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The View From Asia

How democracy is working out across Asia

Leadership succession, politicking ahead of polls and the merit of sole-candidate elections were the focus of several commentaries in Asia News Network papers this week. Here are excerpts:

Southern India's politics

Kuldip Nayar
The Statesman, India

Politics in the South is no different from that of the North. The personality cult dominates both. People go mad over leaders they prefer, and even go to the extent of self-immolating themselves in frenzy.

Ms V.K. Sasikala has become a cult figure in Tamil Nadu, having been a close aide of former chief minister J. Jayalalithaa. Today, she is the interim general secretary of the Tamil Nadu's ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and the party has elected her to be the leader of its legislative wing. The outgoing caretaker chief minister O. Panneerselvam, who was not even present when the decision was made, has been asked to resign.

But the sudden turn of events in Tamil Nadu has sent everyone into a tizzy. Mr Panneerselvam, who was the late chief minister Jayalalithaa's close confidant, has come out strongly against Ms Sasikala, accusing her of trying to usurp power. Ms Sasikala's swearing-in ceremony seems to have been put off for the moment as the governor, apparently at the insistence of the Home Ministry, is dragging his feet.

Nevertheless, this is not an opportune moment for a change of guard in the state. A verdict is pending in the disproportionate assets case against Ms Sasikala and her mentor Jayalalithaa. The apex court has already indicated that judgment will be delivered within a week. Whether Ms Sasikala wins or loses, her stock is already waning.

Ms Sasikala was never nominated to be Ms Jayalalithaa's successor. Her claim to fame can be attributed only to her proximity to Ms Jayalalithaa.

Whenever Ms Jayalalithaa was in jail, or away due to court cases, she depended on Mr Panneerselvam and even foisted on him the chief minister's car. And, as a loyal party worker, he kept the seat warm all the time for her. Indeed, nobody else came anywhere near her.

India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has very little following in Tamil Nadu because it is considered a party of the North. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's strategy seems to be one of keeping a close watch. Maybe, the Supreme Court verdict against Ms Sasikala will end speculation.

However, it will be the BJP's endeavour to register its presence in the state. Ms Sasikala's husband M. Natarajan is in talks with Indian National Congress leaders and may have triggered BJP president Amit Shah to take stock of the situation. The latter is said to be in favour of Mr Panneerselvam, an affable man. The BJP hopes to ride on his shoulders to make a future presence in Tamil Nadu.

What seems to be in Mr Panneerselvam's favour is that public mood is against Ms Sasikala, who has been blamed for not allowing Ms Jayalalithaa's niece to visit her ailing aunt.

How this entire drama will unfold is difficult to say. But one thing that is certain is that Ms Sasikala is a force to reckon with. So is Mr Panneerselvam. Fortunately for the latter, the public is behind him.

A Malay tsunami in the making?

Lim Sue Goan
Sin Chew Daily, Malaysia

Petrol prices have gone up by 20 cents, while government hospitals have increased their charges. This means that the next general election is unlikely to be held in April, because the ruling coalition does not have sufficient time to create a "feel good" atmosphere within such a short period of time.

Nonetheless, Umno's divisional and branch meetings will be held earlier than scheduled.

If the 14th General Election is held this year, it will very likely be in September, after the country celebrates its 60th anniversary of independence.

Another reason the election will not be held in April is that Umno is still trying to consolidate its Malay vote bank, with the party facing competition from Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and Umno splinter group Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, founded by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

On Wednesday last week, PAS held a closed-door meeting with Bersatu leaders over possible cooperation between the two parties. PAS deputy president Tuan Ibrahim and his Bersatu counterpart Mukhriz Mahathir issued a joint statement after the meeting, saying that the two parties had agreed to set up a joint technical committee to follow up on cooperation.

Apparently, PAS is adopting a "please all" strategy. By working with Bersatu, it aims to warn Umno that if you are not serious about helping us amend Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965, we'll go with your rivals.

While PAS has reached some consensus with Bersatu over political cooperation to bog down the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang claimed they only met on Bersatu's invitation and no agreement on fighting BN together was achieved.

Meanwhile, Mr Hadi was absent from the ceremony to send off a humanitarian ship for the Rohingya on Friday last week, saying he was in hospital for a medical examination. Mr Hadi's refusal to join Prime Minister Najib Razak at the event might be meant to deliver a certain message, although Mr Najib was heard saying "Muslim solidarity" in his speech.

There is also disagreement within PAS on whether to work with Umno, BN's main component party, to help it retain control of the federal administration.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Action Party is adjusting its attitude towards Islamic issues in order to make a significant breakthrough among Malay voters.

The opposition thinks the upcoming general election will see a "Malay tsunami". But does the hushed reaction among the majority Malays signal a calm before the storm?

Sole candidates harm political parties

Gun Gun Heryanto
The Jakarta Post, Indonesia

Nine regencies and cities will see sole candidates up against blank boxes (on ballot papers) during the simultaneous regional elections next Wednesday.

Of the 93 regencies and cities that will hold elections on Feb 15, nine will see only one candidate pair running, although this does not necessarily mean that they will go unchallenged.

In the regencies of Buton in South-east Sulawesi, West Tulang Bawang in Lampung, Pati in Central Java, Landak in West Kalimantan, Tambraw in West Papua - and the cities of Tebing Tinggi in North Sumatra, Sorong in West Papua, Jayapura in Papua and Central Maluku in Maluku - the sole candidates will compete with the blank box on election day.

The General Elections Commission (KPU) will declare them the winners if they manage to secure more than 50 per cent of valid votes. If the sole candidates fail to garner those votes, the KPU will re-run the elections at the next simultaneous regional elections next year.

The phenomenon of sole candidate pairs took place in the 2015 simultaneous local elections in Blitar in East Java, Tasikmalaya in West Java and North Timor Tengah in East Nusa Tenggara.

The Constitutional Court allowed sole candidates to contest elections for the posts of governor, regent and mayor in order to respect the constitutional rights of voters.

Despite being legally allowed, the phenomenon of sole-candidate elections constitutes an irony of democracy.

Simply put, the phenomenon evinces the failure of political parties to provide a competitive channel for local elections.

In the nine aforementioned regions, for instance, the sole candidates accumulated support from the majority of political parties and left no support for other aspirants.

Though sole-candidate elections are legal and acceptable, they are clearly largely uncompetitive.

Political parties should evaluate this phenomenon.


  • The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 news media entities. For more, see www.asianews.network
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2017, with the headline 'How democracy is working out across Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe