This post takes a look at two political systems which once described several countries in Southeast Asia: the bureaucratic polity and consociational democracy.


The political development of countries in Southeast Asia began after a long period of colonisation. Except for Thailand, after escaping from colonial rule, the newly decolonised countries had to devise their own political system. The way they achieved them differed significantly from one another. Although many of these countries practice some form of democracy — say, Malaysia’s consociational (or some may say, ethnic) democracy — the type of democracy is shaped by unique cultural, social, and economic factors.

This time, I’ll look at two political systems that have been present in Southeast Asia: the bureaucratic polity, which once described Thailand and Indonesia; and consociational democracy, which once described Malaysia.

The bureaucratic polity

The bureaucratic polity model was first proposed in the 1960s by Fred Riggs [book] to explain Thailand’s monarchy. It was later used by Karl Jackson [paywall] to explain Indonesia during the Suharto era.

In a bureaucratic polity, political power is concentrated within a small group of elites — usually between autocrats, technocrats, and the military. It is often facilitated by a large power gap between the people — in cases where an educated, urban middle class has yet to exist or is currently under development — and the ruling elite. Additionally, political and legal institutions are still rather weak and lack legitimacy, and personal authority often trumps the power of institutions. As such, decision-making often takes place far away from the public’s eyes and reach; hence, the concentration of power in a small “island”. This meant politicians often ruled to maximise their own benefit, rather than caring for the people’s needs.


Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda


In the case of Thailand, the bureaucratic polity system is reflected in the supreme power of the monarchy and its control over the armed forces and bureaucrats. However, Riggs’ thesis would later fail to explain the popular overthrow of the Thanom military regime in 1973 and the fading of the monarch’s power in governments afterwards.

This led to McCargo [PDF] proposing the network monarchy thesis. It stipulates that Thailand’s political systems could be described as a power-sharing scheme between the King, the military, and the Privy Council. In the network monarchy, the King would have the highest legitimacy and can act as an arbiter of political decisions in times of crisis. Should the King wish to intervene in politics, he would generally do so through proxies in the Privy Council (which now mostly consists of military people from the current junta). At that time, the lead proxy was Prem Tinsulanond. This mode of ruling meant that the King’s legitimacy would never be questioned — failures of the system would be pinned on bad politicians. This system, deliberately maintained since 1973, would be disturbed in 2001 by Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was bent on replacing the existing network with his own.

In Indonesia, the bureaucratic polity thesis might have held true during the early years of the Suharto regime, during his time of collecting power. Suharto concentrated power within the TNI and the Berkeley Mafia (a group of economists trained at Berkeley whom he entrusted to make economic policy). However, it could be argued that approaching the end of his rule, Suharto’s regime grew more patrimonial — Suharto would be the “super-oligarch” overseeing a number of lesser oligarchs. Of course, this now has changed. Indonesia has adopted a vibrant representative democracy after Suharto. The presence of direct elections at the national and regional level attest to the democratisation process that Indonesia has undergone. However, there continues to be patronage politics and the presence of old oligarchs in the system, causing some flaws in the system.

Consociational democracy

J.S. Furnivall [book] contended that plural societies — referring to societies with two or more social orders that live together, but don’t mingle — would have a hard time adopting democracy because they shared nothing in common, except for economic interests. To hold these separate entities together would require force, which was usually linked to colonial power.


Arend Lijphart


One way to adopt democracy in a plural society was by constructing a consociational democracy. This model was proposed by Arend Lijphart [book], who argued:

“…the centrifugal tendencies inherent in a plural society are counteracted by the cooperative attitudes and behaviour of the leaders of the different segments of the population.”

There are four characteristics of the consociational democracy:

1) The grand coalition

This aspect is the cornerstone of consociational democracy. It functions as a platform for representation between the significant segments (usually ethnic) that govern the country, so all segments can participate in government regardless of their size.

2) Mutual veto

Lijphart asserts that a “mutual veto” system be followed within the grand coalition. This is to discourage majority rule, as it is assumed in a plural society, such privilege would be catastrophic for integrity. A mutual veto means that all minority groups in the grand coalition have the right to veto a decision made by the grand coalition.

Lijphart remained optimistic that the minority would not use the veto right that often. Firstly, since all minority groups are given the veto, they would not use it that often for fear that it might be used against them. Say, that in a situation where Minority Group A vetoes one decision, the next time, they could be vetoed by Minority Group B when deciding on an issue that privileges Group A. The dangers of deadlock would be enough to prevent an abuse of the veto. Second, like nuclear weapons, the reassurance of the availability of a veto would be enough to make these groups not abuse it.   

3) Proportionality

Within the grand coalition, a principle of proportionality should be applied. This means that the share of seats in the grand coalition should be proportionate with the ethnicities on the ground. If the majority is of ethnic A, then A should be provided with more seats in the grand coalition. However, the mutual veto serves to limit the power of A and ensures that A does not implement a tyranny of the majority.

One could criticize this as being un-meritocratic and based on affirmative action. However, in a plural society, it is important for all segments to participate in the political process equally.

4) Segmental authority

Lijphart defines this as “… rule by the minority over itself in the area of the minority’s exclusive concern.” (p. 41) What this means is:

  1. That in areas of common interest, the grand coalition would decide. This would cover things like central fiscal policies, defence and security, and other areas that affect all elements of society equally.
  2. That in areas of specific interests, the minority will be provided with exclusive power to decide. Say, ethnic group A has unique cultural interests, it would be allowed to decide for itself without having to refer to the grand coalition.


13 May 1969 race riots in Malaysia


One country which was once considered a consociational democracy was Malaysia. The Barisan Nasional (at least, prior to the 1969 race riots) was a “grand coalition” consisting of UMNO, MCA, and MIC. It has been characterised as an elite power-sharing arrangement [PDF] as the Barisan Nasional governed not on the basis of popular deliberation but rather through elite deliberation. This was further exacerbated due to the presence of repressive laws such as the Internal Security Act, Sedition Act, and Printing Presses and Publications Acts, which discouraged civil society participation in politics. But as of now, it has been argued that Malaysia has gradually moved away from the old model. The old consociational model has “all but broken down”. Firstly, there is only one dominant party (UMNO), not a grand coalition. Second, the concentration of power has moved into the majority ethnic group — the Malays.

It is interesting to see whether Malaysia will move on to adopt a system of ethnic democracy, which is described by Sammy Smooha [PDF] as a:

“…democratic political system that combines the extension of civic and political rights to permanent residents who wish to be citizens with the bestowal of a favoured status on the majority group.”

In other words, there would be a majority ethnic group that holds more political privileges than the other minority ethnic groups. It could also be described as a form of “diminished democracy”.


I have explained two types of political systems that have been used to describe several countries in Southeast Asia. The bureaucratic polity once explained Thailand and Indonesia, although it would later be inadequate to account for new political changes. Similarly, consociational democracy is expected to be rendered irrelevant in Malaysia due to recent political changes. The one takeaway is that descriptions of political systems are transient; as the political dynamics change, the political system will also follow suit. However, it is also important to learn from history to know what failed and what worked. As Southeast Asian countries progress with democratisation, it is interesting to see if the Western notion of democracy may actually work in this region.