Global Review had the honour and opportunity to have an interview with South East Asia expert Dr. Sachsenröder about political parties in South East Asia.
Wolfgang Sachsenröder owned his PhD in Political Science and Public Law from the University of Bonn, Germany. He got involved in party politics in the student revolution of 1968, and worked later as a political adviser in Asia, the Middle East, and the Balkans, for a quarter of a century. Coming back to Singapore in 2008, he joined the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, and focused on the party developments in the region. More information on the party systems can be found in:
Sachsenroeder, Wolfgang, ed. (2014), Party Politics in Southeast Asia – Organization – Money – Influence, available at Amazon books. A book on party finances and political corruption, titled “Power broking in the shade” is coming up.
The Partyforum South East Asia has its own informative website at:
Global Review: Dr. Sachsenröder, when did the history of political parties start in South East Asia? Which were the first parties and did they have a similar history or are they comparable to their Western counterparts in Europe?
WS: That is a very comprehensive question, but I will try to give some hints in a nutshell. The colonial powers, Britain in Malaysia, the Netherlands in Indonesia, France in Indochina, the United States in the Philippines, did not encourage democratic movements in the region. Except Thailand, which was never colonized, the young nation states emerged only after WWII. So, the oldest parties surviving until today were established in 1946, the Liberal Party in the Philippines, and the Democrat Party in Thailand. The Nacionalista Party in the Philippines and the Communist Parties in Vietnam and Laos have older roots, the Communists being influenced by European Communists and the Comintern since the 1930s.
The organizational format of Southeast Asian parties looks rather similar to the European models, they have headquarters, presidents, branch leaders, central committees, internal elections, and all. However, this has seduced many political scientists to base their analysis too much on the paradigms and theories developed in Western Europe.
Global Review: Which types of political parties exist in Southeast Asia? Are these parties class parties, clientel parties or people´s parties comparable to the German „Volksparteien“?
WS: Southeast Asia has developed its own type of parties which differ substantially from the Western party theory. In 2013, Richard Gunther and Larry Diamond have tried to find a classification system which should accommodate “non-Western” parties. The only party they mention in the region is Thailand’s Thai Rak Thai, which they classify as personalistic under billionaire leader Thaksin Shinawatra. It was certainly personalistic, but its success was based on money and the discovery of a huge vote bank among the rural poor in the North and Northeast of the country, neglected until then by the Bangkok elite.
The Communist parties in Laos and Vietnam started with class struggle ideas adopted from Comintern, but the anti-colonial struggle was more important. When the ruling single party, finally in power, controls and distributes scarce and sought-after goods, from public services to accommodation and jobs, party membership is attractive without any commitment to the revolutionary ideals of the older cadres. In Laos, people even pay bribes to be admitted as party member.
The German type of “Volksparteien” or “catch all” parties, disappearing rather fast anyway, does exist in Southeast Asia, however in a more pragmatic or opportunistic form. As everywhere, ruling parties attract members and potential leaders, and opposition parties survive if the grievances against the powers that be are strong enough.
The enormous economic development of Southeast Asia has given political leaders and parties ever growing decision making power on money and budgets. Party politics has become more and more a business activity with exorbitant turnovers, which produced, on the dark side, numerous financial scandals. The most outstanding ones are still unresolved. Prime Minister Najib Razak in Malaysia, who is also finance minister, was found with nearly 700 million US$ in his private accounts, which he explained as donations from Saudi royalty. Investigations into all sorts of related international transactions are going on, but Najib is set to win with his heavily racially defined party in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
The other prominent case is ongoing in Indonesia where the chairman of the second biggest party and speaker of parliament, Setya Novanto, was forced to step down after being identified as main suspect over 170 million US$ syphoned away from a public procurement project. Reports say that the money has been distributed in a room in parliament among a number of parties and politicians. “Skimming” or “scalping” of development and infrastructure projects is common all over the region, especially in Indonesia and the Philippines.
The parties have no distinctive programs or ideologies, rank-and-file members don’t play a role because membership fees are only symbolic, and often enough leadership positions have to be bought by bribing other delegates.
The advantage of party careers lies in often unlimited discretion on money flows, sometimes by direct control of state owned enterprises, sometimes by the distribution of licences and state projects, while party laws and financial regulations for political donations are either not existent or practically not enforced.
