Global Review had the honour and opportunity to have an interview with South East Asia expert Dr. Wolfgang Sachsenröder about political parties in South East Asia who just has published his new book „Power Broking in the Shade- Party Finances and Money Politics 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, you have just published your new Book “Power Broking in the shade–Party Finances and Money Politics in South East Asia“. What is new about your book in comparison to previous publications?
WS: I think that the book is the first publication covering all ASEAN countries except Brunei Darussalam, which is a sultanate without political parties. And, as far as I can see, it is the first book focussing on party finances alone and the wide spectrum of funding problems the parties are facing. For some countries in the region, researchers have been writing about money politics in articles and book chapters, especially about Indonesia. The other end of the literature spectrum is on the theory of corruption in politics. My approach is more practical, trying to take stock of the money which is being handled within the parties and on the ground, and trying to understand the dilemma in which the parties operate between increasingly expensive election campaigns and the lack of funding.
Global Review: Your book is about party finances. What are the main differences between the party finances of South East Asian parties and Western and other Asian parties? What are the similarities and what the differences? And do party finances within SEA differ from each other in substantial ways?
WS: The spectrum of financial solutions for political parties is extremely varied, not least in the so- called West. The US political culture differs in many ways from the European, and it involves more money politics than in Europe, even though we are catching up. According to the New York Times (19.12.2017), “Political campaigns have become astronomically expensive. Last year’s presidential election cost an estimated $2.4 billion, including primaries; a special election for a single House seat in Georgia this year cost more than $50 million.” With the PACs and Super PACs donation mechanisms, the plutocratic tendencies are evident. Compared to the USA, most European party systems are far behind with the sums they can raise and the cost of election campaigns, though especially in Germany, the latest self-servicing moves of the parties to increase the public party funding are under heavy criticism, including the hidden incomes of parliamentarians.
What sets many parties in Southeast Asia apart from Europa is a more personalized relationship between parliamentarians on all levels and their voters, normally called patron-client relationship. It is a much higher level of reciprocity, the exchange of votes against tangible goods, from waving a parking ticket to scholarships for the voter’s children to preferential loans and business opportunities. In most parts of Asia, the art of exchanging gifts is more complicated than in Europe where the loss of face is less damaging. In a general comparison, a high number of Asian parties and politicians are “unusually rich”, and when in government, their access to the tax payers’ money is nearly limitless. As everywhere, the donations flow quite freely, as soon as the donors get procurement orders and contracts or other economic advantages. Direct bribing is still more common in Asia, but the supposedly more elegant lobbying in the West differs only in style and procedures. Vote buying is rather common in many countries in Southeast Asia, and especially successful in poor areas and slums.
Global Review: What are the financial needs of the parties? What has changed compared to he past? And which sources of incomes are the most important: public funding, indirect public funding, donations, membership fees? What are the major expenses in and outside of election campaigns?
WS: Southeast Asian parties charge only symbolic membership fees. In Malaysia, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) which has been ousted in the May 2018 election, claimed to have 3.4 million members who had to pay only two RM or less than 0.4 Euros – per year. But the party treasurer was expected to provide regular reimbursements for the expenses of the 191 branch leaders, at a monthly rate of 50.000 RM (10.500 Euros). Members of Parliament of UMNO and the coalition partners had a million RM (210.500 Euros) per year for “helping” their voters and supporters.
Public funding for the parties is nearly unknown in the region, only Indonesia in the reform era after the fall of Suharto, and Thailand have experimented with it, but the contributions remain marginal compared to the overall budgets.
The big items in the campaign budgets are rallies with most participants being bused in, fed and paid, entertainment with famous musicians, and millions of posters and banners, and of course, air time on TV and radio which is extremely costly. While in Germany fewer and fewer voters bother to attend rallies and listen to candidates, subsidised participation is common and rather popular in SEA.
Global Review: To which extent are political parties entrepreneurs and are SEA parties oligarchic and controlled by business circles?
WS: Without public funding and membership contributions, political parties are open or vulnerable to rich and ambitious tycoons who can bankroll the whole party. A good example for this type of pluto-populism is the meteoric political career of billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand who could buy over more than a hundred MPs when he founded his Thai Rak Thai Party in 1998 and even paid them a supplement to their parliamentary salaries. After investing so much, and once in power, he could tweak the legislation in favour of his business empire. Many political leaders and dynasties in SEA, from Marcos in the Philippines and Shinawatra in Thailand to Suharto, Bakrie and Kalla in Indonesia, are more than rich enough to dominate their parties, many of which are just the vehicle for their ambitions. But that is not new at all. Few would be as blunt as Lorenzo de Medici (1449-92) with his famous quote that “…in Florence one can ill live in the possession of wealth without control of the government.”
Global Review: You speak of pork barrel politics and money politics. What does that mean and could you give examples?
WS: Money politics is the wider notion of all activities and manoeuvres where votes, special privileges, services, and the like are being bought or paid with money. Obviously, they distort and pervert democratic competition. Pork barrelling is a common expression to describe the direct bribing of voters and political clients with money or services. It can start on the municipal level, and seems to be quite common, meaning that infrastructure investments are being channelled toward political supporters, or that the distribution of construction and other business licenses enrich partisans from one day to the other. That is worldwide a common instrument for making political friends or punish the opposition by cutting them off from the funding sources.
Global Review: How corrupt are SEA parties and is corruption in SEA perceived as a societal ill or rather a normality people got used to? Do corruption scandals have impact on the politics in SEA? If corruption was that rampant, why are there no revolts and even revolutions?
