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Precarious coalitional politics and why we need a shadow cabinet

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It is high time we hold our elected representatives accountable to the people who voted for them, Azmil Tayeb writes.

By now, most of us must be sick and tired of the political musical chairs game that has been taking place in Parliament and some state assemblies.

Elected officials, blatantly disrespecting the trust and mandate given by the people who voted them in, have engaged in horse trading and other shenanigans in the naked pursuit of power.

Coalitional politics in Malaysia works in a different way than in other countries with a similar parliamentary system. Our winner-takes-all first-past-the-post electoral system compels political parties to form coalitions before elections, mainly for the strategic reason of not splitting the votes.

This gives rise to the kind of pragmatic thinking that the renowned military strategist Sun Tzu calls “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. This is a fair characterisation of the coalitional politics we are seeing in Malaysia now.

But this coalitional strategy is not sustainable in the long run: look at the unfortunate collapse of the Pakatan Harapan government after just 22 months in power and the ensuing political dramas unfolding until today.

A coalition made up of component parties with varied agendas and ideologies need not necessarily be motivated by a hatred for a common enemy.

Take the Grand Coalition (Große Koalition or GroKo) in Germany for example. GroKo comprises left and right political parties that are not able to form a majority coalition on their own. Instead, they get together over a common agenda and an equal power-sharing arrangement.

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GroKo has formed the federal government four times since World War Two; the last three occasions being during the long tenure of the current Chancellor, Angela Merkel. This stability helped to steer Germany through the 2008 global recessions relatively unscathed.

Admittedly, Germany practices a type of proportional representation electoral system, which allows for negotiations between parties to take place after an election – unlike what we have in Malaysia. Instead of focusing on the timing of inter-party bargaining, let’s instead look at the ties that bind these disparate parties together: the parties’ willingness to set aside their differences for the sake of a common agenda that centres on the public interest and wellbeing.

This is the reason why GroKo has managed to remain intact for most of Frau Merkel’s tenure. And this is precisely what coalition-building in Malaysia, whether in government or opposition, woefully lacks.

A coalition built upon a foundation of sound, popular and clear common policies is far likelier to succeed than one driven by sheer politicking and greed for power. Instead of concentrating on getting enough numbers to form a government, PH must get its act together and train its focus on common policies that benefit the people, especially the poor and the disadvantaged.

PH can start by creating a shadow cabinet, similar to what has been practised in other Westminster parliamentary governments such as the UK. A shadow cabinet will force PH component parties to knock their heads together to come up with a competent cabinet capable of producing unified criticisms and alternative policies to those the PN government has offered.

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Rather than immediately trying to get back to power through shady backroom deals and the royal imprimatur, PH should play the long game by acting as a government-in-waiting that serves as a strong and cohesive countervailing force against the legitimately questionable PN government.

A PH shadow cabinet that is people-centred and exclusively policy-oriented with minimal petty politicking can endear itself to voters as it gears up towards the upcoming general election.

How do we the people get the PH coalition to transform its behaviour and get its act together? We one must exert enough collective pressure on our elected representatives. The pressure has to come from both inside and outside of the parties.

Rank-and-file members of the parties must be brave enough to speak out on this matter during party meetings and push for it to be included in the agendas of their respective parties.

Civil society groups can pile on the pressure from outside and embolden the activists within the parties. These groups can mobilise support through online petitions, public forums, articles over national media and meetings with elected representatives. Although the scope for civil society group mobilisation is limited during this pandemic era, it should not discourage us from loudly raising demands as concerned Malaysians.

The need for a policy-oriented shadow cabinet has to be placed front and centre in the mainstream political discourse. It has to be the topic that dominates coffeeshop talks across Malaysia.

Our representatives have long behaved with reckless disregard for the trust and mandate of the people who have voted them into power. It is high time we hold them accountable, cajole them into carrying out their public duties professionally and sternly remind them that the elected office is not in any way a personal entitlement.

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Azmil Tayeb
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
22 December 2020
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