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After the 2018 election, time to consolidate and sustain democracy

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While consolidating democracy involves a top-down process of lawmaking and implementation, sustaining democracy is a bottom-up process of checks and balances. Malaysia needs both, writes Johan Saravanamuttu.

The analyses of the electoral victory of Pakatan Harapan (PH) in the 2018 general election and the stream of articles on the extraordinary outcome continue to pour into the mainstream and social media.

In hindsight, PH’s success was perhaps destined. The unpopularity of the Najib Razak government and the former premier’s outrageous wrongdoings symbolised by the 1MDB scandal generated more than enough of a positive momentum for change.

Despite the break-up of Pakatan Rakyat in 2015, the new PH opposition was able to carry the promise of a politics of reform initiated by the Reformasi movement 20 years ago. In the end, the PH momentum was virtually “unstoppable” as Malaysians were determined to have a change of government.

The new PH government has moved briskly and with earnestness in fulfilling many of its electoral promises. But the larger issue of sustaining democratic change is not a one-off effort and requires the full engagement of Malaysian political society at many levels of action over a sustained period of time.

Indeed, much remains to be done to consolidate what Malaysians have so handsomely achieved. How do we go about consolidating Malaysia’s newly won democracy? It will be no mean task but let’s hope that it will not take as long as it took to defeat the BN coalition!

A consolidated democracy is defined as one that has passed the “two-turnover test”. This would mean showing evidence of governmental change at least twice, allowing ultimately for the embedding of a “turnover” electoral system, namely one where change could also be reversed in the future.

Malaysia may be said to have moved closer to this goal at the state level of contestation.

At the federal level, PH would have to win again and in some future date perhaps face the prospect of a turnover if and when its policies no longer satisfy the electorate.

In Asia such democracies are few and far in between, with India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and, possibly Indonesia, being the main exemplars.

We must also note than in contrast to democratic consolidation, some regimes exhibit ‘backsliding’ or regress, Thailand being one of the most prominent cases following its military coup of 2014. We certainly hope this will not happen to Malaysia.

After the recent general election, Malaysia’s electoral politics will effectively still have its two-coalition system, underpinned by PH and BN, with Pas as a significant third force in the system.

In the new political landscape, Pas seems to have re-emerged essentially as a regional party in the Malay-Muslim belt of Peninsular Malaysia (See Chart 1).

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It has minimal presence in the west coast states of Malaysia and has little or no presence in East Malaysia. This situation is not unlike Canadian politics where Liberals and Conservatives share national power with the New Democratic Party (NDP) sometimes capturing provincial governments.

Malaysia is even more complicated in that the various political parties in Sabah and Sarawak have remained basically as state-based parties until recently. The consolidation of Malaysian democracy would thus need to occur at the federal and state levels of governance, with even more possibilities for future turnovers particularly at the state level of contestation.

Turnovers are healthy politically: they keep governments responsive and accountable. We have not yet seen such occurrences in some of the states of the peninsula (Pahang and Perlis) and in Sarawak in recent times.

But the situation in Sarawak is fluid and volatile and with the exit of parties from BN, this definitely augurs for some form of change in the next state election, due in three years.

Thus, what one can clearly surmise from Malaysia’s new political landscape is that the 2018 general election brought about a new political vibrancy and the drive for democratic change which is set to continue.

The work is cut out for those who would like to see Malaysia’s complex political system get on with the task of democratic consolidation – a task likely to remain as ‘work in progress’ for some time to come.

Let me now share some thoughts as to how, as Malaysians, we may be better able to understand the enormous task at hand in sustaining and enhancing what has been gained in the general election.

Three broad levels of thrusts, agendas and actions are essential to sustain democracy, namely:

  • implementing electoral reform
  • enhancing electoral integrity
  • ensuring subsystem autonomy

Malaysia’s first-past-the-post system is far from perfect but it may indeed be the system most suitable for the continued sustenance of democracy in the near future.

Do we need to immediately reform the system to that of proportional representation or to one of a mixed system such as in Germany or in Australia? This is suggested by some reformists. In the near future, there will be no gumption for such a major overhaul of the electoral system when other reform agendas are clearly more urgent.

Indeed, PH (with Parti Warisan) has been a beneficiary of the first-past-the-post system, winning about 48% of the popular vote but winning well over a majority of the parliamentary seats. If truth be told, PH may want to savour its victory and consolidate its own power first before addressing the need for radical electoral reform (see Chart 1).