WS: Transparency International’s yearly Corruption Perception Index (CPI) gives a rough orientation where the ASEAN countries stand. While Singapore alone plays in the top, mainly Scandinavian, league, most of the region is in the lower half or lowest third of the survey. The latest TI Corruption Barometer covering political parties in a regional survey is from 2013, and the percentages for parties perceived as corrupt are very high, from 86% in Indonesia to 68% in Thailand. Across Asia, many governments are cracking down on corruption in the administration and economy, sometimes seriously, sometimes less, but the public is more and more aware and critical of the problem. In Malaysia, the huge scandal around a sovereign wealth fund called 1MDB, with billions missing, has led to the election victory of the opposition in May.
Global Review: In your book you speak of patron-client networks and that the parties are defined by them. In one chapter you compare this situation with the patron-client system in Greece where Pasok and Neo Democracia functioned as social security systems for its members, families and sympathizers and supporters. Is the reason for that the structure of agricultural societies, that family dynasties are omnipresent in these parties (like the Karamanlis or the Papandreus)? Are patron-client systems dominant in states without a social welfare state as they substitute the social security systems?
WS: That is very probable. In SEA, the strongest patron-client bonds are found in the Philippines with landowner families dominating the political scene for many decades. Many are traditional quasi nobility, but half of them are enriched patrons since the fall of Marcos in 1986. The dependency of the clients is partially based on poverty, but also on a traditional bonding and budding culture, typical for the country, and a sort of very extended family cohesion.
Global Review: An often heard perception is: In SEA countries the economy is mostly controlled by businessmen of Chinese origin. Some compare the situation with the role of the Jews in Europe and the USA and the corresponding antisemitism. Are SEA parties using anti-Chinese sentiments and racist propaganda to get support from the electorate and the people? The anti-Chinese massacres in Indonesia after the coup by Suharto are an example of right Indonesian parties, Islamist militias and the military slaughtering Chinese, whom they believes to be atheists, Communists or successful businessmen. Are Chinese in SEA perceived by the governments and the population as reliable citizens or as an disloyal fifth column of Beijing? What about Indians? How much is racism a factor in SEA election campaigns and in societies?
WS: This is very difficult topic in a region with hundreds of ethnic groups, languages, and religions. For centuries, the co-habitation was common and normal, notwithstanding occasional outbursts of violence and persisting prejudices. And not to forget, the blatant racism of the colonial powers was not very helpful. Indonesia, the most diverse and biggest country in the region, has made the enormously important decision upon independence in 1945, to use the Malay Bahasa Indonesia as national language, and not the more complicated Javanese of the majority. Noteworthy as well is that the Chinese minority, only 1,2 % of the population, had to change their names into Indonesian ones.
Overall, the Chinese immigrant community, but certainly far from all of them, have dominated the growing economies of the region to a high degree, so that some economists have blamed the underperformers in national development on their lower percentage of Chinese. Comparing the European antisemitism over the centuries, which started from religious interpretations, with anti-Chinese undercurrents in SEA may be a bit too daring. But prejudices are common, the reliability as citizens is sometimes openly questioned. Malaysia is a special case here, because the old UMNO coalition, in government for 61 years, was trying to cement its grip on power by catering preferably to the Malay majority and playing the racial and religious card in all elections.
Singapore, on the other hand, with a ¾ Chinese majority, has reached a rather advanced balance of opportunities in education and careers for the defined four races, i.e. Chinese, Indians, Malays, and Others (CIMO-system), but lingering prejudices can never be totally avoided.
Global Review: How much influence have foreign political powers like the CP China or others on the party finances and politics of the south-east Asian parties? In Malaysia Najib was ousted fort he 1 MBD scandal when he admitted these were donations by Saudi Arabia?
WS: There are always state secrets and secretive ruling parties. For the region, China is the increasingly important economic partner with huge investments and loans, but also with a considerable extraction of natural resources like tropical hard wood and minerals. I haven’t come across any evidence of direct influence of the Communist Party of China on political parties in SEA, except possibly in Laos, where the Communist Lao People’s Revolutionary Party may be a client and useful for all sorts of concessions for Chinese companies.
The Saudi donation saga of Najib Razak in Malaysia is difficult to believe. An amount of 682 million $ which was found in Najib’s personal accounts, is not peanuts, even for Saudi royals. But the case is unfolding at the moment, and more evidence may come to light in the coming months.
Global Review: If money politics is so rampant in SAE, are there any efforts to promote transparency of party finances or anti-corruption legislation Are there any powerful NGOs or political groups in favor of this? Is money politics accepted as it promotes economic growth in SEA or is it criticized? Could this change if south-east Asian countries were less successful or a recession, economic crisis or financial crisis occurred, like 1997 the Asian financial crisis?
WS: There are efforts from critical NGOs, but also from inside the governments to fight corruption, especially on the political level. Legislation in several countries and the pertinent control institutions look often good on paper but the enforcement is either insufficient or invalidated by the forces which profit from the illegal transfers. Indonesia has made enormous progress in fighting general and political corruption with the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), with numerous convictions of sometimes very powerful political figures. But the KPK is also under attacks which try to undermine its efficiency and reach. The police, which is considered as rather corrupt, has threatened to establish an anti-corruption agency itself as a rival, in order to weaken the KPK. So far, the public opinion and President Joko Widodo have prevented such a move. But with the enormous resources of Indonesia, the competition for profits cannot be overestimated, no surprise in view of the rampant corruption all over the world.