IT’s unclear how much of the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s win in the 13th general election since our independence (GE13) was due to fraud. It’s equally unclear how much was due to other breaches of electoral fairness — such as gross malapportionment of constituencies and skewed media coverage — and to cash handouts and divide-and-rule ideological projects.
Still, all of these actions make it clear that the BN has chosen to remain in the club of competitive authoritarian regimes. Such regimes differ in their strategies and locations, but they all abuse state resources to tilt the political playing field in their favour.
While some countries move from relatively democratic systems to more authoritarian ones, such as Malaysia in the 1970s, others have moved from authoritarianism toward democracy. What can the experiences of these other countries tell us about where we go from here? And what choices lie ahead of those who want change?
Waiting for the world to change?
In 2008, Malaysia’s opposition parties won an unprecedented share of parliamentary seats. Many were caught off guard, hence the term “political tsunami”. This year, many instead anticipated that we would experience a change in government — “Ini kalilah!” It’s tempting to think Pakatan Rakyat has lost its moment, or that GE13 was somehow a setback.
But political change is incremental, an accumulation of shifts in different actors’ perceptions and strategies. Even when revolutions erupt in a matter of days — as in the January 2011 Egyptian revolution against President Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian rule — meaningful democratic change takes much longer.
In most cases, democratisation is gradual. Taiwan became democratic in 2000, when the DPP’s Chen Shui-Bian won the presidential election, ending the Kuomintang (KMT)’s 51-year authoritarian rule. By some accounts, Taiwan’s democratisation took decades: different scholars have pinpointed dates ranging from 1977 to 1992 as the watershed for its democratisation.1
All of this suggests that we should value the advancing steps of GE13 within a larger process of change. We saw our highest voter turnout in history. For the first time ever, BN did not win the popular vote, and the ruling coalition is even further away from a two-thirds majority than before. It was also the first general election in which DAP and PAS competed jointly in a formalised opposition alliance.
Another lesson on gradual timing is that authoritarian coalitions do not always fade politely into the background after they lose power. In Taiwan, the KMT regained the presidency in 2008 in a landslide victory, two elections later.
In Mexico, the 71-year reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ended in 2000 when Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) won the presidential election. However, the PRI reclaimed the presidency two elections later, despite being levelled with accusations of fraud and money laundering.
Bersatu teguh, bercerai roboh
One reason why Mexico’s PRI reclaimed the 2012 presidential elections was that the anti-PRI vote was split between the market-oriented PAN and the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). In fact, many believe that Fox won the 2000 presidential election because his centrist message attracted opposition voters across the political spectrum.
The importance of opposition unity is also clear in the work of political scientists Marc Morjé Howard and Philip G Roessler who analysed 50 elections in competitive authoritarian regimes. Their analysis found that the presence of an opposition coalition has the most impact in raising the likelihood that an election will bring significant political liberalisation.
There are obvious party-based tensions in Malaysia’s opposition movement. One example would be the longstanding differences between DAP and PAS about hudud law. Another is PKR’s and PAS’s refusal to give way to PSM candidates in Semenyih and Kota Damansara, respectively.
Nevertheless, the opposition movement has had growing success in drawing support across the colonial-era ethnic divisions that BN has perpetuated. But it isn’t quite as simple as replacing “Malay-Chinese-Indian” with “Malaysian”. For one thing, that effaces other other ethnicities — not least the Orang Asal, who constitute one-fifth of all bumiputeras.
There is also interplay between ethnicity and other types of difference. Many have argued that urban-rural differences were more important than ethnicity in GE13, whether because poverty is concentrated in rural areas or because online media access is concentrated in urban areas. The opposition will also have to build metaphorical bridges between East and West Malaysia, not least because of Sabah’s and Sarawak’s different ethnic and party configurations.
For the opposition, the challenge is not to deny these differences which together compose our fabulous cultural heritage. Instead, the challenge is to build broad-based support by flattening the social and material hierarchies which make one kind of difference superior to another.
For example, analysts have highlighted the urban-rural gap at least since the 1986 elections, when “the urban electorate tended to vote for opposition parties … while the rural electorate overwhelmingly voted for BN component parties”. Over the subsequent 27 years, if opposition parties had played a long game and sought to build inclusive coalitions — if PAS had worked to extend its rural base beyond the peninsular east coast; and if DAP had pressured the BN by championing rural issues alongside its other platforms — the 2013 election might have looked very different.
Beyond the middle ground
Where do pro-opposition, middle-class netizens fit in? Initially cast as key actors in what had been dubbed a “social-media election”, many are now among the most disillusioned after the election results.
Some of this disappointments stem from the assumption that Malaysia’s democratisation would be rapid. But some also stem from the assumption that recent political and economic changes had made it easier for all Malaysians to pick their political alignments freely. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Apart from the fact that internet access is still a limited commodity in many rural areas, middle classes enjoy other advantages.
Exit polls found that roughly 70% of overseas postal voters surveyed in Melbourne and London voted for the opposition. However, it’s much less risky to vote for the opposition when you can watch the fall-out from a distance, or if you have the human or financial capital to migrate if post-election politics gets too messy. It’s much harder when you’re a civil servant under a pro-BN boss, or a farmer hoping for government aid to get you through a bad harvest.
Additionally, it’s much easier to post Facebook statuses condemning the general corruption and NEP abuses that are affecting your earning prospects. It’s harder to protest against the crony contractor who refuses to connect your village’s electricity supply, or against the officials who are evicting you to make way for “development” projects. There is much less safety-in-numbers for resisting localised exploitation.
Indeed, if we are serious about democratisation in Malaysia, it will cost much more than a flow of tweets or multiple demonstrations and opposition ceramah. Those who can must invest time and money in initiatives such as Radio Free Sarawak, one of the only offline alternative media sources leading up to the elections. We must actively and respectfully pursue unity, rather than blaming government officers, “uneducated” rural voters, or underprivileged people from other countries who are hoping for better lives in Malaysia. We must also educate ourselves – the brokenness of our electoral system does not exempt me from the responsibility of learning about all the candidates on my ballot.
And we must persist in these investments, not only as we work toward meaningful democracy, but even after we achieve it. Change will come, but its speed and direction depend on all our choices.
 See Shelley Rigger, Politics in Taiwan (Voting for Democracy. London: Routledge, 1999), p.182; and Chu Yun-han and Lin Tse-min, ‘The Process of Democratic Consolidation in Taiwan,’ in Tien Hung-Mao ed., Taiwan’s Electoral Politics and Democratic Transition: Riding the Third Wave (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1996), p.81.
Hwa Yue-Yi recently completed a master’s thesis in anti-authoritarian mobilisation in Malaysia and Singapore. In the near future, she aims to educate herself by learning more about politics in Sabah and Sarawak, and reading an English paraphrase of the Quran.