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Forget the two-party system

(Corrected at 12pm, 24 Feb 2010)

(Scales by darktaco /

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 /

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.

The deal

Unless we are content to turn into another Thailand or Fiji, our choice now is this: one-party predominance under the BN, or one-party predominance under the PR?

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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11 Responses to “Forget the two-party system”

  1. non-voters says:

    Good to know that finally our ex-ISA inmate comes to his senses. Useless and childish politicians – that’s the main reason many of the young of the eligible voters decided to stay non-registered, because politicians in Malaysian behave like small children…what a pity.


    Was Chin Huat ever incarcerated under the ISA? In 2009 he was arrested under the Sedition Act

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  2. Pete Teo says:

    I am sorry, but this is unnecessarily negative and confuses a theoretical discourse on the nature of democracy (and how it is perpetuated) with the need for a two-party electoral democracy in Malaysia.

    While I am in complete agreement with your view that respect for the results of elections is the basis of democracy, your acceptance of our apparent inability to evolve towards ethical electoral practice is premature and assumes a static polity.

    Thus, while you might be right to speculate that, notwithstanding the establishment of two-party electoral democracy, our political parties will continue to try to “steal” elections by inducing defections (and therefore undermine the idea of democracy), it is nevertheless just as possible that both parties will come to a tacit but mutual agreement to halt such practices.

    All it takes is a reform of the electoral laws vis party defections so that both sides agree to take away induced defections as means of their winning strategy. While recent events seem to cast doubt that such ethical agreement would arise, it is not impossible, and is in fact equally valid as a subject of speculation — especially if the electorate were to give clear voice on this matter at some future date.

    You are right that the establishment of a two-party system does not guarantee democracy, but without it, our political system will have no chance to evolve into an ethical and accountable basis for governance. To my mind, it is absolutely crucial to the country’s future that a two-party system is established. A one-party tyranny, even an enlightened one, is still tyranny.

    In sum, I find it just as easy to speculate the likelihood of positive outcome under a two-part system as your negative and somewhat fatalistic speculation of failure.

  3. Peter says:

    The article is a bit technical for me.

    How could a single party with overriding powers (including the control of media and thus, the subtle control of voters) be a “lesser evil” compared to a haphazard two-party system?

    At the very least, with the two-party system, there will be one party that is (too) willing to highlight the “wrong-doings” of the other and thus, prevent an almost total cover-up which was evident during the earlier administrations, which in turn, have led to many undesirable non-thinking voter mind-sets that we have currently. It will probably take us ages to undo the damages.

    Or have we learned nothing yet?

  4. chinhuatw says:


    The lesser evil is not the “one-party regime” vis-a-vis a two-party system, but the less threatening one between BN or PR with such power.

    Why is a “haphazard two-party system” (more precisely, only a haphazard two-party competitive format) not a better option? Because as argued in the article, it will eventually descend into either (A) a one-party predominance or worse a military junta backed by or (B) acting in the name of, perhaps, the palace and or Islam.

    If the outcome is A, then the voters might as well choose for themselves either A under BN or A under PR. What about B? Would a military junta not enjoy more powers than even UMNO’s current one-party state?

  5. Anonymous Coward says:

    This article is overly pessimistic.

    The fear that — if an upheaval of the status quo does indeed happen post-GE13 — Umno/BN would try to pull a Perak stunt on the federal level exists, but we should not give in to that line of thought. The worry that we would turn into Thailand and be very vulnerable to coups is there but it is one that has been fostered in our minds by Umno/BN themselves. Why should we continue living in fear?

    That said, I would be the first to denounce PR if they decide to take the defection route to gain a super majority in the parliament. A 2/3rds majority is never good, folks! Never give any party that much power!

  6. Peter says:

    @Chin Huat,

    Thanks for the clarification.

    However, with scenario A with either BN or PR as the dominant coalition as described by you, isn’t that still a two-party system? With one dominant coalition, that doesn’t have to mean the end of the other coalition. Their roles can be switched around every other 5 years depending on their policies and the voters’ buy-in. What we were lacking in the past was a opposition coalition i.e. PR that can be an equal and opposite to BN. Isn’t this a “two-party system”?

