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How losing might help the BN

BARELY 48 hours after the Barisan Nasional (BN) was nearly brought to its knees in the March 2008 elections, Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said the coalition would “learn its lesson” and “improve”.

Nearly 16 months after that fateful general election, Malaysians can be forgiven for being confused. Political temperatures have been rising, not cooling. Even a quick listing of the major political events in this period would leave any citizen breathless: the second round of sodomy charges against Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim; the BN’s controversial Perak takeover; the targeting of Selangor exco Elizabeth Wong‘s private life to discredit her; the unity government talks between Umno and PAS; and the dizzying succession of seven by-elections.

Although BN leaders have brushed off accusations that the coalition has not learnt the lesson of March 2008, many voters think otherwise. And these voters might ask: does the BN need to be taught a bigger lesson during the next general election? Will the BN lose the federal government after the 13th general election, which has to take place before March 2013? More importantly, if this happens, will the BN be forced to truly reform for the better, and will it be able to make a comeback in the general election after?

Good news for Pakatan Rakyat

Monash University Sunway Campus’s Prof Dr James Chin tells The Nut Graph that at this time, it is difficult to predict whether the BN can remain in power after the next elections.

“It depends on whether Najib can improve the economy, and this in turn will depend on whether the world economy will recover by the first quarter of 2010,” he says in a telephone interview.

Chin cautions that there are many variables to look out for. The Pakatan Rakyat (PR) could be easily defeated if parliamentary Opposition Leader Anwar loses control of his coalition. It also depends on which coalition manages to woo the support of the millions of young, yet-to-be-registered voters.

Francisco Labastida (Source:
“Generally speaking, however, the BN is set to lose the next general election,” Chin says.

His analysis tallies with the experiences of other electoral democracies that were for a long time dominated by a single party or coalition. For example, Mexico‘s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) didn’t lose a presidential election for 71 years until its presidential candidate Francisco Labastida was defeated in 2000.

As with the Umno-led BN government in Malaysia, the PRI-ruled Mexico saw little distinction between “government” and “ruling party” for several decades. The PRI was also famous for suppressing opposition parties and engaging in several dubious measures to win votes, including vote-buying. From the 1960s onwards, however, an increasingly literate electorate began demanding for democratic reforms. The regime tried to pacify voters by introducing a series of electoral improvements.

Mexico’s democratisation was cut short when an opposition candidate’s near-certain victory was nullified by the mysterious “crashing” of electoral computers in the 1988 presidential elections. But the clamour for reforms continued until the National Action Party (PAN)’s Vicente Fox was elected president in 2000.

Vicente Fox (Public domain; Wiki
Chin paints a grim picture of a post-BN Malaysia. “If the BN loses the next general elections, the coalition’s components will be reduced to the pre-1974 Alliance. The other components are most likely to leave the BN. The MCA and MIC will [continue to exist and remain in the BN] only because they will have nowhere to go; the PR will not take them in.”

Hence, he says a PR-ruled Malaysia could have a very weak opposition — a worrying sign for a growing democracy.

Good news for the BN

From his analysis of trends among Malaysian voters, Merdeka Center for Opinion Research programme director Ibrahim Suffian thinks otherwise.

“If the BN is defeated (in 2013), they can definitely make a comeback, especially the older parties in the coalition like Umno, the MCA and MIC, and perhaps Gerakan,” he tells The Nut Graph.

“This is because they already have strong structures and resources to win the people back to their side.”

Ibrahim points towards Taiwan’s Kuomintang party. Like Mexico’s PRI, the Kuomintang all but dominated Taiwan’s political scene for several decades. But the formation of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the 1980s began posing the island’s ruling party a serious threat. The DPP’s presidential candidate, Chen Shui-bian, eventually ended the Kuomintang’s one-party dominance in 2000, and was even re-elected for a second term in 2004.

Like the Umno-led BN in Malaysia, the Kuomintang seemed unbeatable. It was and still is corrupt, and had money to throw, state institutions to manipulate, and years of experience in government.

Chen Shui-bian (Pic by Jamalij /
Wiki commons)
The good news for Malaysia’s PR, however, is that the DPP was also embroiled in internal bickering, and many of its leaders were also accused of corruption, including Chen himself. Yet, this did not seem to deter voters; in fact, it was the Kuomintang that could not get its act together and had its leaders jumping ship regularly.

