(Corrected at 12pm, 24 Feb 2010)
(Scales by darktaco / sxc.hu)
FEDERAL opposition politicians and their well-wishers like to talk about an emerging two-party system in Malaysia. I believe having a two-party system is a noble goal, but it is also a false option at this juncture.
A two-party system implies normal politics in a functioning democracy where political elites see each other as opponents, not enemies. In Malaysia, the opposite is true.
In democracies, party politicians will fight each other rigorously, but they will fight even more rigorously against any unelected force that tries to dictate or encroach upon their game. These could be members of the monarchy, members of the clergy, aristocrats, professional soldiers, cops, judges, bureaucrats, media tycoons, business magnates, mafia bosses, or street mobs.
Democratic politicians will not allow even their opponents to be undemocratically kicked out of the game. They know well that if the rules are broken, one day they themselves could likely become victims of these broken rules. Being aware of these karmic possibilities unites democratic politicians within the rules of the game.
Only game in town
In political science, democracy is said to have consolidated when every player agrees that “democracy is the only game in town“, and does not attempt to seize power via non-electoral and unconstitutional means.
Democratic consolidation is one of two important processes in democratisation, the other being democratic transition. And normally, democratic transition needs to happen before democratic consolidation can take place.
(Blackboard by ilco / sxc.hu)
In Malaysia, even opposition politicians rarely have conceptual discussions about democratic transition, democratic consolidation or even democratisation in general. The dominant discourse, when it comes to political change, is about a two-party system.
We talk about a two-party system and checks and balances as though the moment the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) wins, we will have a new and credible opposition in the Barisan Nasional (BN) or Umno, or vice versa. We don’t talk about the trajectory of democratisation — “the day after tomorrow”, if you like. We just assume things will work out or are already working out.
In other words, we are content to focus on democratic transition (changing the government), and assume that democratic consolidation (a two-party system) will happen immediately after the government is changed.
What perils await?
(Corrected) Such a “two-party system discourse” has two problems. The first is that voters may act according to the misconception that what we have is already a two-party system.
(Corrected) In a two-party system, voters can and should practise normal “reward and punishment” techniques on political parties as they would in other democracies. If a party offers good policies or good candidates, it should be supported, whether it is for or against democratisation. And all things remaining equal, the absence of an overriding issue would likely result in voters creating a more balanced Parliament, where both sides share the seats more or less evenly.
(Corrected) But in Malaysia, this would only bring about a “two-party competitive format”, which is what we have now. And in the absence of politicians’ commitment to democracy, this will not evolve into a true “two-party system”.
This leads to the second problem, which is that such a “two-party competitive format” is simply not an equilibrium point, and would be untenable without politicians’ commitment to respecting election outcomes.
For example, if either the BN or PR won something close to a two-thirds majority, the winner would likely entice defections of opposition lawmakers so that its position was strengthened. At the very least, the winner would be driven by the fear that if its position was not strengthened, it might fall prey to something like Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s 16 Sept plot.
Now, if the BN or PR won only a bare majority, say around 120 seats, the loser may be tempted to overturn the electoral outcome through defections and royal intervention. In other words, there is nothing stopping the loser from replicating, at the federal level, the BN’s Perak takeover. In fact, at the federal level, the disgruntled loser could even court the backing of the military, if necessary.
When democracy continues to be denied in this way, voters will be misled that it is politics that is evil. And they will come to this conclusion because they will see the failure of this supposed “two-party system” as something that happens in every democracy, rather than realise that Malaysia has actually not become a true democracy.
If we continue talking up a “two-party system” without actually democratising effectively, then we will end up with one-party predominance or a democratic breakdown. So forget about the two-party system — that will not happen unless we can train politicians from both sides to accept elections as the only game in town.
Soldiers against red-shirt protesters in Thailand, April 2009
(Pic by Walter van Kalken / Wiki commons)
It’s not about how much a party can do for us if it has tremendous power, but it’s about how much we can trust a party if it has so much power. So perhaps the decision for us now is to choose the lesser evil rather than the devil we know.
Have we got a bad deal? Yes, and sorry for spoiling your Chinese New Year mood. Aren’t there other solutions? I will explore them in due course. Am I just fear-mongering? I invite you to offer an alternative trajectory of democratisation that is more positive.
Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade. He thanks Essex University and its academics, especially Dr Sarah Birch, for an excellent education on democratisation.
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