    As for the military junta, that remains potentially a wild card in the sleeve. However, playing that card would also destroy Malaysia’s international standing as a progressive and tolerant country. If there are leaders intent on playing this card, whatever you and I say here amounts to little.

  7. chinhuatw says:


    You may call it speculation, but I lay down my assumption why I think the current two-party competitive format is not an equilibrium. I certainly hope that my analysis and projection would be wrong but your comment is merely another speculation that Malaysian political parties may mature.

    Such possibility certainly does exist – thinking statistically, all outcomes are possible – but the question is how large? Why should the political parties want to change their behaviour sometime in the future when the situation could be more tempting? Please offer us your reasoning.

    My article is disturbing to many because it shows a dissonance between the normative (desirable) and strategic/analytical (infeasible) grounds of the “two-party system” goals.

    I am dead against the one-party regime and have warned against its possible survival even after regime change, so rest assured that I am not arguing that one-party predominance should be what should settle with. I just cant write everything in one article.

    If my speculation is more likely to happen than yours, then we just need to live with this crude truth and find a solution. Insisting that a noble goal must be viable is not helping us.

  8. Awareness says:

    The issue is HATRED, the whole nonsense of fighting … it does not mean let’s live with a single-party system.

  9. chinhuatw says:


    If the largest party controls 90% of seats, while the second party controls the remaining 10%, mathematically speaking, it will be a 1.2 party system, not a two-party system. (The formula of calculation is 1/[(0.9)sq + (0.1)sq])

    More importantly, when the two-parties are so unequal in size and prospects of winning power in the future, the weaker coalition may not last. That’s how Tengku Razaleigh’s twin coalitions in the 1990s and Barisan Alternatif post-1999 failed.

    Some politicians really may not care what harm a coup may bring to this country. Otherwise we woouldn’t have had the Perak coup, the cow-head protest, church burnings, mosque desecrations, whipping of women, sodomy trial part II. However, they would care about their own assets overseas. If they know well a coup would end up in them living in exile, if not facing trial for high treason, they would think twice. (This is why the court’s judgement on the Perak coup is so damning.) And a landslide against them will make them see that reality better than an even match.

  10. kahseng says:

    Pete Teo,

    You are overlooking the underlying dangers that Chin Huat tried to tread on lightly: the monarchy, [political] Islam, and the military.

    Not that I can discuss these in depth, partly due to my own inadequacy. And it would take expertly delicate writing to keep comfortable enough to publish such comments.

    But while we are in Malaysia, we can discuss Thailand as a future and partial parallel.

    Thailand has a highly respected and well-meaning monarch, which is protected by oppressive lese majeste laws, entrenched by a conformist school system and religion. The monarch has extended its moral influence by the stoic and caring image of the present king. Apparently a unifying and stabilising force.

    Thaland has a democracy, parliament, lots of FDI, recent economic success. It even has many chances to change its constitution and PMs, with many coalitions ready to form stable governments.

    So why is it approaching a civil war (at best you can call it civil strife) that few in neighbouring Malaysia are recognising?

    Perhaps Thailand’s itchy-hand military is encouraged by the so-far bloodless coups. Perhaps because the people think there’s nothing wrong with the military backing any political coalition as long as the king (perhaps it’s actually his advisers) seems to back that coalition?

    Perhaps it’s because both sides have become more belligerent, disrespectful of the rule of law (occupation of government house and airports), provoking coups without consequences? Perhaps because the court seems to rule in favour of the government of the day? Perhaps because it is a war of media tycoons (Sondhi vs Thaksin)?

    Thailand’s censorship is increasingly sinister.

    A provocative book “Thailand Unhinged” came out very recently of Thailand’s democratic failings. See link and blogs:

    Writer’s blog and intro

    Google book preview of Thailand Unhinged

    Publisher’s press release

    blog on a related foreign correspondents club event

    Thailand Unhinged (brief review)

    FACT – Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (intro)

    New Mandala (blog on SE Asia, context and background comments)

    Judiciary has changed the monarchy

  11. kahseng says:

    Referring to my earlier post, I think Thailand is approaching civil war because its people are too tolerant of coup-happy military officers and politicians. No king or parliament or election could save the country. The well-intended and influential monarch might actually make it worse because then elections and parliament matter less.

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