But behold the 2008 presidential and legislative elections — the Kuomintang came back with a vengeance. According to Ibrahim, the Kuomintang was smart: it used the island’s local government elections to build itself back up and slowly gauge support levels for its candidates.

“Local government elections actually increase competition among political parties, [which] makes them sharper,” he says. In other words, if the BN were smart, it would introduce local government elections as an effective strategy to stay in power.

Political scientist Dr Mavis Puthucheary tells The Nut Graph that there are also other regimes in which former dominant parties have returned more resiliently after the countries were democratised.

“There are many examples of post-communist countries that have managed to reform for the better and come back to form effective governments after suffering electoral defeats. I would suggest we examine countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland,” she says in an e-mail interview.

But she differs from Ibrahim in that she thinks the BN will not have such an easy time returning to power if it is defeated. “In my opinion, the only way BN can survive is for the coalition to reform itself now, rather than wait until it is defeated in the next elections,” she says.

Pack of playing cards with the ace of hearts revealed
                                                          (Pic by nighthawk7 /
The regime’s trump card

Chin says these analyses are valid only if we are assuming a smooth transfer of power should the BN lose.

“We still have to take into account the role that the unelected institutions will play if the BN is ever defeated at the federal level,” he says.

He says the civil service, for instance, is populated with BN loyalists who have benefited from the coalition’s policies. As part of the state apparatus, they could make it very difficult for the PR to govern effectively.

“Many in the civil service are also conservative Muslim-Malay [Malaysians] — if they were to even support the PR, they would limit themselves to PAS.

“Besides, we have seen in Perak how the state civil service and the police were openly biased [in favour of] the BN,” Chin says.

The monarchy is another institution that will determine whether or not there is a smooth transition of power if the BN is defeated. Already, many have speculated that the Perak palace played a part in facilitating the reversal of power not even one year after the PR formed government there.

Therefore, according to Chin, the analyses of Malaysian politics must not only project the outcome of the next general elections. It must also predict its aftermath.

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15 Responses to “How losing might help the BN”

  1. Kenny says:

    Let’s be clear about this. The only glue which holds BN component parties together is federal power. They have no ideology, nothing in common. Once that is lost, BN will break up.

    Umno is in a dominant position only because it has the ability to distribute patronage. Once that ability is gone, the rest of the component parties will not accept Umno’s dominance.

    Can Umno accept a non-dominant, equal partnership role? If can, then maybe MCA and MIC will stand together with Umno. Otherwise the opposition will be fragmented until Umno can reform itself to accept an equal partnership coalition.

    As most of BN’s political power comes from Sabah and Sarawak, to get back power with the break up of BN may require decades to build back the coalition, provided that PR becomes corrupt and loses favour with voters.

    For BN to grab back power after one term is highly unlikely as BN will not exist in its present form after the loss of federal power.

    By the way, BN is currently doing all it can to alienate voters and lose power. Their inadequate and sometimes arrogant response to the death of Teoh Beng Hock is a case in point. Sodomy II and MACC’s transparent attacks on the Selangor government are exactly what will kill them.

  2. Azizi Khan says:

    “Besides, we have seen in Perak how the state civil service and the police were openly biased [in favour of] the BN.”

    This statement is very true and is a big worry for every Malaysian. I’ll tell you why.

    Imagine tomorrow that Pakatan Rakyat manages to win the elections. What happened in Perak will definitely happen across the nation. Many of the civil servants will flatly and openly refuse to work with the new government.

    Imagine the Immigration Department refusing to process passports or allow the new coalition to travel abroad by messing up computer records.

    University chancellors who are pro-BN messing up computer enrolment records for new batches of students.

    Department of Education refusing to handle national level examinations.

    Healthcare institutions refusing to aid the sick or perform lifesaving procedures.

    Elections Commission will mysteriously want to “recount” votes due to late “postal votes”.

    Worse still – police and military – which we all know are 100% pro-BN, taking up arms against citizens. Not that it doesn’t happen now, but nationwide riots happening at every street and every corner while police hunt down the new government supporters while ignoring crimes that happen in the country. BN supporters [may] run riot killing and injuring regardless of race and religion (like May 13) and blaming it on the newly-formed government.

