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Mission: Democratisation

I HAVE no doubt that a two-party system is better than the one-party state we currently live in. However, what is desirable is not necessarily viable.

As I have argued, blind faith in the feasibility of a two-party system may lead to either one-party predominance (under the Barisan Nasional [BN] or Pakatan Rakyat [PR]), or a palace- or military-backed regime.

Three conditions

In brief, the establishment of a two-party system in Malaysia requires three conditions:

1

The majority of voters must support only two parties (or coalitions), and the parties’ electoral strength must be comparable, if not roughly equal. To put it bluntly, there can be no two-party competition if the majority of voters concentrate their votes on only one party.

2

The political system must be sufficiently fair for the weaker of the two parties (the opposition) to win representation and control some political resources. This requires a clear separation between party and state, as well as a fair and reasonably proportionate electoral system. 

3Democracy must be accepted as the only game in town; all political parties and elites must respect election outcomes. This state of democratic consolidation is in fact a condition that can be universally applied to any form of representative democracy.

The second and third conditions are interrelated, in that they determine how the competitors would behave in democratic or undemocratic environments. In other words, if losing the game means losing everything, the players are likely to pursue victory at all costs.

What emerged on 8 March 2008 was only the fulfilment of the first condition for a two-party system. The second condition was hardly fulfilled as PR lawmakers and state governments are still marginalised or undermined by the BN. The third condition is still absent, as manifested by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s 16 Sept government-by-defections plot, the BN’s Perak takeover, and the recent defections of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) lawmakers.

Dangerous assumptions

The danger of treating a two-party system as a fait accompli is that voters may vote as if they are living in a real democracy. Voters may form their choices based on various issues and may be driven by local concerns or personalities.

This may result in a somewhat close match, which would fulfil the first, “equal strength” condition for a two-party system. However, it is a huge disadvantage to be in the opposition as the second, “fairness” condition remains unsatisfied. Therefore, the loser may not be willing to accept the outcome and thus resort to undemocratic means of grabbing power leaving the third, “democratic consolidation” condition unsatisfied.


Both parties should be of equal strength

To prevent such a scenario, the winner might entice the losing party’s lawmakers to cross over. If necessary, the winner might also court the support of the palace, military and likely the religious authorities. In the end, there will only be either a one-party state (under the BN or PR) or a coup-installed regime. The two-party system thus ceases to be a viable option.

What if the winner wins a comfortable seat margin, either because of increased votes or electoral manipulation? As long as political parties and elites still do not see the voters’ verdict as supreme, the winner may still try to entice the loser’s lawmakers to defect. So, again we will not end up with a two-party system. This is in fact what seems to be happening to PKR now, with its lawmakers’ defections and resignations.

To recap, as long as the federal opposition parties are discriminated against, the “fairness” condition for a genuine two-party system will remain absent. And as long as the parties and politicians refuse to accept election outcomes as final, the “democratic consolidation” condition for a two-party system will remain absent. Therefore, even if the voters’ collective choice results in two-party competition, like what happened post-March 2008, this may eventually give way to either one-party predominance (via defections) or, worse, a coup-installed regime.

Two-party road map

While a two-party system is unattainable in the short run, it is possible in the longer term — after democratisation.

The first question before Malaysian democrats is: of the BN’s one-party predominance, the PR’s one-party predominance, and a coup-installed regime, which would most likely facilitate a two-party system? By a process of elimination, the answer cannot be a coup-installed regime, which would inevitably divide the population bitterly. So we are left with the choice between a dominant BN and a dominant PR.


(Map pic by virsh / sxc.hu)
The second question is: how can we ensure the chosen coalition will uphold democratic transition? The answer is, we need a political contract with the chosen coalition that explicitly promises democratisation.

The pact must contain the coalition’s explicit and categorical commitments to:

1

Federalism and local elections. This would ensure that even if the coalition fully controls the federal government and Parliament, it may still be checked by lower-level governments. You can’t have an electoral one-party state if different parties run the federal, state and municipal governments.

2Protecting civil and political rights. One-party predominance cannot do too much harm if we have a vibrant civil society and functioning public sphere. And so, the coalition must spell out its plan of action to repeal all anti-human rights laws, not only the Internal Security Act.

3

Democratic candidate selection and representative recall. Election candidates cannot be subjectively decided by only the top leadership of the coalition. There should be a primary mechanism so that the public can be consulted and the most qualified individuals are able to offer themselves as candidates. The electorate must also be allowed to initiate a recall of representatives who underperform or betray their mandates. This would effectively curb defections.

In brief, I am proposing that the next general election should have only one theme for voters: democratisation. The coalition that is willing to commit to the highest degree of democratisation should be adopted as the vehicle of change and supported fully by all Malaysian democrats.

