Yawning Bread. 31 December 2009

Two oppositions, and why in the long run, they may not matter at all, part 3




Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong may be trying to institute a system of succession where each new prime minister gets a clear run of ten to fifteen years in office, retiring at about age 65. Since he himself was born in 1952, it means that he will not be making way for his successor until 2017 or thereabouts.

Under such a system, it also means that the next prime minister would have to born around 1962 – 1967, so that he would be aged 50 – 55 by 2017.

Currently, there are only two members of the cabinet born in the 1960s -- Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, and Lui Tuck Yew, Acting Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts, both born 1961. Vivian's star may be fading. In Lui's case, he seems identified with conservative Christianity, which may prove problematic after the searing experience of the AWARE saga. This was when Christian fundamentalists tried to take over a secular civil society organisation, as part of an attempt to impose sectarian religious beliefs on a multi-denominational society and a secular state (not that Lui had any part of it).

This is the background behind the recent report about the significance of the new candidates to be unveiled by the People's Action Party (PAP) for the coming general election.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Sunday that the next general election will be very important as it must produce a line-up of leaders who can take over from him and his senior Cabinet colleagues.

According to Channel NewsAsia reports, Lee Hsien Loong, who is also the secretary general of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), said at the party's convention on Sunday morning that by 2011 or 2012, the country will have a full slate of leaders who can form a strong, clean and able government to take the nation forward for the next 20 years, and this would instill confidence in the country's future among investors and Singaporeans.

The ruling party has already identified some promising candidates and potential office-holders - mainly in their thirties and forties - for the next general election, which is due by February 2012, Lee added.

-- People's Daily Online, 1 Nov 2009,
Next general election crucial: Singapore PM. Link.

Given the PAP's grip on power, it may be more important to watch the goings-on within the PAP than what Singapore's opposition parties are doing. The PAP's succession plan is far more probable than any opposition party coming close to power, whether they worked within the system or outside it.

This is why the title of this series of essays includes "and why... they may not matter at all".

Yet, succession plans throughout history have a knack for coming to grief. I can imagine, for example, a scenario playing out like this: As 2017 approaches and a successor to Lee has to be nominated, other heavyweight cabinet ministers born in the late 1950s start to question why they should be passed over. This cohort has, for example, Ng Eng Hen, currently Education Minister (born 1958), Gan Kim Yong, currently Manpower Minister (born 1959), K Shanmugam, currently Law Minister (born 1959), Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Finance Minister (born 1957) and even Lim Hwee Hua, Second Minister for Finance (born 1959).

They may be nearing sixty by then, but they could well question why they are considered too old. They may dispute the principle that a new prime minister must by young enough to have a clear shot at 10 – 15 years in office, or even the rule that he should step aside when he reaches 65.

Such a scenario may become more likely if big egos are involved, and/or if, perhaps due to economic stagnation, there are serious differences of opinion about policy paths. In that case, a possible outcome may be a split in the People's Action Party, as two camps compete for the top job and the reins of government.

It is at that point when politics in Singapore really changes.

Look around the world, and this is quite a common story. Even in Malaysia, for all the excitement of the March 2008 elections when the ruling Barisan Nasional got a drubbing, the change point could well be said to be back in September 1998 when then-Prime Minister Mahathir sacked then-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

It was the split in the cabinet that changed the game.

Without Anwar, the two main opposition parties, DAP and PAS, could never get together to pose any real challenge to Barisan Nasional. Even now with Anwar and his PKS party as marriage broker, the wheels of the opposition alliance are always on the point of coming off.


This is the last of a three-part series, with preceding Part 1 and Part 2.

The earlier essays have also generated serious and in-depth discussion from comments. See Comments to Part 1 and Comments to Part 2..


For this reason, I would caution readers from reading too much into the significance of Malaysia's 2008 election for us here. And this will not be the first time I'm saying it. Readers may recall that I poured cold water on the applicability of that election result to Singapore's future almost the morning after.

The story from Japan

The one election that few seem to have noticed for its parallels is the recent one in August this year when Yukio Hatoyama, Ichiro Ozawa and their Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) unseated the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) which had ruled Japan alone or in coalition for nearly all the past half century.

