Categorised | Columns

How democratic are political parties?

SINCE the watershed March 2008 elections, intra-party spats and power struggles have become the norm in Malaysia. These problems seem to be an equal opportunity malaise, affecting both the Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR).

Do our political parties take and share power
democratically? (© sanja gjenero |
It could just be that these internal tensions are part of the process of greater democratisation. However, it must be stressed that political parties provide the institutional means for citizens to take ownership of the political process in a democracy. Whether in government or opposition, political parties aspire to a certain kind of organised power in society. The question is, how can citizens gauge whether or not these parties will take and share this power democratically?

Perhaps it is timely for Malaysians to survey the national political landscape and look at how internally democratic our political parties are. After all, the internal governance of political parties is one indicator of how they are likely to eventually govern the country.

Therefore, if a party’s internal democratic mechanisms are already faulty, it inspires little hope that it could run the entire country democratically if elected to power.

Tools for citizens

Three broad indicators citizens and voters could use to gauge intra-party democracy are:

1Participatory democracy: This indicates how much a party encourages, accepts and incorporates its members’ full participation. Does it respect its members’ freedom of expression on contentious issues? And if members do speak up against the party leadership’s mistakes or wrongdoings, or the flaws in certain internal policies, would their views have any effect on the party’s direction?

Does the party represent the diversity of the general
population? (© sanja gjenero |
2Representative democracy: In one sense, this indicates whether or not the party’s membership and leadership are representative of the diversity in public opinion or the general population. In another sense, it is about how the party chooses (a) office bearers, and (b) election candidates. It is thus also about how tightly the party controls its members’ votes in Parliament or in the state assemblies. For example, can members cross the floor without risking censure?

S3haring and division of power: This indicates how power and resources are distributed throughout the party. Is there favouritism over how certain funds and monies are disbursed, unfairly benefitting some people? Is the distribution process transparent? More importantly, does the party itself have its own check-and-balance mechanisms to avoid abuses of power?

    It is true that the separation between a party’s executive and legislative arms tends to be more blurry compared to the state’s. However, every party should have its own internal equivalent of an independent and robust judiciary.

      A taste test

      The Nut Graph thought it would be useful to benchmark some key Malaysian political parties against these indicators. We chose Umno, PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) for the first part of this analysis. Umno is the biggest party in the ruling coalition, while PAS and PKR also have aspirations to wrest federal power. After all, it is these three parties that most consistently, and viciously, vie for the votes of the Malay Malaysian majority while also trying to court support from non-Malay Malaysians.

      All three parties have been evaluated, according to The Nut Graph‘s impromptu rating system, with one star denoting the least adherence to a particular principle and five stars indicating the most. Since democracy constantly evolves, readers can form their own conclusions, contest our ratings, and also suggest other examples and incidents to deepen the discussion.

      Indicator Party
      Umno PAS PKR
      Participatory democracy It is left to be seen if Gua Musang MP Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah‘s disagreement on Kelantan’s petroleum royalties will land him in hot water.

      In 2008, Datuk Zaid Ibrahim spoke out against ketuanan Melayu and the ISA but no action was taken.

      New controls will be instituted to limit the freedom of party members from making public statements. PKR member and Kulim-Bandar Baru MP Zulkifli Noordin stormed a public forum in 2008, and has publicly stated his aims to Islamise Malaysia, against party policy. No action was taken. But Datuk Zaid Ibrahim faces disciplinary action for calling for Zulkifli’s sacking.

          2 stars

          1 star

          0.5 star
          Representative democracy Being a race-based party, Umno doesn’t represent all Malaysians.

          Umno has also come under fire for selecting corrupt election candidates, for example in Permatang Pasir and Bagan Pinang in 2009.

          Being a religion-based party, PAS doesn’t represent all Malaysians.

          PAS did not field women candidates until 2004.

          PKR adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has acknowledged “flaws” in election candidate selection.

          Zulkifli has tried to move parliamentary motions to further Islamise Malaysia.

          PKR has plans to amend its constitution for better representation of women.

          0.5 star

          0.5 star

          2 stars

          Power-sharing and division Umno’s leaders acknowledge corruption as a major problem.

          Datuk Ahmad Ismail was quickly suspended in 2008 for calling non-Malay Malaysians “pendatang” but his three-year suspension was lifted ahead of time.

            The party’s internal power hierarchies were evident in the spat between Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad and Selangor commissioner and state exco Datuk Dr Hasan Ali. Khalid was suspended for his outbursts against Hasan, while Hasan got off with a warning.

            The spurt of resignations of Sabah PKR leaders points to potential problems in the party’s power-sharing and division of leadership.

            The disciplinary board will take a month to act on Penang chief Datuk Seri Zahrain Mohd Hashim for condemning the Penang chief minister, and Zulkifli for lodging a police report against Khalid Samad.

              2 stars

              1 star

              0.5 star

              Part 2: Other Malaysian parties: MCA, DAP and PBB


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              5 Responses to “How democratic are political parties?”

              1. Lainie says:

                Looks like the political parties need to buck up a lot.

              2. rob says:

                Only recently came across your website via Marina M’s tweets. Keep up the good work.

              3. Wonder if any of the parties are aware of this. Sounds like most of them just wing their way in running a country. Not sure if Umno’s slightly higher star rank in the participatory democracy bit is because they appreciate a variety of views or simply have no one properly running the show.

              4. Peter says:

                What about Barisan Nasional/Pakatan Rakyat as individual parties overall? I’ll bet the indicators will show a much different story!


                Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR) are coalitions. In other democracies, coalitions are usually cobbled together by political parties *after* elections, and are not meant to be permanent super-parties. So, political coalitions in Malaysia are actually uncommon, going by democratic electoral convention.

                In Part 2, we will look at some of the smaller, but still major, parties in Malaysia. Stay tuned for that.

                Shanon Shah
                Columns and Comments Editor

              5. Merah Silu says:

                This is a very weak and simplistic analysis, and I do not know how you could decide on the number of stars. On technical quality, this is a very disappointing article.

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