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What is clear is that the extreme malapportionment of the system and gerrymandering in the recent exercise to redraw constituencies need to be tackled soon.

Given that our electoral laws only allow for such an exercise to be carried out no sooner than every eight years, such changes may have to wait – unless by some political stroke, PH secures a two-thirds majority of votes to carry out a comprehensive new exercise. The legal niceties of such a prospective move remain murky.

The more immediate and important agenda is to reinstate local level elections to strengthen our federal system of governance. This has been a civil society call since the 2008 election.

Up until the 1960s, before local level elections were abolished, Malaysia boasted some 373 elected councils that had well over 3,000 elected representatives. This is a basic level of democratic participation and involvement by citizens which has been absent for too long.

Aliran has submitted a strong proposal to enhance the federal system through better and more effective decentralisation which includes implementing locally elected councils.

Malaysia is currently a federal entity with too much power concentrated on the central governmental authorities and institutions. The time is ripe for this reform, which was already mooted and pursued after the 2008 general election, to come to fruition.

In fact, the holding of local elections was a PH electoral promise, and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin has already indicated that Penang and Selangor will provide the template for its implementation to be completed in stages over the next three years.

Second, it is also necessary to implement a proper bicameral parliamentary system. We need to now work towards the possibility of a partially or fully elected Dewan Negara, the upper house.

Presently, the Dewan Negara or Senate is a mere rubber stamp institution which has no effective powers to stop bills after their third reading and passing by the Dewan Rakyat or Lower House.

An elected Senate would mean that bills can still be amended by the Senate should they be found to be faulty or inappropriate, thus providing checks and balances to the role of lawmakers in the lower house.

Our current electoral laws allow for an elected Dewan Negara but the Electoral Commission has never deemed it fit to carry this out. Instead, the current practice is for each state legislature to appoint two senators and the Yang Di Pertuan Agong (meaning the government) to appoint the other 44, making up the 70 senators.

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A properly elected Senate would entail the Electoral Commission undertaking constituency delimiting exercises in all states, determining the number in consultation with the government, the opposition, political parties and civil groups. It could well remain as two, following the US system.

Perhaps this electoral system could be staggered just like locally elected councils with a number of PH governed states providing the templates. There could still be the provision for the Agong to appoint a certain number of senators allocated for women, minorities such as the Orang Asal (which rarely see elected representatives), and civil society organisations.

As for electoral integrity, this has to be a major priority. The Besih movement has provided us with the major rationale, ideas and directions to bring about the strengthening of our electoral management body and its procedures that can inspire public confidence in the work of the Electoral Commission. Mainly, this would require making the commission autonomous, independent and truly answerable to Parliament and not just to the prime minister.

Second, the slate of reforms that Bersih has called needs to be fully studied and implemented whenever it is feasible to do so.

Among the most glaring failures of the Electoral Commission was its lack of earnestness in providing overseas voters with enough time to return their ballots not least of all due to the short campaign period.

Bersih has also demanded that the election campaign period should be for a minimum of 21 days. The holding of the election on a Wednesday probably deprived many voters their right to vote. With a turnout of just about 81%, some 2.8m out of the registered 14.9m did not vote in the 2018 general election (see Chart 2).

Bersih’s excellent work of monitoring this and previous elections has revealed a litany of electoral wrongdoings and misconduct, which need to be corrected in the future.

Finally, the Malaysian political system has to guarantee what political scientists refer to as “subsystem autonomy”. In Malaysia, this would mean having an independent judiciary, academic freedom in universities, autonomous and independent media and an autonomous public sphere for civil society organisations to critically assess the actions and policies of the government.

While consolidating democracy largely involves a top-down process of lawmaking and implementation, sustaining democracy is largely a bottom-up process of checks and balances. The way forward for Malaysian democracy is to ensure that both these processes are embedded firmly in the nation.

Johan Saravanamuttu
Co-editor, Airan newsletter
29 June 2018

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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Dr Johan Saravanamuttu, a long-time Aliran member, is emeritus professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia, adjunct professor at the Asia Europe Institute, University of Malaya and adjunct senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He believes in politics as a vocation but is frustrated that it is often the refuge of opportunists and the morally depraved
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