    Think about it! Everything that I said is already happening on a small scale. Now imagine it on a national scale.

    Conspiracy theorists among us have already predicted this should BN ever lose the government. Pakatan Rakyat should well be prepared for this scenario.

    Finally – has anyone ever wondered why federal government offices are so far away in Putrajaya? Imagine if BN ever loses power, the entire area can be blocked off by police and military so BN can refuse entry to Pakatan ministers. Surrounded by 100% Malay [Malaysian] area filled with pro-BN civil service, there will be no opportunity for Pakatan to get anything done. How’s that for an extreme scenario?

  3. armstrong says:

    “He says the civil service, for instance, is populated with BN loyalists who have benefited from the coalition’s policies. As part of the state apparatus, they could make it very difficult for the PR to govern effectively.”

    I wonder if it closed one eye on corruption or did BN implement fantastic policies to help civil servants?

  4. andrew says:

    Similarly how can one really trust the loose coalition of Pakatan? Their merger is obviously a marriage of convenience. The lead party namely PKR has little calibre and capable leaders, even DAP are beginning to behave like hooligans and power-fighting. PKR is fond of collecting expired leaders from BN parties, old ones and this will sure cause disgruntlement among young aspirants of PKR. Most if not all have no experience to govern the nation, giving them a try is like risking our country like a guinea pig. We shall evaluate rationally, perhaps a balance of both coalitions, go for the sincere and capable candidates.

  5. siew eng says:

    Azizi, Burma’s Naypidaw reminds me of Putrajaya in so many ways. The junta relocated its administrative centre in the middle of nowhere ostensibly for reasons of military strategy, building an ostentatious shell of a city much like Putrajaya.

  6. Nicholas Aw says:

    The Barisan Nasional are too arrogant to change. They probably feel that they have been in power for more than 50 years and that they would continue to rule for another 50 or perhaps for all eternity. In fact a lot is at stake: power, status and money, to name a few. 2008 was unexpected and a lot of soul-searching was carried out by the BN to the extent of recapturing Perak through devious means. The sweeping investigations against PKR politicians is another dirty handed method of creating instability in Selangor with the ulterior motive of recapturing it.

    Najib is a shrewd politician ably assisted by a think-tank that is just as astute if not more. Positive plans such as the KPIs and NKRA are being introduced with much fanfare to cover up some of the allegations against the PM such as the Mongolian affair, the purchase of submarines and recently the ‘forceful’ takeover of Perak. With so many positive plans being put forward, Najib hopes that the people will feel good about him. He knows that more plans have to be introduced to cushion the people’s grunting against the rise of bus and taxi fares and soon the increase of electricity tariffs.

    Najib has to be more cautious and not think that the people would accept these so called “good” policies in toto. Even the kampung dwellers are now smarter; they take whatever “sweets” that are offered during by-elections campaigns and then vote for the opposition.

    If BN plans to remain in power, it has to be sincere in its policies. Najib has to ensure that his One-Malaysia ideology targets the rakyat as one people, one race – Malaysians. As long as he continues adopting the quota system, bumiputra only policies and other unfair policies, One-Malaysia will remain just that in name. As much as he denies it, the cross-overs of S.S. Subramaniam and Chua Jui Meng to PKR must have sent a chill down his spine.

    BN under Najib should weather the winds of change and try to win back the people’s trust with fairness. Any other way would mean a great possibility of a wipe out come the next General Elections.

  7. The aftermath of an election loss by BN will be far too hard to imagine. The BN is no respecter of democracy or on how it works. They only want the loot for themselves and their cronies. Their children study overseas on public expense and gain the knowledge and expertise in English whilst the poor downtrodden Malay [Malaysians] are kept in the dark with stupid syllabuses supported by fanatic teachers resulting in two classes in this country. One which will rule – like in Burma. Whilst the other – will be the serfs and peasants with sedentary Malay education cleverly crafted to keep them as dull-witted as possible.

  8. pakkarim says:

    Whether we like it or not, PR is the alternative to BN and PAS is the opposite of Umno. Therefore we need to support one or the other in order for Malaysia to remain a nation.

