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The current political party systems in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand

(PTOJ) - In contemporary political life, political parties play a vital role and dominate the democratic process of each country. The article analyzes and compares the characteristics of the political party systems in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.

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1. The political party systems in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand

The interaction (including cooperation and competition) among parties is an important factor determining the nature of a political party system. The political party system is analyzed from three perspectives which are sociology, institution, and competition. Basically, studies using an institutional approach argue that the electoral system is the cause of the differences in the political party system. Meanwhile, the sociological approach emphasizes the significant role of divisions in society, especially conflict among classes.

The sociological approach links the character of political parties in particular countries with the character of social cleavage. This cleavage stems from resolved (or ongoing) social conflicts. The existence of a political party is related to the strength of groups in society rather than to the characteristics of the political institutions in that society - such as the electoral system. In other words, the sociological interpretation rejects the role of specific institutions in influencing political outcomes or the development of other political institutions, such as the outcome that the political party system will develop.

The institutional approach emphasizes the role of institutional factors that influence the type of political party system such as the electoral system and other institutional factors namely the state structure (parliament, president...), federal or unified state... also affects the political party system.

The competitive approach focuses on the behavior of political parties and voters on the assumption that political parties and voters are rational actors.

Of the three approaches above, the common between the competitive approach and the sociological approach is that both of them assume that voters’ ideology, beliefs, and values are determined by elements in society rather than being regulated or shaped by political institutions. If all political parties behave rationally, then the type of political party system in a country will reflect characteristics of prominent values in society such as ideology and beliefs. Hence, the political party system would be the product of social forces. From the three above-mentioned approaches, the political party system in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand will be analyzed.

- Characteristics of the political party system in Indonesia

The development of the political party system in Indonesia is closely related to two critical moments in the history of Indonesia. The first moment is when several Indonesian political parties were established from 1910 to 1920 during the Dutch colonization. The second moment came after the resignation of President Suharto in 1998. The foundations for the political party system in Indonesia were formed quite early with the establishment of political parties such as the Indonesian National Party (Partai Nasional Indonesia - PNI), the Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia - PKI), and Islamic organizations.

From a sociological approach, the Indonesian political party system reflects four traditional social cleavages: secularism versus Islam; center versus periphery; urban versus rural; capitalists versus workers. During “The New Order” period under Suharto (1966-1998), a three-party political party system was formed including the Golka Party, the Democratic Party (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia - PDI), and the Islamic Party (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan - PPP). In which, the Golka Party was seen as an organization that transcends class, ethnicity, and religious identity to embrace all social cleavage.

After 1998, social cleavage in the Indonesian political party system re-emerged and formed the basis for political factions in the National Assembly and in the political party platform. One of the most obvious cleavages in the Indonesian political party system at that time was due to the religious point of view. However, through the elections in Indonesia, there is a decrease in electoral cleavage, marking the cooperation among political parties.

This phenomenon is believed to be the result of a decline in political ideology, due to the increasingly loose linkages between political parties and mass organizations, pluralization of constituencies, personalization of voters, as well as the mediation and commercialization of politics. Political parties form broad allies, reducing commitments related to action programs with the purpose of dividing seats. The cartel party is the result of a fragmented political party system that has no majority and is rooted in the commercialization of politics.

Some scholars (Saiful Mujami and R. William Liddle) reject the significance of religious orientation in Indonesian elections and argue that divisions are reduced among political parties and social classes. However, studies show that in Indonesian society, constituency affiliations (religious or non-religious) or center-periphery divisions still manifest in the regional vote distribution. In addition, other institutions such as the electoral system also contribute to the realization of divisions in Indonesian society.

From an institutional approach, the electoral system is one of the defining factors in the development of the political party system in Indonesia in the post-Suharto period. With the end of “The New Order”, the Indonesian political party system expanded with the introduction of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia-Perjuangan - PDI-P) to replace the PDI Party and a variety of nationalist parties such as the Democratic Party of former President Yudhoyono (SBY), the Great Indonesia Movement Party, the People’s Conscience Party... The most important feature of political struggle in the post-Suharto period was the high fragmentation of the political party system and increased competition in elections. This means that Indonesia has moved from a political party system with a dominant, non-competitive party in the late-Suharto period to a highly fragmented multi-party system with two dominant parties and then to a fragmented multi-party system with a balance of power among the parties in the political system(1). The electoral system with the direct election of the president has contributed to the formation of new political parties in Indonesian politics.

