Are independent candidates part of the BN’s ploy?
INDEPENDENT candidates have become a sort of joke in Malaysian politics, ever since the record-breaking 13 independents decided to slug it out in Bukit Selambau in April 2009. All 13, however, lost their deposits on polling day on 7 April, during which it was clear that voters were still largely split between choosing the Barisan Nasional (BN) or Pakatan Rakyat (PR).
Although Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) emerged victorious in the eyebrow-raising Bukit Selambau contest, independents still decided to try their luck in the recent Penanti by-election. Although the BN did not contest this seat, the fight was still a four-cornered one among PRK’s Dr Mansor Othman, ex-Gerakan youth leader Nai Khan Ari Nai Keow, ex-PKR leader Aminah Abdullah, and founder of the yet-to-be-registered Parti Iman SeMalaysia, Kamarul Ramizu Idris.
In a press conference in Bukit Mertajam during the campaigning period, PKR strategist Tian Chua called this trend of independents contesting a BN ploy to “depoliticise” the Malaysian electorate. Many PR supporters have followed this line of reasoning, claiming that independents must be sponsored by the BN to sabotage the PR. The question is: Is this true?
Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) vice-president Rohana Ariffin disagrees, and with vehemence.
“If this kind of rhetoric goes on, every time someone wants to stand as an independent candidate, PKR will say they are BN agents. But don’t non-aligned citizens have a right to contest in politics as well?” she says in a phone interview.
“If we appreciate people who are independent in the arts, in blogosphere, and in non-governmental organisations, why should we not appreciate independents in politics?”
Zaitun Kasim discussing womens’ rights issues with people on the streets of Kuala Lumpur
(pic courtesy of Ezrena Marwan)
Rohana says that independent candidates actually have the room to take on specifically, as their electoral platforms, issues that either the BN or PR will not. An example would be gender equality, as championed by the Women’s Candidacy Initiative (WCI), which fielded an independent candidate, the late Zaitun Mohamed Kasim, in the Selayang parliamentary seat in 1999. Zaitun managed to poll 42% of the popular vote — no mean feat for an independent running against MCA giant Tan Sri Chan Kong Choy.
Additionally, in the case of Nai Khan Ari, who is the first Thai Malaysian contesting in a Malaysian election, he would not have been able to offer to represent minority interests if he had remained in Gerakan. With the Barisan Nasional leadership deciding that the coalition would not contest in Penanti, there is no way Gerakan would have fielded him as a candidate.
However, apart from PKR’s accusations of independent candidates being BN-sponsored, there is also the overwhelming perception in Malaysian political culture that independents “cannot do anything” even if they are elected.
Malaysians for Free and Fair Elections (Mafrel)‘s northern region coordinator, Ong Boon Keong, says the opposite is actually true. He tells The Nut Graph, “In a lot of countries, independent state or parliamentary representatives actually do provide better options to the electorate.”
He says although it is true that independent candidates cannot form government, they still provide a different, valuable voice in national and local politics.
Juan Ponce Enrile (source: Wiki Commons)For example, Juan Ponce Enrile managed to get elected to the Philippines’s Senate as an independent in 1995, and held on to this post until 2001. As an independent senator, Enrile still managed to give priority “to measures reviewing the performance of the power sector to promote consumer welfare; promoting competition among the industries; and the protection of the public from threats and acts of terrorism”.
Ong says, “Independent candidates are actually good for democracy. The way in which parties like PKR look at independent candidates reflects how they really look at equality.”
He gives the example of the US presidential elections. “The candidates will share the same debating platform before the nation whether or not it is a party candidate who has obtained 70% of the vote in the primaries, or an independent candidate with a much smaller vote.”
In fact, in 1992, independent candidate Ross Perot managed to draw 18.9% of the popular vote in the US presidential elections, which indicated the level of public resentment towards both Republican George H W Bush and Democrat, and eventual president, Bill Clinton.
Weeding out the loonies
Ross Perot (source: Wiki Commons)Perhaps Perot is not such a good example of an independent candidate made good — US citizens, after all, started to view him as a bit of an eccentric in his 1992 campaign. Perhaps this is also what has given independent candidates a bad name in Malaysia over the past year — it might be their lack of skills and vision, rather than their non-party status, which is turning Malaysians off.
Professor Dr Norani Othman, a sociologist with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, tells The Nut Graph that this should not be used as an excuse to tar all independents with the same brush.
“The regulations and procedures that are built into the electoral and election process should also provide disincentives for the jokers, loonies or the non-serious contenders,” she says in an e-mail interview. “It’s more important to evaluate whether the process is biased against candidates from small parties [and independents].”
Ultimately, it is the electorate that will decide whether or not an independent is a legitimate contender in any election. But it is a given, though, that after Bukit Selambau and Penanti especially, the electorate will not be entertaining non-party candidates for a while. Which, according to Rohana, is a shame.
“People now vote for parties and not for the candidates, but I feel that we as an electorate should start being more idealistic,” she says. According to her, we should judge all candidates based on what they can individually accomplish for the constituency.
“Independent candidates also have manifestos that they can be held accountable for,” she says.
What Rohana says bears thinking about — imagine if a credible candidate like WCI’s Zaitun was actually in Parliament right now. And with prospects for Malaysian democracy to grow being more exciting now than ever before, it is important not to throw all independent candidates out with the bathwater.
Disclosure: Shanon Shah was a WCI coordinator during the March 2008 general election.