  9. BN has not learnt the lesson of the 8 March general election. The [coalition] is power-razy and corrupt. BN leaders’ wrong doings are swept under the carpet.

    Although Najib is introducing numerous goodies and measures recently, his intention is to make Malaysians gradually forget BN’s bad [actions]. But he has failed to understand Malaysians will not forget how BN siezed Perak undemocraticaly, stirred trouble in Selangor, Kedah and now Penang.

    If BN is to accept the 8 March general election positively and call for reform within the [coalition], maybe it will have a little chance to win back the people. I feel sad for the country as the political issues keep surging. Majority of the issues are stirred by BN. I hope BN government will do its own soul searching when they attack Pakatan Rakyat.

  10. Balannambiar says:

    The majority of Malay [Malaysians] in this nation seem uninterested in a democratic political system. They still believe in an authoritarian political system, obedience to the ruling party, are ready to honour the greatness of mythic heroes, and they still want to substitute the present democratic political system with monarchy rule. It will take time to change them to understand real people’s power in a democratic system.

  11. Anonymous Coward says:

    I really don’t understand this “us vs them” mentality that the BN supporters and PR supporters both have. Because they support different parties they can’t work together? It’s really unfortunate that Malaysia has become so tribal.

    Alright, maybe some of these people who are/will be refusing to co-operate with a future PR government are the ones that have vested interests in BN. If this is so, understandable. But for the rest of them, what’s their excuse? People so often forget that a government should take care of everyone’s needs, regardless of what party they support. It’s not about the party flag, it’s about the national flag!

    I really hope that the post-BN scenario would not turn out as you predict since it would be too depressing. Malaysians should be better than that.

    And to andrew, sir, I don’t trust PR one bit but at the very least they’d be new. They’d think that they have something to prove. BN doesn’t believe that anymore, in my humble opinion, and it would be better if we actually give the opposition a chance. I understand your hesitancy to trust PR but BN hasn’t given us anything to shout about lately. At least by voting in PR we send a message to both coalitions that they answer to the people and will be held accountable for their actions.

    Hopefully, this would mean that both parties will step up their game and work on improvements for the people.

  12. Fikri Roslan says:

    I don’t understand why [there] are people [who are] so confident that BN will not be the ruling party after the next elections. Just because the BN “lost” the elections in 2008, they have started making extrapolations that people have abandoned BN for good.

    I have a very strong feeling that the Malay [Malaysians] will come back strongly in the next elections. They will realise that they inherited the trust and responsibilities [of] their [ancestors] to ensure that the Malay [Malayians] will remain [as] the core components of the ruling government. Umno and PAS will work together for the benefit of the ummah. They will not be influenced by all of these non-Malay [Malaysian] propaganda to “break and rule” the unity of Malay [Malaysians]. In fact, it is an open secret that the non-Malay [Malaysians] are trying to take over the country after the next elections.

    In my view, once PAS and Umno merge their vision and mission, then the result of the next general election is a foregone conclusion. We will then have political stability in this country and more time [can] be spent focused on the country’s development.

    Insyaallah, we will reach this target and I hope we all, the people of this country, will benefit from this merging between PAS and Umno.

  13. non-voter says:

    From a non-registered voter point of view, I’ll be wasting my time if I ever bother to register myself. Political parties In Malaysia are […] useless, self-centered […] just waiting for their graveyard call…. […]

  14. Amos says:

    Dear Mr Fikri, I do not agree with the opinion that you have shared and would like to comment on your statement. Parameswara was an Indian prince whose empire was under attack and he had to explore living opportunities. And Islam was first introduce by the Middle Eastern traders who sailed the shores during the Melaka time. Malays might be a mixture of Indian+Chinese blood and Indonesian blood as I am surrounded by people who are of mixed parentage. Even if we are to talk about economy, the government didn’t deny that a huge percentage of tax payers are from multiple races but not Malay Malaysian. Even though taxpayers are aware of this but we tend to close one eye.

  15. hindu says:

    You commented: “Parameswara was an Indian prince.”

    […] Parameswara was a Malay prince, practising Hinduism, before he converted to Islam.

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