- Characteristics of political party system in Malaysia

The origins of political parties in Malaysia are closely tied to the economic and social changes that shaped peninsular Malaysia during the first half of the twentieth century. The development of the political party system in Malaysia involved two important periods: The first phase was from the post-World War II to the early 1950s when most political parties were established before Malaysia’s independence. The second phase was after the 1997-1998 financial crisis with the emergence of a new opposition movement. During this period, social cleavage was manifested in the political party system through the new party, the National Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Nasional - PKN) and the opposition coalition of United Front (Barisan Alternatif - BA). The Malaysian political party system was originally founded on ethnic divisions until the 1970s when ethnic divisions were replaced by religious divisions. After 1998, the reform movement (Reformasi) emerged in contrast to the current situation at that time. By studying the political party system with different approaches and comparing it with other countries in the region, the Malaysian political party system has four outstanding characteristics as follow:

(i) The emergence of multi-party politics in Malaysia was accompanied by social cleavage. Social cleavage had a powerful and lasting effect on the formation and organization of political party systems as well as on determining the characteristics of competition among political parties. The process of forming new political parties and partisan competition can be explained by the prominent social cleavage that existed in peninsular Malaysia at the time of forming the political party system in the 1940 - 1950 period(2).

(ii) Compared to most political party systems in countries in Southeast Asia, the Malaysian political party system has a relatively high degree of institutionalization and stable competition among political parties. Major parties such as the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the (opposition) Democratic Action Party (DAP), the Malaysian Islamic Party (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia - PAS) have developed enduring institutional party organizations, and along with that, the association of voters with the parties is also quite stable.

(iii) In general, the Malaysian political party system consists of “two parties”: one “party” represents the peninsula of Malaysia (Western Malaysia) and the other “party” represents the states of Sarawak and Sabah (Eastern Malaysia). The Malaysian political party system reflects different divisive structures, historical legacies as well as the development of political organizations in the early years of Malaysian politics. Generally, the Eastern political party system has a weaker party organization and political competitiveness as well as more volatile political alliances than in Western Malaysia.

(iv) The level of competition among political parties in the system has increased significantly since the late 1990s. Prior to the 14th elections (in 2018), Malaysia had a stable political party system with the leading party - UMNO. The Malaysian political party system consists of two blocks which are the National Front (include UMNO and its coalition parties) on one side and the People’s Union (opposition, include the Malaysian Islamic Party - PAS, the Democratic Action Party - DAP, People’s Justice Party - PKR) on the other side. The 14th general election in May 2018 was mainly a competition between the Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan - PH) and the National Front (Barisan Nasional - BN).

From the sociological approach, it can be seen that, in the early years of forming the political party system, based on ethnic divisions, the Malaysian political elites absorbed politicized ethnic communities into the political parties such as UMNO, MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress), MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association). Besides, religious divisions also lead to the formation of parties in the Malaysian political party system such as the establishment of the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) in 1951 with a constituency base in rural and northern areas of peninsular Malaysia. Meanwhile, parties based on secular ideology rely more heavily on the electoral base in urban areas and areas with higher economic development. Thereby, creating an overlap in the rural-urban and religious-secular divisions among the parties in the Malaysian political party system. Most current Malaysian political parties are linked to social factors such as religion, ethnicity, while the stability of the political party system in Malaysia is based on the strong roots of many political parties in the system.

- Characteristics of political party system in Thailand

Since the establishment of the first political party in 1946, political parties in Thailand have evolved through a process of democratization, with periodic interruptions. Since 1979, political parties in Thailand have been increasingly institutionalized due to the relatively smooth development of the parliamentary system. Although the 1991 coup shut down political parties, it did not lead to the banning of political parties. In this context, the Thai political party system began to develop. During the 1990s, Thailand witnessed the existence of a political party system accompanied by the rise and fall, or the expansion and contraction of many political parties. The Thai political party system is shaped and influenced by social relationships or dominant forces. Among the socio-economic and socio-cultural conditions in Thailand, three conditions have an interactive effect on the development of the political system as well as on the political party system (as a subsystem within the political system), including administrative concentration; uneven development; and patron-client relationship.

Being affected by the above conditions does not mean that the Thai political party system is merely a “victim” of such conditions. The Thai political party system also influences the direction of political development. But these roles are limited and influenced by other social forces and related factors(3).

Political parties have a weak degree of institutionalization because the character of the Thai political party is influenced by factors such as personality (of the leader), funding, individualism, family relationship... which dominate the interactions among party members. Thai political parties are generally organized according to two models: the party dominated by the leader and the party of the elite (cadre party). Parties with large numbers of members and with well-crafted platforms do not exist in Thailand. Together with the lack of attractive ideological and platforms to link political parties with social groups as well as opportunities for party members to raise their voices, political parties are hindered in the development of connection with society.

