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The third force in Malaysian politics

THE “third force” seems to be a phrase that is capturing the imagination of political parties and civil society.

Instead of joining the Barisan Nasional (BN) or the Pakatan Rakyat, why can’t a party find its own niche and survive? Why can’t it struggle independently and choose to cooperate with the two larger players on its own terms?

In other words, why not become a king-maker and make the best of it?

Take a look at the offers made to East Malaysian politicians (still paltry, but nevertheless the most generous since 1963), and it is easy to understand how good it is to be a king-maker if you cannot, or do not, want to be king.

National two-partyism

In Germany, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) was the indispensible junior partner in the coalition government during the greater part of the 1960s until 1982. While the larger Christian Democratic Union-Christian Socialist Union and Social Democratic Party fought to take the lead, they couldn’t do it without the FDP’s support.

In Britain, the centrist Liberal Democratic Party (Lib Dem) is always the beneficiary when voters get disillusioned with both the Conservatives on the right and Labour on the left. While the Lib Dems have never surpassed the Big Two in terms of votes, they have grown substantially at the local level.

Has there ever been a success story of a third force in Peninsular Malaysia? The answer is no. Technically, you must have a second force before you can have a third. We have had only brief periods of national two-partyism — around 1990, 1999, and now in 2008.

Tan Chee Khoon founded Pekemas after he got
disillusioned with Gerakan, which he also co-
founded (Source: Academy of Medicine of
Before 1990, DAP and PAS were very much the second force in their respective strongholds: the urban seats for the former, and the Malay heartland for the latter. The third force — whether it was the late Tan Sri Tan Chee Khoon’s Parti Keadilan Masyarakat Malaysia (Pekemas), or Datuk Mohamad Nasir’s Barisan Jama’ah Islamiah Se Malaysia (Berjasa) — never won in more than one election. Others, like the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Parti Hizbul Muslimin Malaysia (Hamim), and even the respectable Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) fared even worse.

Berjasa is perhaps the best example of what can happen in third-party dynamics. The fallout between Kelantan Menteri Besar Datuk Mohd Nasir and party president Tan Sri Mohd Asri Muda in the late 1970s resulted in the former setting up Berjasa as a splinter party. It chose not to join the BN, but would cooperate with Umno in attacking PAS.

While the strategy caused great damage to PAS in the 1978 state election, Berjasa’s success only lasted one election.

Spoiler alert

Why was Berjasa’s success so short-lived? The simple answer is that at the local level, the third party acts as a spoiler, not a king-maker, under the First-Past-the-Post electoral system.

Since there is only one winner, every vote for the third or fourth candidate would be wasted. Rational voters therefore abandon third candidates, no matter how good they may be, preferring to support the lesser evil between the top two. Hence, you cannot be a king-maker at the national or state level unless you become the first or second force at the local level.

And the national or state scenario may in turn change the local scene. Even Berjasa, though strong at the local level, got winnowed in Kelantan. It seems there was room for only one Islamist party, and the religious voters chose PAS over Berjasa.

It makes sense for Yong Teck Lee’s Sabah
Progressive Party  to pull out of the BN but
not join the Pakatan Rakyat (Source:
So, pulling out of the BN but not joining the Pakatan Rakyat makes great sense for Yong Teck Lee’s Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP). If it contests the seats previously contested by its erstwhile non-Muslim BN partners, it stands a good chance to garner most of the anti-BN votes.

Even if the DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) join the fray, they will likely be seen as spoilers, since they have relatively weaker organisational capacities in East Malaysia.

Any East Malaysian party that leaves the BN can count on riding on the anti-BN wave. This is why crossovers or pullouts will eventually happen before the next elections as long as Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim still wields influence.

The BN parties will all be tempted by the advantage of being the first to leave the BN — whether they end up joining the Pakatan Rakyat or not — and expanding their territories at the expense of other parties.

The same may not be said about Umno’s partners in the peninsula, namely Gerakan and the MCA.

Let’s say an independent Gerakan or the MCA appears as the third force between the Pakatan Rakyat (namely DAP or PKR) and the BN (whether represented by Umno or some non-Malay proxy). It is still quite unlikely that voters — especially non-Malays — will choose them over the Pakatan Rakyat.

It is clear that the next general election will be about whether to end the BN/Umno’s rule. So why should you waste your vote on a party — even if it is successful — to make the outcome even more uncertain?

The way out

Gerakan and the MCA have only two viable choices — stay with the BN or join the Pakatan Rakyat. Unfortunately, neither option is currently attractive.