Money politics is rampant and attracts tycoons who can secure the livelihood of their companies with political control, a development which Indonesia expert Marcus Miezner calls “oligarchization”. The equivalent to what is growing in the West, including Germany, as slightly more elegant lobbyism, is direct control of state finances and the economy in Southeast Asia.
One outlier, however, is Singapore, ruled since independence in 1965 by the hegemonic People’s Action Party, and playing in the top “Scandinavian league” countries, seen as a widely corruption-free, according to Transparency International.
Global Review: Which role does religion play in the identity of these parties as you have a wide range of the spectrum from Islamic parties as the PAS to secular parties to atheist Communist parties?
WS: Most obvious are the Muslim parties in Indonesia and Malaysia, and the increasing Arabization of the traditionally more moderate Islam in Southeast Asia. While the Islamic parties in Indonesia have not been very successful in national elections, the controversial gubernatorial election in February 2017 has shown the mobilization power of Islamic groups in the country. The leading candidate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, called Ahok, was vilified as double minority (Chinese and Christian), toppled by a blasphemy accusation, and imprisoned.
In Malaysia, the long-term ruling party UMNO, vanguard of the Malay and Muslim majority in the multi-ethnic country, had to compete with Islamist rival party PAS for the main vote banks among religious Malays in the rural areas. Malay dominance and Islam are the decisive issues in the fight against more pluralistic urban minority parties.
The Rohingya problem in Myanmar has highlighted the political ambitions of Buddhist groups and the clergy, being much more belligerent than the peaceful image of Buddhism.
In the Communist countries Vietnam and Laos, after decades of official atheism, religious groups are growing under the suspicious eyes of the governments.
Global Review: Which role do Communist parties play in South East Asia? Are they still orthodox Marxists or have they transformed themselves into postcommunist, even social democratic parties or Deng-China-style Communist parties? Are Communist parties still forbidden in some countries or are they legally accepted?
WS: Orthodox Marxism seems to be outdated in Southeast Asia. There is still a traditional façade of Communism, but in Vietnam for example, Uncle Ho (Chi Minh) and his nationalist legacy have been more visible than Karl Marx. Like in China, the single-party systems have other problems than ideology, namely the preservation of their dominance.
Apart from the Philippines, Communist parties are not even talked about any more in the region.
Global Review: Which parties are liberal, conservative and left parties in South East Asia?
WS: These are also Western paradigms without much traction in Southeast Asia. The only visible grouping is the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, founded in 1993, with members like the Thai Democrat Party, Indonesia’s PDI-P, Taiwan’s DPP, and of course the Liberal Party in the Philippines. As in the Liberal International the programmatic spectrum is rather wide.
Global Review: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama wrote his famous book „The End of History”, claiming that liberal democracy would spread worldwide and was on the road of final victory. However, everywhere worldwide we see a backlash, a crisis of liberal democracy, the resurgence of extremist and right wing or left-wing populists. Which countries in South East Asia were most democratic and which countries were not and what is the general trend in South East Asia?
WS: During the 1990’s, the democratization in Thailand was being praised as irreversible. As we have seen, the Army intervention has ended the hopes of many Thais and democrats in the region.
At the same time, Indonesia’s “democratic era” has developed many positive developments, but money politics is threatening these achievements.
The populist success stories are neither left or right wing but simply authoritarian or money politics. The latest excess is Cambodia, where strongman Hun Sen has crushed the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and imprisoned part of the leadership or driven them into exile.
Global Review: Democracy theorists claim that with economic development political democratization would follow, that with rising GNP/per capita and the creation of a middle class the call for democracy would become louder and that at a certain tipping point democratization was inevitable. Does this pattern work in reality if you see the developments in South East Asia?
WS: Liberal tendencies in the urban populations seem to support this claim to a certain degree. However, authoritarianism and religion as well as the urban-rural divide are stronger. The media revolution and social media penetration may help to mitigate these trends.
Global Review: Are middle classes per se liberal, global world citizens or can´t they be reactionary, nationalistic as Heinrich Mann described the German middle class in his book „Der Untertan“? Lipset also portrayed fascism as the „radicalization of the middle class“ in times of economic crises. How does this fit to the situation in South East Asia?
