hardball: Power and Party Politics in Southeast Asia” in:

Book at Barnes & Noble incl E-Book

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also available at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thailand’s Politicians: Pluto- or Kleptocrats?


Partyforumseasia: In the case of Thaksin Shinawatra there has been little doubt that he made his billions with the help of political connections. And comparative research on party financing in Southeast Asia has shown that political entrepreneurship is one of the most lucrative business lines.1) The region, more or less independent of the political system, is full of “unusually rich” politicians. Corruption 4The Thai situation is being discussed in an article by Tan Hui Yee, Thailand correspondent of Singapore’s Straits Times (25.2.2014, p. A22). With a Gini coefficient of .484, higher than that of the US, Thailand is one of the most unequal societies in Asia. The regional imbalance has opened the flood gates for populist policies and the landslide victories of Thaksin’s political parties. According to Chulalongkorn University’s economy professor Pasuk Phongpaichit the minimal taxes on land are not being adjusted because most politicians are big land owners.  As protest leader Suthep Thaungsuban, himself confronted by graft allegations, tries to hurt the business empire of the Shinawatra clan, it is evident for the Thai citizens that too many politicians are millionaires in a too conspicuous way, and there seems to be no difference between the competing parties. Frustration and cynicism are growing with the number of scandals, the duration of the stand-off and the negative impact on the economy.
Money politics is all too entrenched in Thailand and Southeast Asia to be eradicated by well-intentioned reforms. Only rich enough candidates can win an election, and few will sacrifice part of their assets to get elected. That simply means that millions invested into an election campaign have to be recouped one way or the other.

1) See: Sachsenröder, Wolfgang, Party Finances and Money Politics in Southeast Asia in the reference archive.

The Southeast Asian Miracle: Thailand’s Re-Unification sealed!!


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15 February 2064: The Southeast Asian Miracle: Thailand’s Re-Unification sealed!!

After the recent breakthrough in prolonged negotiations between the two sides and efficient diplomatic support from ASEAN, the heads of state of the Kingdom of Tightland (formerly known as South Thailand) and the Kingdom of Thaksimania (formerly known as North Thailand) have signed a comprehensive re-unification treaty. The signing ceremony took place in the UN Headquarters in Beijing in the presence of unification advisers from Germany and Korea.
After the former Thailand split in 2015, the founding father of Thaksimania, business-politician Thaksim Shinawatra was soon elected King of Thaksimania. The people loved him because he could fund the government out of his own pocket and reduce the tax burden to a symbolic 5%. This led to a massive migration of the business community from Bangkok and the South to Thaksimania, where they were warmly welcomed by his Majesty on the condition of participating in the funding of his government.
The impact on former South Thailand was more than difficult. The Royal Finance Ministry witnessed a rapidly dwindling inflow of taxes which could not be balanced by the most investment friendly policies worldwide. So the impoverished country succumbed to pressure from Thaksimania to drop the aggressive use of the outdated name of Thailand. To secure a sufficient flow of development aid from the rival in the North, the King agreed to change the official name of the state into Tightland. Starting around 2035 already, many countries in Asia were able to reduce or abolish taxes and military spending because the regional security was no longer threatened by the US but guaranteed by China. This ended the decades of saber rattling and aggressive symbolic politics between Tightland and Thaksimania which made the re-unification possible at the end. It remains to be seen how the population of the two nations will adapt to the changes and the big difference in affluence. 😉

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.