WILL direct membership into Barisan Nasional (BN) really help boost support for the ruling coalition? Or are there more pitfalls than advantages?
Politicians from various parties have weighed in, and while it is viewed as a workable strategy, the move could potentially harm BN’s internal cohesiveness. Drawing more support from outside the coalition through this approach seems designed for the short-term goal of regaining BN’s two-thirds parliamentary strength in the next general election.
But will this really work against Pakatan Rakyat (PR)? And at what expense to the BN?
Back door to trouble?
A BN sub-committee is currently studying the mechanisms of direct membership. BN heads, specifically lead party Umno, seem determined to push direct membership through by amending the BN constitution at the end of 2010. Effectively, admission of new members will not need the consent of every BN component party as required now. However, little else has been said to address preliminary concerns raised by various component party members about the implications.
A foreseeable problem is that direct membership opens the back door for disgruntled members or leaders of component parties to stay in BN. It allows rivalries to fester and politicking to leak out from individual component parties to potentially stain the rest of the coalition.
“Politically ambitious people will create problems in their component party, then leave and join BN directly. How will BN draw the line with these troublemakers? It can cause BN to lose the support of component party leaders,” People’s Progressive Party (PPP) president Datuk M Kayveas tells The Nut Graph.
“Direct membership may only end up benefitting people who cannot be good followers in their parties and want to parachute into BN hoping to be leaders,” adds Kayveas, who had a leadership tussle with former PPP Youth chief Datuk T Murugiah who was sacked from the party. Murugiah’s claim to the PPP presidency will be decided in court next month.
Gerakan Youth chief Lim Si Pin says Umno’s eagerness for BN direct membership is a clear sign that the lead party has grown impatient with component parties struggling to mend themselves and regain their voter base.
“By opening up to individuals and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), what happens to the BN method of making decisions by consensus with other component parties? Ultimately, who decides if a direct member should be admitted?” says Lim in a phone interview.
Hindraf candlelight march, 27 Sept 2008
But is there any consensus worth speaking of, when Umno has stopped banking on its coalition partners and is already looking at other survival options? Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research director Ibrahim Suffian sees the direct membership proposal as a strategy specifically aimed at non-Malay Malaysians.
Several non-Malay Malaysian parties or movements have emerged in the last two years — Hindraf, the Malaysian Makkal Sakti Party, the Human Rights Party and Parti Cinta Malaysia (PCM). Older ones like the Indian Progressive Front and the Malaysian Indian Muslim Congress (Kimma) have long been knocking on BN’s door.
“As a stop-gap measure until component parties recover, opening membership for BN at a direct level is an option. But in the long run, it won’t solve BN’s underlying problems,” Ibrahim says in a phone interview.
It comes back to the question of BN’s relevance as a race-defined entity. Is direct membership the BN’s tacit way of testing the waters as a multiracial party in preparation for a two-party system? After all, it’s not a new proposal and only seems to be gaining traction now that some component parties are unable to pull their weight.
Whether BN has in mind a two-party system or not, Ibrahim thinks there is some awareness that non-Malay Malaysians cannot be left segregated into different parties. BN’s focus understandably is on non-Malay Malaysians who gave opposition parties their windfall in the 2008 elections.
Kayveas, however, believes the direct membership proposal is reflective of BN’s self-awareness that it needs to change. “We know people now want to have choice instead of one-party rule term after term. The question is whether this is the best way to change.
“If you ask me, the better way is to dismantle BN and form one party. It lies in Umno’s hands to go back to Datuk Onn Jaafar‘s vision [to open Umno to non-Malays]. The time is right and had we done so, we may not have lost so much in 2008.”
What’s in it for me?
Some might argue, that’s easy to say for Kayveas, whose PPP is one of the smaller parties in BN. A lot more is at stake for the bigger component parties. And so to encourage direct membership without dissolving the individual component party structures, BN will have to consider what it has to offer.
“I am more concerned with what benefits we will offer direct members to join. I doubt the sincerity of everyone who wants to join. People are always wanting posts or benefits. To me, seats come election time must be out of the question. BN must be extremely careful with opening up. Somewhere along the line, existing component parties may get offended,” Kayveas notes.
Lim concurs, and urges the BN leadership to clarify quickly what consequences direct membership will have on the selection of election candidates.
“Gerakan’s parliamentary seats have been reduced to two in the last election. If one day, Umno feels we are not fulfilling our role, what if an NGO party is asked to fill our seats?” he asks.
Is there a queue yet waiting to join BN? PCM, for one, an independent political party which obtained speedy approval from the Registrar of Societies in September 2009, has been rumoured to be a BN-sponsored outfit waiting for the right time to join the coalition.
Huan But its vice-president, Huan Cheng Guan, who quit Gerakan after falling out with its leadership, denies any BN or Umno support. Huan, however, is open for PCM to be a direct BN member depending on the terms and conditions.
“We’ll wait and see first,” Huan tells The Nut Graph. He says the party now has between 6,000 and 7,000 members.
Gerakan’s Lim doesn’t just want leaders sitting on the BN supreme council to decide on the direct membership process. He hopes the matter can be brought to the floor of all component parties for members, or central delegates at the very least, to debate.
If bulldozed through, direct membership may end up creating more problems for BN and do little for regaining public support.
It likely won’t pose a threat to PR unless Umno courageously dissolves itself and BN truly becomes a multiracial party. “Increasing BN’s base with direct members doesn’t in any way improve people’s perceptions of BN which is still ethnic-based at its core with Umno as the lead party,” says Merdeka Centre’s Ibrahim.
“BN needs to be making sense of the underlying issues that caused voters to reject them in some places in the first place,” he adds. Direct membership then, may just be a cosmetic application with little structural reform.
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