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Why is the BN against local elections?

AT least on the surface, the Barisan Nasional (BN) agrees with the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) on two things: ethno-religious inclusion and governmental reforms. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s 1Malaysia and Government Transformation Programme are basically the BN’s answer to the PR’s ketuanan rakyat and “competency, accountability and transparency“.

But the two coalitions now differ on one thing: local government elections. While Penang and Selangor are writing to the Election Commission (EC) for authorisation to carry out local elections, the BN has shot down the idea. The question is, why is the BN so against the idea of reviving local government elections?

Federal and state elections, too?

Najib dismissed local elections because they may cause too much politicking. He said those vying for a spot in local councils will be too busy campaigning for their posts rather than performing their roles effectively.

By this logic, we should not have parliamentary and state elections, either; appointed federal and state lawmakers would perform their roles more effectively if they didn’t have to campaign for their posts. And by extension, senators would be the best-performing political officers in the country.


Nazri Aziz (File pic)
Sin Chew Daily also reported Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz‘s objection to local elections on another point: intergovernmental conflict. According to Nazri, the people would suffer if the elected local government does not agree with the state government. He argued that the “winner-takes-all” nature of the current appointment system makes management and fund allocation easy.

By extending Nazri’s logic, it might be better not to have state elections, just federal elections. After all, if whichever party won federal power controlled all states, then the federal government could easily manage and allocate funds.

As we are commemorating the second anniversary of the sea-changing 2008 elections, will everyone accept that Selangor, Penang, Kelantan and Kedah should just be under BN government to ease administration and development?

The implication of the divide between the two coalitions over local elections is clear: the BN is against democratisation while the PR is for it. Theoretically, the BN proposes a more inclusive, more efficient but not more democratic Malaysia, while the PR offers a more inclusive, more efficient and more democratic Malaysia.

If you believe that 8 March 2008 was about citizens taking ownership of their public life and nationhood, then the BN is the antithesis of this very idea.

Like father, like son

For Najib, the purpose of government seems to be about providing good service as he sees fits, not on citizens deciding collectively how society should govern itself.

But don’t be surprised. Najib’s father, second Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak paid only lip service to democracy. He said, “The view we take is that democratic government is the best and most acceptable form of government. So long as the form is preserved, the substance can be changed to suit conditions of a particular economy.”


Tun Abdul Razak (Public domain |
Wiki commons)
Why did Abdul Razak want to preserve only the form and not the substance of democracy? It appears he saw an internal contradiction between democracy and interethnic unity. He said this in 1973: “[In] our Malaysian society of today, where racial manifestations are very much in exercise, any form of politicking is bound to follow along racial lines and will only enhance the divisive tendencies amongst our people.”

Thirty seven years later, his son Najib says almost the same thing about local elections: “We feel it will increase politicking at the local [government] level. We want to improve services for the rakyat. By having [local government] elections, the focus will be more on the political process.”

Midterm elections

Najib’s rejection of local elections is in fact perfectly rational. If one wants to keep a one-party state, one should have as few elections as possible, or have them all in one go.

Local elections are problematic to autocrats in both ways: not only would they increase the number of elections, but, more importantly, they would inevitably constitute a midterm election for the federal and state governments.

In other words, voters could potentially use this third vote to protest against the federal and state governments.

Midterm elections have always been the BN’s, and its precursor the Alliance’s, nightmare. In 1959, state elections took place at different times in different places, although strictly not midterm as the state elections were just months away from the federal elections. The result? The Alliance lost Kelantan and Terengganu to PAS.

Beginning from 1964, the Alliance/BN went all out to make sure that the general elections meant simultaneous federal and state elections, except in Kelantan, Sarawak and Sabah, when they were held at different points in time.

With the state elections thus fixed, the leftover midterm elections now occurred in only two forms: local elections and by-elections for parliamentary or state seats.

In 1965, first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman suspended local elections in the name of national security. He promised Parliament that local elections would be restored once the Indonesian Confrontation was over. But then local elections were officially abolished by the introduction of the Local Government Act 1976.


