The Demands for Change and Electoral Democracy of the Malaysian Society

The demands of Malaysians are clear; the country is in need of credible change agents. Discontented with political voices purporting to represent the people within the Parliament, the past years have seen rallying cries and open platforms to demand and instil a sense of urgency for change.

This demand for change has been supported by the growth of civil society movements, particularly with respect to electoral issues. These civil societies are becoming increasingly important within the political framework of the country; many Malaysian civil societies have aligned to draft concrete demands for a clean and fair elections to political parties and independent candidates contending in the 13th General Elections; arguing that these demands are reflective of the aspirations of the various sections of the Malaysian people and are based on the current state of the Malaysian political, economic, social and cultural society.

Certainly, Malaysians are deserving of a true democracy and not just a functioning one based on the procedural implementations of democratic elections as prescribed under domestic laws. To quote Herbert Marcuse, the “free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves”.

For a real democracy to exist, Malaysians must have feasible options to be elected into the government. At present, the average Malaysians today are at a cross-road; forced to make a decision on democratic governance based on the current palate of politicians available before them. It is not unreasonable for Malaysians to demand certain standards out of their politicians. It is unfortunate to note that in the present political climate, the politicians in Malaysia seem to have realized that engaging in political mudslinging of their opponents is a better strategy than directly confronting any substantive public policy issues which are in dire need of being discussed.

In a true democracy, both the incumbent government and the challenger must portray a basic level of competency as well as to treat the people as intelligent beings which are part and parcel of the governing process. Political leaders must be pushed to prioritize key issues instead of short-term electoral ambitions and small-scale policy fights. This can be done through convincing these leaders that public confidence will increase as real issues such as risky budget deficits and income equality go noticed and addressed.

The upcoming General Elections promises to be a tight one, with many Malaysians no longer satisfied with just political mudslinging and polarization of specific segments of society. Our citizens are becoming increasingly more aware of their power, pushing for politicians to come up with elections manifestos and shadow governments not just from the current incumbent government but also from the opposition wishing to overthrow the ruling coalition. If statistics3 and voter sentiments can be counted on, the voter turnout in the 2013 General Elections will be at an all-time high. This is the true nature of democracy, Demos Kratos, Makkhal Sakhti, or people’s power.

The Fight for Power – The Incumbent versus the Challenger

As an incumbent, Barisan Nasional certainly comes into the election with several advantages. First of all, Jacobson and Kernell (1981) contend that incumbent governments have the advantage of the selection effect; they are ex ante better politicians. Second, Fenno (1978) posits that incumbents have a higher probability of being elected into office based on their actions and records of service. These two explanations of why incumbents generally have a higher rate of being elected into office can be used to reflect the natural success of a representative democracy; certainly it is interesting that Barisan Nasional (and its predecessor Perikatan) has won all the Federal Elections and most of the state elections.

A much more sobering perspective, however, can be found from Key (1949) who points out that incumbents who are elected generally make use of their advantageous access to institutions in order to “entrench themselves in power regardless of their performance in office”. Such an observation is certainly not inapplicable to Malaysia; in many ways, the government has been under serious allegations that its key reform initiatives and recent budget structures are designed so as to induce the electorates to keep the ruling coalition in power.

Despite the obvious structural advantages in favour of incumbent governments, this is not to say that the opposition coalition is in any inherent disadvantage and should be counted out of the race for seats during the upcoming 13th General Elections. On the contrary, Pakatan Rakyat has the distinct advantage of being the opposition in a climate where citizens are generally unsatisfied with the status quo and is demanding for change. Generally speaking, it is more difficult for incumbent governments to lead turnarounds and overhaul their nation due to the lingering suspicion of the citizens that the incumbent politicians may be stuck in the past.