After this long period, the LDP was composed of ministers with no common touch, and who relied too much on faceless bureaucrats for decision-making. Worse, the ministers continued to live it up; one scandal after another felled members of the cabinet, and with them, the party's reputation. Retired bureaucrats often parachuted into cushy sinecure positions. Meanwhile, the country's chief pension fund system broke down because records had been lost.

There was a widespread sense of economic misdirection despite middle-class comfort, a sense that while on a day-to-day basis, things weren't too bad, the country had lost its way and the future looked darker each passing year. People felt that the ruling party had no new ideas, and were too often implementing more of the same old policies that hadn't really worked.

Is it conceivable that one day, Singapore too might find itself in a rut like this? I'd say yes, because we get hints of the same elements -– ministers with neither vision nor charisma, bureaucrats on autopilot with fat nest-eggs, and an economic path that seems to get rockier and rockier.

But where did the DPJ come from, to seize the reins of power? For decades, the main opposition party in the Japanese parliament was the Japan Socialist Party (JSP), but it never really made enough headway to get near a majority.

The power behind the DPJ is Ichiro Ozawa, who was once the Chief Secretary of the LDP. He left the LDP after an internal fight with other faction bosses in 1993, thereafter wending his way through many small parties before eventually leading the DPJ.

He has his critics and it is too early to say how successful Hatoyama's government will be, but the point is that it took an ex-LDP leader to unseat the LDP.

In the preceding decade, as the LDP's grip weakened, the JSP and smaller parties that sprang up independently, such as the New Komeito Party, were invited to be coalition partners. Even today, despite winning 308 lower house seats out of 480 in the August general election, the DPJ governs with coalition partners because by itself the DPJ does not have a majority in the upper house.

Yet, none of these small parties have any hope of getting to power on their own. Not before, not even now when the LDP has been humbled. It appears that a hegemonic power falls not so much because opposition parties succeed in winning voter support gradually, but because Goliath first stumbles in its management of the country, then splits through infighting, with the rump group delivering the coup de grâce some years later.

If that is the standard model, then even if watching opposition parties is more fun, watching the PAP may prove more productive.

© Yawning Bread 


The story from Mexico

For over 60 years, from the 1920s, Mexico was effectively a one-party state, ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The PRI developed an internal system of nominating a successor for each presidential election, presidents being restricted to just one term of six years. Largely, this system was merely a case of an outgoing president naming his preferred successor, with everybody else falling into line.

In 1986, some key leaders of the PRI disputed the internal process for selecting a nominee, forming a faction called Democratic Current to press for change. This faction nominated Cuauhtemoc Cardenas (picture above), a former senator and governor of the state of Michoacan, as its preferred candidate. Almost immediately, the mainstream of the PRI froze out, even expelled, members of the Democratic Current. Even so, Cardenas stood for election in July 1988 as the nominee of the Democratic National Front, a loose coalition of small leftwing parties, against PRI's candidate, Carlos Salinas.

The results of that election continue to be disputed to this day. The computer used for counting votes mysteriously went on the blink and when it was restored, Salinas was announced the winner.

Cardenas then went on to form the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) which is one of the three main parties in Mexico today.

Because Salinas' victory was widely considered suspicious, it effectively smashed PRI's aura of invincibility. Thereafter, there have been real contests in Mexican elections. Finally, in 2000, PRI lost the presidency to Vicente Fox, a candidate of the National Action Party (PAN), ending PRI's long hold on power in Mexico.

Unlike Cardenas' party, the PRD, Vicente Fox's PAN was not an offshoot of the PRI. It is about as old as the PRI, and like the PRI, inheritor of the left-right struggle that defined Mexican politics in the first half of the 20th century. The long-dominant PRI was centre-left, while opposition PAN was centre-right in ideology. However, through the middle and second half of the 20th century, the PRI's grip on power was so complete that PAN was in the political wilderness for decades.

One could say that PAN's return from the wilderness was a result of the split in the PRI. It was after Cardenas challenged PRI's process for nominating successors and nearly succeeded in defeating the PRI's candidate Salinas, that the way was open for PAN to win presidential elections 12 years later.