Shahrir Samad (File pic)
And after Umno’s Datuk Shahrir Samad‘s resignation and reelection as an independent parliamentarian in the 1988 Johor Baru by-election, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad moved to amend the federal and state constitutions. Lawmakers were effectively barred from re-contesting within five years of their resignation. This rule has effectively killed off another avenue for midterm elections and protected the government from occasional political challenges.

Of course, some might point at the string of nine by-elections post-March 2008 — were these not effectively “midterm elections”? Yes, they were, but six out of the nine were necessitated by the incumbents’ deaths.

In other words, had it not been for these “acts of God”, the BN might have been spared six whole by-elections held in 2009.

If it’s a “no”

I don’t expect the EC to respond positively to the requests by Penang and Selangor. And after the prime minister’s open objection, it would be surprising if the EC opted to carry out its duty under Article 113(4) of the Federal Constitution — to conduct elections other than parliamentary and state legislative elections authorised by federal and state law.

However, if the EC were to say no, how should the Penang and State governments respond?

Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim have three options before them:

accept the EC’s rejection, blame it on legality, and forget about local elections;

challenge the EC’s position by amending/passing state laws to explicitly authorise the EC to conduct elections and force the EC to take up a constitutional case in court;

organise a mock election (hence bypassing the EC) and then appoint the winners as councillors.

Let us be clear here. Neither the EC nor the BN federal government calls the shots on local elections. The PR state governments do. Let us hope they differ completely from the BN on this.


Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and journalism lecturer by trade. He hopes that the BN-PR divide on democratisation will become a key criterion for voters to choose between the coalitions.

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15 Responses to “Why is the BN against local elections?”

  1. Leithaisor says:

    In the minds of many of the rakyat, indeed some would even say the majority of the rakyat, there is already the perception that Najib and the present Umno-dominated BN government are politically and morally bankrupt.

    After the Perak coup and the subsequent court cases, the glaringly disparate responses from the Home Minister and the police towards peaceful assemblies, and even some not-so-peaceful assemblies like the mob which dragged a cow’s head around in Selangor and other such attrocities, who can blame them?

    Even with the help of a multi-million ringgit public relations agency I think it is a near-impossible task to re-brand the present government. You cannot fool all the people all the time, as Abraham Lincoln once said.

    A situation not helped by one faux pas after another, with the hollow reasons for turning down local elections adding greatly to the damage. Another nail in the coffin.

    It would have been mighty dangerous for Najib to agree to hold local elections, with a historical mid-term elections nightmare record and the many post-March 8 2008 by-election losses stacked against Najib, Umno and the BN. Indeed, it would appear that Najib is caught in a no-win situation.

    But at least if he had bitten the bullet, and supported Pakatan’s local elections call, that might have won him a small but significant amount of brownie points.

    Even if BN lost the local elections which followed, history would have recorded him as the PM who restored to the people their 3rd vote. Much like a bottom-rung student earning a blue mark in a sea of red failing marks on his report card.

    But it would be a blue mark much more significant and remembered than a host of feel-good 1Malaysia stunts and programs.

    Perhaps it is still not too late for Najib to re-consider and find a way to take the statesman-like step and OK local elections.

  2. siew eng says:

    There is another option for states wishing to hold local government elections. According to one of the speakers at the MyConstitution talk at the Annexe Gallery in Central Market KL on Thursday, states have the power to exempt certain locations from the Act, e.g. hold an election for Georgetown councillors.

    Great stuff from the distinguished speakers, btw.

    And watching Komas’s “After the Tsunami” the same day was more food for thought on the issue of federalism. Powerful combi! Both excellent stuff.

  3. chinhuatw says:

    @Siew Eng,
    The exemption method is one of the ways in the second option I listed.

    I read somewhere in a Chinese daily that Ronnie Liu said that the 1960 Local Government Elections Act was repealed (which was not).

    There is a lot of misinformation out there but it is heartening many people are also getting the correct information.

  4. mock says:

    Start with the mock first, rather than waiting forever. Show us the CAT, lead by example, not by complaining and whining.

  5. Farouq Omaro says:

    In the US, representatives are elected to the Congress to represent the people, the president is elected to lead the nation, a governor is elected to head a state government, a mayor is elected to head the county, a sheriff is elected to head law enforcement in the county. This gives a lot of space for democracy and leaves little space for corruption. The government should move closer towards such a system, I believe.