This advantage has not gone unnoticed by Pakatan Rakyat. Previously criticized as being ideologically disparate, Pakatan Rakyat has now seized the opportunity of being a change agent by placing its ideological emphasis on the creation of a people’s government. This can be seen to have culminated in the Pakatan Rakyat Elections Manifesto which came out last week; a manifesto which is punctuated with commitments to implement a thorough change process within the nation. In particular, the Pakatan Rakyat manifesto places emphasis on democratic governance on the basis of people’s power. The emphasis is put on a slave government, where the powers of the government stems directly from the mandate of the people, obtained through a free, fair and transparent process. Overall, the manifesto promises a government where dishonesty is not commonplace and elections are not manipulated.

Understandably, the manifesto is far from a binding obligation; it is difficult for political processes to adapt smoothly to real-world impulses as a result of various factors such as cognitive limitations and institutional delays. Hence, the manifesto does not set the tone nor can it vouch for Pakatan Rakyat’s capabilities to govern the country.

Nevertheless, noting the apparent silence of Pakatan Rakyat in introducing its shadow government despite repeated calls by the citizens, their credibility as a change agent and a legitimate political force will be dependent on their actual performance while in power as the federal government. It is expected that one of the key difficulties for Pakatan Rakyat in the event of them being elected into power would be in having the requisite capabilities to implement its reform programmes through the Parliament. In particular, passing draft laws would be difficult in consideration of conventional practices in Malaysia to vote alongside political lines as opposed to the merits of specific policies or agendas.

While Barisan Nasional appears to speak with a single voice and determined to resolve any internal disputes quickly in preparation for the General Election, it would be interesting to consider the extent to which efforts of participatory governance and engaging the people in decision-making processes will play out in the outcome of the elections.

On the other hand, while Pakatan Rakyat has seemingly been able to gain a sense of what is demanded by the people as well as the Malaysian civil societies, a key factor in determining their progress in the General Elections would lie in the coalition’s ability to resolve internal differences and project a united front to convince the citizens that they are able to govern the country without any ideological disparity between the parties.

Strategic Outlook

The challenge facing the citizens with regards to the incoming elections (and in fact, all future elections) is to ensure that politicians engage with each other on substantive issues. At present, Malaysian politics are particularly hardened and considered to have become extremely polarized, with the government coalition and the opposition coalition being frequently at odds with each other. As a result, centrist policymaking and moderate political persuasions are increasingly being sidelined by the mobilization of maximalists who choose instead to focus on wedge issues which are driving Malaysians apart and promoting disunity.

Whether artificial or genuine, it is interesting to note that both the government and opposition project confident tones on achieving victory in the next general election, assuming no manipulation or illegal interferences. It is apparent hence that the government and opposition coalition have extremely different senses as to what is in act happening, suggesting the existence of extremely polarized voting segments on the ground. Such polarization should be monitored and tempered so as to prevent it from reaching potentially dangerous levels; peaceful relations amongst Malaysians must after all be made a priority over any other political or self-interested agendas.

What is resoundingly loud and clear is that the average Malaysians are taking the elections very seriously. It is important hence, that politicians do the same. When the election results are announced, all eyes will be on the newly elected government of the country, who will be judged based on its resolve to stand by its reform initiatives based on its pre-elections commitments.

Meanwhile, the electoral watchdogs made up of accredited and unaccredited observers will be responsible in ensuring the legitimacy of election as well as the post-election government. CPPS in particular is hopeful for a major public policy initiative to be initiated and dealt seriously as a result of any flaws revealed arising out of the incoming 13th General Elections.

References

Herbert Marcuse, 1964, One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society

IDEAS, Voter Turnout Data for Malaysia, available on http://www.idea.int/vt/countryview.cfm?CountryCode=MY

Jacobson, GC. and Kernell, S. 1981, Strategy and Choice in Congressional Elections. New Haven: Yale University Press

Fenno, R. 1978, Home Style: House Members in their Districts. New York: Longman

Key, VO. 1949, Southern Politics in State and Nation. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, cited by Trounstine, J. Information, Turnout, and Incumbency in Local Elections

Pakatan Rakyat, Manifesto Rakyat, 2013, available online at http://www.pakatanrakyat.my/files/ENGManifesto-BOOK.pdf

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