Since non-Malay voters will be set to throw Umno out, if these parties were to stay with Umno, they would get thrown out, too. However, if they joined the Pakatan Rakyat, they may not be given good seats. After all, would the DAP be so kind to return currently held seats in Penang, Perak and Selangor to Gerakan and the MCA?

Can Gerakan save Umno?
For Gerakan, there is one more option — join PKR en bloc and get seat allocations as a faction. For the MCA, this option is almost nonexistent as its leaders and members who are accustomed to mono-ethnic politics may feel very out of place in multiracial PKR.

So, what should Gerakan and MCA do? Reforming themselves is pointless unless they can also reform the BN. The next elections will effectively be a national referendum on the survival of the BN — and how many non-Malays would vote to keep Umno and the BN in power?

Therefore, these two parties have to forget about being the third force. Their best bet is to give Umno and the BN an ultimatum. If Umno is forced to oblige, they can claim credit and arrest the attrition of support. If Umno refuses or even runs amok, they will become martyrs and have better bargaining power when they join the Pakatan Rakyat.

For their own self-interest, their wish list should include local elections. Given the relatively mono-ethnic electorate in most municipal jurisdictions, non-Malay voters can then feel free to divest between the DAP/PKR and the MCA/Gerakan without worrying that it would result in an Umno-dominated council.

Umno also stands to gain by introducing local elections, since Malay voters in the Pakatan Rakyat-held states can feel secure in splitting their votes between Umno and PKR/PAS without worrying that Malay representation in government will be weakened.

But can Gerakan or the MCA make such a bold decision? Will they dare to save Umno and the BN with this extreme measure? Only time will tell.

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat uses the Federal Constitution as his “bible” to fend off the increasingly intolerable evil called “state”.

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5 Responses to “The third force in Malaysian politics”

  1. Robert Teh says:

    A Third Force in Malaysian Politics?

    I say, we are not ready or the electorate is not politically mature for a third force yet. We have only started to see the beginning of a two party system as recently as March 8, this year. How many of our voters really understand or appreciate the role and value of a third force in politics? Even in the urban areas, few would support a third force. For the last 50 years we only knew partisan and racial politics. A third force party will not survive in the current political context.

    Why do I say that? Let’s assume Gerakan becomes an independent party and goes into an election standing against both the BN and Pakatan Rakyat.

    In Penang, they stand in a straight fight against DAP or MCA, or in a three corner fight against DAP and MCA – can they hope to do better than March 8?

    Being a multi racial party, they may even stand against UMNO, PKR, PAS or MIC (and especially PPP) in Penang, Perak, Selangor or Johor. Won’t that be very confusing for our current electorate?

    Are we ready for a third force? Far from it.

    For parties like Gerakan – it’s either BN or Pakatan Rakyat. That’s if they still hope to be relevant after the next general election.

  2. myop101 says:

    Perhaps a third force is possible if we get Dewan Negara senators to be directly elected by the rakyat. After all, the government can be formed with the confidence from the majority of the lower house representatives, but then the upper house can truly be a legislative house.

    Alternatively, what if the rakyat appoints their own PM who would then freely appoint his/her ministers with the consent from the Yang diPertuan Agong? I am sure a third force can exist as the weight of who should form government rests directly with the people, not the appointed members of the parliament.

    Other than that, I don’t see how the third force come into existence.

  3. Yen says:

    I hope that in the next general election, the Malay and non-Malay voter categories will not be the main consideration.

  4. ongbk says:

    It is strange to discuss a “third force” without discussing the content of the third option. In the UK there are strong political tensions between the Conservatives (pro-business) and Labour (centrists) where the rationality of good governance/public interests has often been sacrificed. Thus, an option to choose a third force which presents a more rigorously public interest orietantion, becomes realistic. In fact, most of the third force members are splintered factions from the two big parties who get disillusioned with their original party.

    In Malaysia a third force cannot be possible without sketching a new space of political imagination/policy orientation. The question to ask MCA and Gerakan can be rephrased thus: while under BN they play the “Chinese representative” role as part of the BN package, so what roles would they play outside BN – whether as a third force or aligned with Pakatan Rakyat?

    Actually there are other parties that make different offers e.g. the socialists (whatever their “socialism” may stand for) outside Pakatan Rakyat and BN. Are the MCA and Gerakan capable of making such an ideological/political leap?

  5. Allen Tan says:

    No need third force. MCA and Gerakan can join Pakatan. So they could negotiate with Pakatan that seats won by them be given to them to contest in the next general election.

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