Parliamentary Elections as a Fig Leaf?

Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah this month signed a constitutional amendment that clears the way for the kingdom's first election since 1962. Dagmar Breitenbach on the move toward more liberalisation

photo: AP
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei

​​The changes to Brunei's 1959 constitution call for a parliament with 15 elected and up to 30 appointed members.

The powers of the Sultan

The constitutional changes in the Southeast Asian nation will not, however, erode the powers of the Sultan, who has portrayed the reforms as a way of allowing Brunei's young population of 350,000 to be heard.

Rüdiger Machetzki of Germany’s Hamburg-based Institute for Asian Studies, also sees the move as a reaction to another trend of the times in the region.

"We have the development of a democratic society in Indonesia, and we definitely have a more open climate, political climate, in Malaysia, so the Brunei government had to react to these developments , so they try to open up a bit."

600 years of family rule

Brunei has been ruled by the same family for over six centuries; the current Sultan of Brunei has ruled the kingdom since 1967. Analysts believe his sudden decision to reconvene parliament for the first time in 20 years as a fully appointed chamber reflects a desire to give the kingdom the aura of a liberal democracy, without actually being one.

That, of course, is the problem – what are the limits to liberalisation, and who sets them? A liberal democracy, Brunei expert Rüdiger Machetzki is convinced, is not on the horizon.

"I think they don't really know what they want. They want to keep the society relaxed, and this will be difficult, and they have to make some concessions, and part of theses concessions is the declaration that there will be a more open society, a more parcipitative society."

Last elections' results were crushed

The last time elections were held in Brunei 42 years ago, the winner was a party that wanted full democracy and to join newly independent Malaysia. The demands were rejected, leading to an armed revolt crushed by the current sultan's father, using Nepalese Gurkha troops, who still help ensure security in Brunei.

The former British protectorate achieved independence in 1984. Brunei has extensive petroleum and natural gas fields, the source of one of the highest per capita GDPs (Gross Domestic Product) in the developing world.

Time will tell, says Southeast Asian expert Machetzki, what the reforms will actually change for Brunei citizens:

"I think that nobody – even including the Brunei government and the Sultan himself – know what it means to have a more open society and at the same time to declare there are limits to openness."

The sultan has so far given no timetable for elections, though preparations are underway with a new parliament building on the drawing board, and an official panel set to study different democratic models around the world.

Dagmar Breitenbach