Considering the BN’s appalling democratic track record, it seems at the moment that the PR is the only viable choice for our preferred “democratisation alliance”. But would the PR be willing to sign a contract with Malaysian voters to democratise this country? I don’t know.

So far, the PR has been very much a “good governance alliance” with little interest in democratisation. If they are still not keen, then civil society should seriously consider building a third force, even if it means risking a coup.


Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and journalism lecturer by trade. He believes that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. The only way to make the two-party system a reality in the future is to stop fantasising about it now.

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6 Responses to “Mission: Democratisation”

  1. Jamie Khoo says:

    I’ll sign that contract.

  2. Kenny Gan says:

    Dear Wong CH,

    Your view of the 2 party system is overly fearful and negative. Your conditions for a 2 party system are rather excessive and unnecessary.

    To me the only criteria for a 2 party system is the existence of 2 political entities which have practical chances of winning enough seats to rule. Hence a 2 party system did not exist pre-2008 due to the fragmented opposition.

    Equal or roughly equal electoral strength is not a necessary criteria as political chances are a shifting phenomena depending on a great interplay of socio-economic conditions and governance. At any time, one party may have significantly better chances but the crux is that there is another party able to take advantage if the political winds shift. In other words there must always be an alternative. In matured 2 party systems it is quite usual for one party to win a string of elections and then be suddenly ousted.

    Fairness of the political system is good but not a necessary condition. A party on the disadvantage just has to work harder. Unfairness and injustice may also work against the party in control.

    Your condition for democracy to be accepted as the only game in town has to be forced on the political entities as it will never happen by itself. Undemocratic behaviour like buying elected officers will be punished by voters as BN will eventually discover. As for a coup by the losing party this subverts a 2 party system instead of disqualifying it. It is up to the people to react to the subjugation of their political will accordingly.

    How will political fairness, democritisation and the creation of a vibrant civil society happen without a 2 party system coming first? In a 1 party system, democratic institutions are corrupted and resources hijacked to serve the ruling party and civil society is oppressed, bullied and threatened.

    This is like a chicken an egg situation but a 2 party system must develop in spite of the constraints and not because the constraints have been removed. There is no voluntary removing of the constraints under a 1 party system which seeks to tighten them for its survival.

    Mr Wong, you seem to fear what BN will do if they lose power. If we do not face the fear what chance is there for a 2 party system?

  3. chinhuatw says:

    @Kenny,

    1. The 4-party Barisan Alternatif existed for three years from 1999 to 2001. Was there a two-party system before 2008?

    2. In 1999, BA won about 40% of votes but only 22% of seats. Was there a two-party system from 1999 to 2001?

    3. Was there a vibrant civil society in 2007 when the Bar Council, BERSIH and Hindraf rallies were held? Was this an outcome of a two-party system?

    I do not fear BN’s sour-loser response as much as I fear an unprepared citizenry.

  4. Kenny Gan says:

    Dear Wong CH,

    To answer your question:

    1) BA might have been the fledgling steps of a two-party system but we can consider it stillborn. A viable two-party system is more than having two political entities, the mindset of the people must be able to accept being governed by either party. This did not exist in 1999. It exists now.

    2) Strictly speaking no. Forty percent of the vote may appear impressive but looking beyond the vote share BA had no practical chance of displacing BN.

    3) Yes, we have a (more or less) vibrant civil society and no, it was not the result of a two-party system.

    A vibrant civil society does not need a two-party system as the pre-requisite. If they depend on each other to exist it becomes a chicken or egg problem and may never happen. They should develop independently and help each other along the way.

    I agree, a two-party system may not last without an enlightened civil society to demand and enforce democratic principles but at what point can we declare ourselves ready? Is there an objective test? To me the only test of whether we are ready or not is to see what happens next.

    We now stand on the verge of the most exciting and hopeful political development in Malaysian history. You of all people should articulate that hope and inspire its progress instead of dampening it with an overly pessimistic view of the future. Have faith that your fellow countrymen will thwart any sour loser attempt by BN, most of all an attempt to impose a military junta.

  5. onesided says:

    @chin huat
    Please join politics, don’t the [others] dictate this country.

  6. chinhuatw says:

    @Kenny,

    Please compare your first and second comments to see why I ask those questions in the first place.

    I am not a motivation guru, but contrary to what most people think, I am not pessimistic. I love democracy and embrace democratization despite their weaknesses and challenges, not because I cannot see these weaknesses and challenges. It’s like continue to believe in love and humanity after seeing the ugly sides of them. In short, I believe we can find hope outside of fairy tales.

    @onesided

    As far as I see it, taking part in public life as a citizen is already joining politics. It needs not be joining parties and running elections.

    If you indeed mean the latter, sorry to disappoint you, one of my core political belief is that citizens should not leave politics to professional or careerist politicians.


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