  6. hudson says:

    There is no good reason for Najib to reject the 3rd vote for local council elections. The current local councils are just useless goons who just obey the state and do not really take care of their area.

    To prove a point, even some BN component leaders like Gerakan’s Tan Keng Liang have been reported in the news recently opposing Najib’s rejection. Just imagine, your own coalition people also do not accept a rejection of the third vote. I won’t be surprised if it was PR which said it. But coming from those inside the BN just proves the point that Najib’s rejection is unacceptable even to BN people.

  7. chinhuatw says:

    The technical details of how local elections can be carried out by state governments is provided by the Coalition for Good Governance report prepared for Selangor.

    URL (Parts 1-3):
    http://www.facebook.com/notes/chin-huat-wong/selangor-commissioned-report-on-revival-of-local-elections-part-1/247296975465

    http://www.facebook.com/notes/chin-huat-wong/selangor-commissioned-report-on-revival-of-local-elections-part-2/247312345465

    http://www.facebook.com/notes/chin-huat-wong/selangor-commissioned-report-on-revival-of-local-elections-part-3/247314085465

    I agree with @mock that we should just begin with mock elections. The argument that this may be illegal is red-herring.

  8. Ashraf says:

    Finally, Selangor and Penang are pushing for local council elections. Is it in response to PKR MPs deserting PR? Had Selangor and Penang pushed for it right after March 08, at least by now, after going back and forth between the EC, court and Federal Government, we could have a realistic picture if indeed local elections can be held at mid term.

  9. KIM GAN says:

    To avoid the politicking that may impinge on racial sensivities, perhaps the campaigning can be minimal and voting can be carried out electronically through the net, sanctioned and monitored by the EC and political parties.

  10. hunkeyboy says:

    All rubbish and unsustainable arguments.

    Just look at UK or any of the “western democracies” that some of us slam. Do they not have elected councils in wards not necessarily represented in Parliament by representatives from the same parties? Yes, they howl, holler and bicker and vie to get each other out “the next time”. But the bottom line is that the residents, the people, are well served – they have full say and their interests come first, and they don’t lose their playgrounds and green belts to rich, influential and powerful parties.

    The most essential factor in this whole local election issue is not heightening politicking, not the Nazri bogey of intra-party impasses, not security or unity or anything like that.

    The most important thing is giving back to the people the right to decide who should sit in their local councils to serve them. This right is no less important or different from the origins of the social contract where ordinary people banded together to select and pay for those who would protect and look after the them, and the land they lived on, from marauders.

    We, in Malaysia in this 21st century, still need precisely the same protection from even more virulent marauders. Hence the people at the local level must get to decide by free election who should represent them – not federally appointed figureheads. That about sums it up, the rest is just nasty ultra-conservative politics from the centre.

  11. jimmy low* says:

    Enlightening. I would subscribe to the author’s writing.

  12. dominik says:

    To overcome the objections by the BN government, I would agree with your third suggestion, i.e. to hold “mock elections” to appoint councillors. It would show the rakyat that the state government is giving some power back to the rakyat. Just like the ones held by the PR when it was holding power in Perak, when the various village heads were elected by the people themselves.

  13. mycuntree says:

    I’m all for the revival of local elections. There is actually next to no real disadvantage for having it. I can see only good. Umno’s fear of local elections is obvious for they know that they have everything to lose if they allow it. Some very good and practical roundabout ways have been offered to overcome Najib’s objection. So just do it!

  14. chinhuatw says:

    @Kim Gan,

    Why should we fear politicking? If federal and state elections do not get us into any killing and looting sprees, why do you think the election of your local rep who may represent just perhaps 10,000 people would? Why would people lose their reason over local issues like roads or bridges or potholes?

    It’s time for us to debunk the depoliticising fear-mongering propaganda laid down by, among others, Najib’s father.

  15. Merah Silu says:

    Wong and many of your cronies are so advanced and prefer what you call ‘ketuanan rakyat’. I am still a Malay [Malaysian] living in kampung and prefer the traditional way of following our leaders. You could go to the UK and US as they are very advanced countries where the rakyat could decide on their own. So far we are okay and I know we will be okay without people like you who always disrupt the peace and harmony of this country. [...]


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