WS: “Liberal” has been a dirty word in Southeast Asia for decades. Nevertheless, the growing urban middle classes are definitely more open. But they are no barrier against the Islamic revival and authoritarian dominance.
Global Review: Which role play the labour movement, the labour unions and, if there are any, the labour parties in South East Asia?
WS: Labour unions are weak and dependent everywhere in the region, and often controlled by the governments or ruling parties. The Workers’Party in Singapore is the only slightly successful opposition but not a labour party in the European understanding, not even social democratic.
Global Review: Populism is spreading worldwide. Is there a similar development in South East Asia—Duterte comes into our mind-but is this a general trend?
WS: This is hardly comparable because there are no ideology- or program-based parties to compete. Populism is visible in the form of “Pluto Populism”, parties financed and run by tycoons, like the Thai Rak Thai of Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, or Golkar in Indonesia with successive plutocratic leaders.
Global Review: Is it true that Thailand was a democracy with a multiparty system before the military seized power and established the monarchy? What role does the military play in South East Asia?
WS: Yes, Thailand had many competing parties, but mostly weak ones with ferocious internal factional power struggles. The well-intentioned party laws, including the party funding, were mostly ignored by the political parties, and hardly enforced.
The role of the Military is a complex issue, very strong in Thailand and Myanmar, and well under civilian control in most other countries in ASEAN.
Global Review: The USA and the West has been a supporter of the democratization in South East Asia. Trump said that democracy, human rights wouldn´t be that important anymore and that the USA didn´t want to spread their political system to the rest of the world. What do you think will be the effects of Trumpism and the new US foreign policy in South East Asia?
WS: The support of liberal democracy as an export product of the U.S. and Europe, including the German political foundations, had a lot of success during the last decades, but created suspicions among the regimes as well. Thailand and Indonesia may be the best examples, and regionally, the ASEAN Charter and the ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism are true achievements.
Obama’s ”Pivot to Asia” initiative is over, and, all in all, there is the fast growing influence of China throughout the region. Since China has much more to offer there is a high probability that the American influence will further decrease in the coming years.
Global Review: In Malaysia the UMNO and the PAS are competing for power. Are they becoming Islamist parties, will we see an Islamization in the two Muslim democracies Malaysia and Indonesia?
WS: As already mentioned above, the Arabization of Malaysia and Indonesia is very visibly growing. The infiltration of ISIS and other terrorists is a parallel threat which might mitigate the religious revival to a certain degree. However, there is not much reason for any hope that the wave will be ebbing anytime soon.
Global Review: The Communist Party of China starts a dialogue with 400 political parties on December in Beijing. Which South East Asian political parties will attend the meeting, and do you think that the South East Asian parties will become more pro-Chinese? Could China´s authoritarian model or Singapore´s semi-authoritarian regime fit South East Asia better than a Western style liberal democracy?
WS: I don’t have information about the attendance of parties from the region. Laos and Vietnam will certainly be there, but all the other non-Communist parties will probably participate as well, simply because the whole region is increasingly dependent on the economic powerhouse and keen on investment from China.
The second part of the question is difficult to answer. Western liberals, including myself, tend to believe that our model of liberal democracy is the best, though in the political theory there are hundreds of varieties. Governing a well-organized polity, economically successful, with well informed citizens, and the rule of law respected and enforced, is easy but becoming more the exception than the normal in Europe. The ideological or programmatic distinctions blurring, and the party systems getting more fractious, the formation of coalition governments is more and more difficult. The discipline of the citizens vanishing, and the social cohesion changing with mass immigration, stable and good governance is more difficult to organize.
In Southeast Asia, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious populations plus complicated geographies with huge distances and thousands of islands, have made governance more complicated than we could imagine in homogenous nation states in Europe. Insofar, teaching democracy and liberal values here in Southeast Asia is always tricky. Legal systems, either in the English common law tradition or influenced by European continental law schools, are gradually being adapted to local requirements, thus creating new systems which also influence the political framework. Instead of teaching Western style liberal democracy, we should better try to be good examples at home and be patient in explaining our reasons behind the system. Alexander Pope (1688–1744), the English writer and translator of Homer, rhymed a witty definition in his Essay on Man:
“For forms of government let fools contest, whatever is best administered is best.”
The citizens and voters in Southeast Asia are sufficiently grown up and perfectly able to elect the governments they deserve.