Political parties in federalism in Asia
The Asian region has been the site of considerable federal reforms over the past few decades. In 2015, Nepal passed a new constitution and became a federation with elections to federal, provincial and local levels in 2017. Indonesia and the Philippines introduced constitutionally protected forms of decentralisation, while Myanmar established a federal structure comprising states, regions and self-administered zones. Federalism remains a fundamental issue in Sri Lanka. In each case, federalism is a response to ethnic division and conflict. But does it work in practice?
Political parties are integral to the success and failure of federal and democratic reforms, particularly in deeply divided societies. If political parties fail to act in a federal spirit, or merely provoke ethnic tensions, then federalism is doomed to fail.
This blog piece focuses on my recent research on ethnic and multiethnic parties in federal countries in Asia, with a particular focus on internal democracy, decentralisation and deliberation. My research focussed on four countries – India, Malaysia, Myanmar (pre-coup) and Nepal. I coded representative samples of political party statutes in multiethnic states with federal systems in Asia and identified or clarified the internal practices of decentralisation, deliberation and other approaches to decision-making in a subset of those political parties, through elite interviews and other primary sources. This is then related to their policies and, in particular, how they address federal reforms and ethnic division.
It is fair to say, that federalism in the region is facing a significant challenge. For one, it was striking how centralised the parties are in almost all cases, particularly those parties based in Nepal. There seemed to be a near complete failure to recognise the ‘spirit of federalism’ as every level of the parties is controlled from the centre (usually a few select leaders), despite the federalisation and decentralised structures. Key leaders decide local government candidates for example, and this practice is rarely questioned. With such a highly integrated party system, federalism in practice in Nepal seems a long way off. India’s parties are the most decentralised, which should not be a surprise given the size and complexity of its federal system.
Corruption is also a problem in each case. Because most parties tended not to provide funding to local government candidates and very little to the provincial level, running for these seats was seen as an investment needing a return. This incentivises patronage, nepotism and corruption at the local and provincial levels, heightened by the relatively underdeveloped local level institutional infrastructure.
Thirdly, there is sometimes a trade-off between aggregative forms of internal democracy, and deliberative forms. When a party is able to address the concerns of its members through deliberation, and in many cases, reaching a consensus, voting procedures are not so important. But this is harder the larger the party is, and most of the large parties tend towards voting procedures rather than deliberative procedures. The Democratic Action Party in Malaysia is a notable exception, and it is also a leading voice of moderation in Malaysian politics.
Finally, in federal systems in Asia, both ethnic and multiethnic parties are key players. At the central level, large multiethnic parties tend to go into coalition with smaller ethnic parties, many of which are in control or at least prominent at the provincial level (see Breen 2020). But ethnic parties are not very democratic, and multiethnic parties are all too often the parties of the dominant group.
I found that multiethnic proclaim their openness, impartiality and that they represent all peoples and religions. But the practice reveals a deep bias towards the interests of one or few groups. “I feel more comfortable with a Muslim leader. I know they understand my feeling. But I have no problem with other religions, and they are all part of our party”, said one party worker about his (purportedly) multiethnic party in Malaysia.
Other parties are proud to proclaim their ethnic basis. The Chin National Front in Myanmar is one such party. To be a candidate, one must be a Chin national by descent, and “be loyal to the party and to put Chin nationalism first” (CNF 2020).
For my research, I hypothesised that multiethnic parties have conditions that make them more deliberative and democratic than ethnic parties, but that parties are generally more deliberative and democratic at the local rather than the national level.
The outcomes supported the hypotheses, with one important proviso. That is, on average, ethnic parties are still not very democratic or deliberative even when they are small and operate only at the local level. There are some exceptions, but the differences between small ethnic and small multiethnic parties is substantial. Medium-sized multiethnic parties are also more deliberative and more democratic (internally) than medium-sized ethnic parties, but not by so much. With respect to large parties, there is little difference. But overall, multiethnic parties are far more democratic and deliberative than their ethnic counterparts.
This is not to say that ethnic parties are not an important part of federal systems in Asia. Ethnic parties help to hold large multiethnic parties to account and bring ethnic issues to the table. They provide forms of representation that can ameliorate the likelihood of ethnic minorities finding alternative (violent) means of representing their rights. And they can hold power in provinces and at the local level in their own right. Further, as ethnic parties become more institutionalised, it is likely that they will become less personality based and more democratic.
In summary, federalism in Asia has been facing significant challenges of late, from rising religious nationalism and populism, to the pressures associated with economic crises and the COVID-19 pandemic. To overcome these challenges, political parties need to work in the spirit of federalism, to be internally democratic, and work to address ethnic issues in an open and deliberative manner.
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