A key feature of the Thai political party system is its high fragmentation, which is reflected in the changes of parties in the parliament. In other words, the Thai political party system is constantly changing. Political parties in Thailand generally do not have a stable and in-depth organizational structure. Even as social cleavage begins to shape the political party system and despite its rudimentary state, with an incomplete democracy, the political party system must not be based on the foundation of social division. The period of struggle between the “red shirts” and “yellow shirts” in the 2010s was not enough to imprint social divisions on the Thai political party system.

From an institutional approach, the weak institutionalization of the political party system makes social cleavage not materialized. And the volatile political party system is never able to create lasting links between political parties and the people(4).

2. Recommendations

Depending on the characteristics of each country, the extent of dependency on social divisions, the political party system in each democracy has been formed and developed differently. The influence and impact of political institutions on the political party system in each country also have specific characteristics. As a variable of democratic consolidation, the political party systems in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand (in the process of interacting and mobilizing in the socio-political environment) do not have the same level of stability. In other words, the degree of institutionalization of the political party system and the role of the political party system in the democratization process in each country is distinct. According to Huntington (1968): “Institutionalization is the process by which organizations and procedures acquire value and stability”(5). An institutionalized political party system is one in which all subjects form expectations and behaviors on the premise that the basic features and rules of competition among political parties, as well as in pro-party politics will prevail in the near future.

In an institutionalized political party system, there is stability in the identity as well as the way the political party acts. An institutionalized political party system has the following characteristics: (i) Stability (shown in the competitive nature and low volatility of political parties); (ii) The more institutionalized the political party system is, the deeper the relation between the political parties with society; and (iii) The more institutionalized the political party system is, the higher the level of legitimacy of the parties.

On the basis of social cleavage, the Indonesian political party system achieves a moderate to high degree of institutionalization (A. Ufen, 2007). The most important social cleavage that shapes the overall structure of the Indonesian political party system is the religious division, which divides the political party system into secular and Islamic parties. The social cleavage through which social groups are formed in favor of political parties in Indonesia is clear and has low variation. The relatively high degree of institutionalization of the Indonesian political party system is reflected in the few new influential parties appearing in the system, the stability in election competition between the parties as well as the strong connection between political parties and social classes by ideology.

Until the 14th general election (2018), the Malaysian political system was considered an “electoral tyranny”(6) with the domination of the National Front (Barisan National - BN). The 2018 general election with the victory of the Alliance of Hope led to the formation of a “2+1” political party system (including the Alliance of Hope, the National Front, and the Islamic Party PAS as a third political force), ending the long domination of the BN. During the period from 1957 to 2018, the Malaysian political party system witnessed changes with the formation, abandonment or joining of coalitions of parties. However, whether the change in the number of parties as well as the emergence of coalitions changes the nature (interactions between parties) of the Malaysian political party system is still an issue to be studied. Despite the change in “type”, the Malaysian political party system is still considered to be highly institutionalized, as demonstrated by the political party’s organizational stability and constituency cohesion.

The Thai political party system is considered to be weakly institutionalized with parties forming, winning seats in elections and then rapidly “disappearing” (e.g. Social Action Party, Thai Citizens’ Party... and more recently the dissolve of the Future Forward Party after it won third place in the 2019 general election). One reason for the weak institutionalization of the Thai political party system is the high degree of influence of local and regional elites.

From the relationship between the institutionalization of the political party system with the democratization and consolidation of democracy, many argue that an institutionalized political party system would have a positive impact on the consolidation of democracy. Thereby, the political party systems in Indonesia and Malaysia have marked important stages in the democratization process in each country. Meanwhile, the Thai political party system has not yet played a prominent role in the consolidation of democracy in the country.

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Endnotes:

(1) Aurel Croissant, Philip Volkel: Party System Types and Party System Institutionalization: Comparing New Democracies in East and Southeast Asia, 2010.

(2) Andreas Ufen: Political Party and Party System Institutionalization in Southeast Asia: A comparison of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand, German Institute of Global and Area Studies, 2007.

(3) Wolfgang Sachsenroder, Ulrike E. Frings: Political Party Systems and Democratic Development in East and Southeast Asia, Volume I: Southeast Asia, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 1998. 

(4) Andreas Ufen: Party Systems, Critical Junctures, and Cleavages in Southeast Asia, Asian Survey Vol.52, No.3, 2012, pp. 441-464.

(5) Fernanndo Casal Bértoa: Political Parties of Party Systems? Assessing the “Myth” of Institutionalization and Democracy, 2016.

(6) Chin-Huat Wong, James Chin: Malaysia - towards a topology of an electoral one-party state, Democratization, Vol.17, No. 5, October 2010.

MA. NGUYEN VIET CUONG

Ministry of Foreign Afairs

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