ASEAN nations continue to rank poorly for electoral integrity and money politics remains widespread. Calls for stronger anti-corruption measures are growing.
By Victoria Wah, edited by John Pennington
Cambodia’s electoral system is now rated the worst in the whole Asia-Pacific region and among the bottom ten in the world. The Electoral Integrity Project ranked Cambodia 145th out of the 153 countries they assessed for electoral integrity.
Furthermore, international non-governmental organization (NGO) Transparency International Cambodia found in its 2014 report that the Cambodian government’s integrity system was weak and required significant improvement.
Corrupt campaign financing is one of the biggest obstacles to fair elections in Cambodia. Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said that the Cambodian People Party (CPP) historically used state resources for its election campaigns to severely limit the opposition.
This is no longer the case. CPP spokesman Sok Eysan explained that the current laws keep the ruling party in check and prevent the party from misusing state resources. These laws have reduced corrupt campaign financing and strengthened the government’s integrity.
The Cambodian government now uses lawsuits to undermine political opponents
The Cambodian government still uses money to defeat political opponents. The government aggressively defends its ruling position by filing lawsuits that damage the opposition’s reputation and financial standing.
The CPP consistently targeted former Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Sam Rainsy. He faced six legal battles with the CPP, who recently filed a costly defamation suit against him after he claimed that the CPP gained votes with bribes. This US$1 million lawsuit was politically motivated and designed to undermine Rainsy’s legitimacy in the upcoming 2018 elections.
Harvard lecturer and EIP lead Pippa Norris explained, “The easiest way (to win an election) is to make sure your opponent is in some way not allowed to stand.” She added that imprisoning them “on basically trumped up charges” is more effective than other practices like stuffing ballots to win elections.
Singapore and Indonesia’s money politics are different
Like in Cambodia, Singapore’s ruling party has in the past used lawsuits to undermine the opposition. Costly defamation bankrupted opposition leaders, and thus disqualified them from standing for election under Singaporean law. Even if bankruptcy is avoided, these lawsuits can still undermine the opposition’s reputation and damage their chances of electoral success.
Other ASEAN nations resort primarily to electoral bribery to hinder the competition. Ruling parties offer small bribes of money and goods to the public to secure their votes. Vote buying is especially prevalent in Indonesia. The EIP reported in 2014 that money politics was the most damaging aspect to the country’s electoral integrity.
Corruption is accepted as the norm and is therefore hard to stamp out
It is difficult for the government to act without widespread public condemnation of bribery. The Indikator Politik found that four out of 10 Indonesians view vote buying as acceptable. Growing up in a culture of corruption, Indonesians see bribery as routine rather than a crime to be condemned.
Furthermore, many Indonesians see electoral bribery as an opportunity to profit. Sandra Hamid, Indonesia’s representative for the Asia Foundation, explained that the public is accustomed to seeing, “the enormous amounts of money involved in high-level corruption cases, so if they see 50,000 rupiah (US$3.75) in front of them, they think ‘OK, I’ll just grab it’.”
The poor even consider electoral bribery as a charitable act. In Indonesia, one voter could potentially obtain five to seven envelopes that each contained between 50,000 rupiah (US$3.75) and 100,000 rupiah (US$7.50). The handouts may seem small but in a country where half of the population of 250 million people lives around or below the poverty line of US$2 a day, they make a difference.
The Indonesian government is not regulating vote buying effectively
The Indonesian government does not enact effective regulations to curb vote buying. Government-enacted regulations do not significantly cap individuals’ and companies’ donations to political parties. As a result, Indonesia has very high donation limits. Individuals and corporations can donate up to 1 billion rupiah (US$82,000) and up to 7.5 billion rupiah (US$600,000) respectively to a political party. Such excessive donations allow parties to spend money buying votes.
The Indonesian government cannot and will not stop practicing electoral bribery. Strong public acceptance for this practice and weak regulations allow vote buying to continue. For the same reasons, vote buying is similarly rampant, and therefore difficult to stamp out in Malaysia and the Philippines.
Poor electoral integrity threatens greater ASEAN economic integration
The money politics that is common to most ASEAN nations contributed more than anything else to Southeast Asia’s poor electoral integrity rankings in previous years. In 2015, the average Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI) Index for Southeast Asia was 56 out of 100, well below the global average of 64, ranking it lower than anywhere else in the world.
A ruling party that holds power for too long may become self-centred and neglect social ills. Furthermore, a party that uses underhand means to gain electoral support will inevitably allow corruption to permeate into other areas of society and across the region. This will ultimately hamper national and regional economic growth.
Natalia Soebagjo, Chair of Transparency International Indonesia, said, “If left unchecked, corruption not only risks jeopardising ASEAN’s collective goals, but becoming potentially an even greater problem for each member state and their people than it is today.” The governments of ASEAN nations must come together and seek to address the corruption that is hampering greater regional integration.
Southeast Asian governments are being urged to set up an independent anti-corruption body
Transparency International has urgently called on Southeast Asian governments to set up an ASEAN Integrity Community. The formation of a regional anti-corruption body would strengthen checks on public institutions and keep corruption at bay. If formed, this independent body would keep a tighter watch on governments, reducing electoral bribery and other kinds of corruption.
From lawsuits to vote buying and bribery throughout the region, money politics continues to undermine Southeast Asia’s electoral integrity. In turn, this threatens further ASEAN economic integration. The governments in the region would do well to adopt the regional anti-corruption watch proposal in order to preserve and build on regional security and regional economic integration.