The View From Asia

The shades of ambiguity in this season of elections

PHOTO: REUTERS

Puzzling election results, talk of sops and fund infusions in election campaigns raise concern among Asia News Network commentators. Here are excerpts.

Confusing election results

Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation, Thailand

Nobody is happy.

That probably sums up the feeling after Sunday's general election, which was predictably dictated by the prolonged political divide rather than tax, education and cannabis promises.

Mr Abhisit Vejjajiva had the most obvious reason to be upset, but the Pheu Thai alliance will also be dismayed by the questionable legitimacy of its self-declared victory.

The other side, meanwhile, may look at the popular vote with some satisfaction but will be staring at a rocky political scene from now on.

For the first time ever, a pro-Shinawatra party failed to top both the "seats" and the "votes" table. Pheu Thai won the greatest number of constituency seats but dropped to second in the competition for votes.

Its main opponent, the Phalang Pracharat Party, won the second-highest number of seats but gathered the most votes nationwide.

Understandably, both camps have declared victory.

Pheu Thai is adamant the election confirmed its right to take power, which has been maintained against all odds. Not so fast, said Phalang Pracharat.

Pheu Thai can justifiably claim that the dissolution of its sister party, Thai Raksa Chart, snatched away millions of votes from the camp.

Phalang Pracharat could respond that the remarkable support it got as a new party in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand, thrashing the Democrat Party in the process, must count for something.

Thais remain deeply divided.

 
 

That's the big picture emerging from the election. Spurred by fears that Thaksin Shinawatra could return, many life-long Democrat supporters played safe and turned against the party.

There are supporters of both parties who are sympathetic and understanding, but Pheu Thai, or its top echelon at least, has grown to represent one ideology, which Phalang Pracharat has vowed to oppose while promising to do a better job at it than the Democrats. That's why Mr Abhisit was rejected by the voters and sent into early retirement.

Election numbers sparked pride in the new star of Thai politics, Future Forward, but they will also force it to rethink what Thais really want.

Voters embraced Mr Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit's message in huge numbers, but the party he shows contempt for received an even bigger share of the vote.

The Future Forward leader has vowed to dismantle "all legacies of the junta", but how he acknowledges the will of almost eight million citizens who voted for Phalang Pracharat could represent his biggest challenge.

It's reasonable to assume that a big chunk of pro-Future Forward votes came from first-time voters, many of whom liked Mr Thanathorn's youthful image as an alternative to old-guard politics.

As a fresh face, he deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to past activities and current ideologies, but he would be making a big mistake if he thinks all his voters were driven by ideology and principle.

Of the top three parties in the election standings, Future Forward lies in the most peculiar place.

Pheu Thai sells and will continue to sell the Shinawatras, while Phalang Pracharat is projecting itself as the party's main opposition.

These "markets" rarely overlap and have prevented any newcomer from shining, but somehow Future Forward has managed to become the third-biggest force in the industry and threaten both leaders.

Days, probably weeks, of nasty horse-trading are now guaranteed.

Lowering corporate taxes

Editorial
The Jakarta Post, Indonesia

Too much politics, especially in an election year as we are in right now, could distort economic policies.

This is the risk we see in incumbent President Joko Widodo's obsession with his policy recommendation for a lower corporate income tax, which he has been promoting apparently in a bid to gain votes from business people.

In a campaign speech at a rally attended by 10,000 business people in Jakarta last week, Mr Joko tacitly expressed his disappointment at the slowness with which Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati followed up on his recommendation to cut the corporate income tax rate, which is currently 25 per cent, to make Indonesia more attractive to investors.

True, a lower tax burden could make Indonesia more attractive to investors because similar taxes in other Asean countries are lower, at 20 per cent each in Thailand and Vietnam, 24 per cent in Malaysia and 17 per cent in Singapore.

But the tax rate is not the only factor influencing investors' decisions.

 

Simply lowering the tax rate in isolation from badly needed overall tax reform is only a race to the bottom.

Other factors such as the licensing bureaucracy, legal certainty, physical infrastructure, labour rules and the availability of a skilled workforce are no less important.

Put in another way, the corporate income tax policy should be reviewed as part of an overall reform of the taxation system.

The blunt fact is the capacity of the tax system is unacceptably low, as can be seen from our utterly low tax ratio of 11 per cent (tax receipts against gross domestic product), which reflects massive tax evasion.

Reform and modernisation of the tax administration should be given the highest priority because of its critical role in securing fiscal sustainability in the long run.

But tax reform, including a rate cut, is possible only if the tax laws are revised, and this should go through a political process at the House of Representatives.

Moreover, it will be easier to launch such difficult and politically sensitive reforms, a key to Indonesia's medium-term revenue strategy, at the outset of a newly elected government's term.

Political funding

Editorial
The Statesman, India

The more transparent things are seemingly made, the more opaque they become, especially in the world's largest democracy that will have 900 million people casting their votes over a seven-phase exercise in 39 days in more than one million polling booths.

Eyebrows are being raised about Kolkata accounting for more than 50 per cent of the 937 electoral bonds, worth 3.56 billion rupees (S$69.7 million), purchased in the January 2019 cycle, with little explanation about what makes the city so attractive for electoral bond buyers though it is generally known in subterranean circles that Kolkata is the headquarters for the country's jama-kharch phenomenon, under which cash is converted to cheques.

The Electoral Bonds Scheme 2018 permits corporates, those part-owned by overseas interests included, to fund elections anonymously, fuelling suspicions that instead of inducing transparency, they have induced opacity, with even shell companies allowed to be conduits for funds. Both the amounts and clean sources of funding are of critical importance for the Indian ballots.

Thus far the Election Commission of India has only provided the provisional expenditure of the 2014 Lok Sabha election of 38.7 billion rupees, which seems reasonable enough, compared with the projections for the 2019 event, at 500 billion rupees, by the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies.

Not even the Americans spent as much on their 2016 presidential and congressional races - US$6.5 billion (S$8.8 billion), to go by the numbers from OpenSecrets.org, the "money in American politics" tracker.

The Association for Democratic Reforms' findings that 53.9 per cent of the Bharatiya Janata Party's 10.3 billion rupee political funding was anonymous and that, of the Congress Party's 2 billion rupees, 60.2 per cent was from sources unknown, have their own tale to tell.


 • The View From Asia is a compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 23 news organisations.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2019, with the headline 'The shades of ambiguity in this season of elections'. Print Edition | Subscribe