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Bonuses in peril

DESPITE all the madness in 2009, it was a year in which Malaysians saw positive changes on two important fronts: ethnic relations and good governance. A good example, notwithstanding the initial flip-flopping, is the federal government’s decision to revamp the racist and fascist content of the Biro Tata Negara courses after being forced to by Selangor’s bold boycott. Equally commendable are the administrative reforms in Pakatan Rakyat (PR)-held states, and the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s Government Transformation Programme.

Call these “bonuses of democracy” if you like: Malaysian voters are getting paid for their collective decision in the 2008 elections. The question is, how long will these bonuses last?

The last time Malaysians got paid such bonuses was after their 1999 rejection of the BN government. Then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was forced to retire a few years later. Under his successor Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, for a while, it seemed that extravagant megaprojects, corruption, red-tape, arrogance and exclusive politics had no place in the New Malaysia. Today, the only legacy of the Abdullah administration appears to be the one-day processing time for passports.

Abdullah’s “work with me, not for me” and Islam Hadhari taglines were soon buried by new scandals and keris-waving. Why?

Frustrating cycle

A simple answer is that politics ceased to be competitive with the early successes of Abdullah’s reformist gestures. For example, without any commitment to reform the Anti-Corruption Agency, he nevertheless became a champion against corruption with the pre-2004-elections prosecution of former Perwaja Steel managing director Tan Sri Eric Chia and former cabinet minister Tan Sri Kasitah Gaddam. They were both, of course, acquitted a few years later.

But with the BN’s control of 91% of parliamentary seats after the March 2004 elections, why would the big guns in Umno still be concerned about what Malaysian voters cared for? Their next prize then was Umno’s top posts, so it was Umno voters — members and delegates — they started to appeal to. This explains their escalating ethno-religious rhetoric after the 2004 elections.

In a nutshell, Malaysian politics is a frustrating cycle:

Bad governance and bigotry, leading to voters supporting opposition (competitive politics), leading to reforms (bonuses of democracy), leading to voters rewarding ruling coalition (reduced political competitiveness), leading back to bad governance and bigotry

This explains why while things will not (yet) get too bad in Malaysia, we will never get out of the woods. So the question remains: for how long will the current bonuses of democracy be paid to citizens?

The short answer is, at least until the next elections. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s “1Malaysia New Deal” will likely be buried immediately if the BN manages to restore its parliamentary two-thirds majority. If he succeeds, Najib will be seen to be like his father, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, who saved the Alliance after its loss of two-thirds of the peninsula’s parliamentary seats in the 1969 elections.

Feeling secure and contented, the Umno warlords will start their competition to be more ethno-religious-centric, both among themselves and against PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). And if the PR does badly, they will likely quarrel over the cause of their setback — too pro-non-Malay Malaysian or not inclusive enough, and so on.

Cautionary tales

PR supporters among you might now nod and say, “Simple! If we want more ‘bonuses of democracy’, just vote for the PR, no matter how many reforms Najib tries to push.” After all, the BN has wronged Malaysia for too long, and Najib’s reforms would come too little too late.

But this New Year resolution of “vote against the BN no matter what” has two big problems.

First, it’s likely that not many people will buy it. With Najib’s reformist gestures, even if some voters will not vote for the BN, they might also not feel the same urgency to vote against the BN as they did in 2008, and might just stay at home. So, if the current trend continues, at the very least a slight decline of support for the PR in the next general election is a foregone conclusion.

Second, without timely institutional reforms, such an inevitable swing towards the BN may be amplified and rob the PR of its control of slightly more than one-third of Parliament. This could be coupled with an even bleaker scenario: the coalition might disintegrate if it loses the power balance between its three component parties, like the Gagasan Rakyat-Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah did after the 1990 elections, and the Barisan Alternatif after 1999.

Here’s why and how. Thanks to the first-past-the-post electoral system, small swings in votes can cause huge fluctuations in seats. From 1999 to 2004, a pro-BN swing of 7% in popular votes resulted in a drop of 14% in opposition-held seats.  Electoral manipulation can both increase the vote swing and amplify the seat fluctuation rate.

Abdullah (Pic by Looknarm / Wiki
Abdullah in 2004 was no doubt more popular than Mahathir in 1999. But the BN had also benefited from new electoral rules and manipulation, such as the shortest campaign period in Malaysian history of eight days; the three-day withdrawal period for candidates to quit, which resulted in a few walkovers in the BN’s favour; and the letter from Pak Lah to Malaysians via Pos Malaysia.

Most of all, the constituency redelineation in 2002 increased the BN’s advantage vis-à-vis the opposition. If the vote-seat disproportionality had remained at the 1995 level, when the BN won 65% of the popular vote, Abdullah would have won 180 rather than 199 seats in 2004.

A similar scenario might happen in the next elections. Najib’s greater popularity compared with Abdullah’s during his last days in office will likely be amplified by electoral manipulation. For example, none of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Election (Bersih)’s five demands — clean-up of electoral rolls, employment of indelible ink, abolition of postal voting for security personnel, a minimum campaign period of 21 days, and free and fair media access — were conceded to during or even after the 2008 elections. 

As a sidebar, this is the reality of the 8 March 2008 “tsunami” — it happened not because of a fairer electoral process, but despite the flaws in the present system.

The clincher

There might be a greater threat come the 13th general election. As stipulated by the 13th Schedule of the Federal Constitution, a constituency redelineation proposal only needs to be passed with a simple parliamentary majority. So the PR’s veto is powerless in this case. It only has the power to block any changes in parliamentary seats allocated to each state under Article 46 of the constitution.

In other words, the Election Commission might keep the total of 222 parliamentary constituencies, but it could redraw their boundaries. Hence, it is perfectly possible for the PR to win, say, 47% of the popular vote, but less than 30% of seats in Parliament, like the opposition did in 1990.

If the gerrymandering and malapportionment are done in such a way that the DAP ends up emerging the largest party with, say, 30 seats, while PAS and PKR struggle to survive with 20 seats combined, can the PR hold strong before a challenge like the Allah controversy? And without an electable opposition, can we expect the BN to talk about “government transformation”?

Sorry to warn you at the beginning of the year that you could lose your bonus so soon. But that’s a fact. Unless we clean up the system, we will probably not be happy.

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A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He likes this quote from Ross Perot: “The activist is not the [person] who says the river is dirty. The activist is the [person] who cleans up the river.”

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