In 2000 when the Institutional Revolutionary Party, better known by its acronym PRI, lost the presidential election in Mexico after 70 years of unbroken rule, analysts heralded the outcome as the country’s dawning of democracy.
The occasion was momentous as the PRI’s own history is deeply enmeshed with the birth and growth of modern-day Mexico as it emerged from the rubbles and ashes of a revolutionary war in the early 20th Century.
For seven decades, the PRI had tightened its hold on power with a repertoire of election rigging, a patronage system, political thuggery and intimidation, and the blurring of lines between the public and private sectors. No wonder the famed Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa dubbed the system the “perfect dictatorship”.
If the PRI sounds familiar, it is because its political longevity and survival strategies remind us of the six-decade continuous reign of Umno-Barisan Nasional before voters finally delivered the coalition a coup de grace in 2018.
Like the 2000 Mexican election, the historic 2018 Malaysian general election was perceived by the world as the catalyst that would propel the nation forward in its democratisation march. Malaysia’s total score in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index climbed from 6.54 in 2017 to 7.19 in 2020 (published right before the infamous Sheraton Move).
Meanwhile, after wandering for years in the political wilderness, the PRI made a surprising comeback in 2012 by winning Mexico’s presidency. It turned out that more democracy with a new party at the helm was not the panacea that could adequately tackle the country’s major problems, such as high unemployment, a currency devaluation, a deep recession and drug violence.
Many felt a nostalgic longing for the ‘good ‘ol days’, which buoyed the PRI’s eventual return to power. Rightly or wrongly, Mexican voters remembered how stable and benevolent it was when the PRI ruled the country during its earlier reign.
One voter said, “The PRI always looked after the people even if their ways were not always right.”
He added: “You have to understand this is Mexico. They all rob; they all steal. But if Pena [the PRI’s presidential candidate Enrique Pena Nieto] can bring more jobs and more security, he will win.”
This Mexican voter could be a dead ringer for the Umno-BN supporters we currently encounter in Malaysia.
One cannot help but draw a strong parallel between the PRI’s Lazarus-like political resurrection and Umno-BN’s presently rising political fortunes.
In the Malacca state election, Umno-BN swept up 21 (75%) of the 28 available seats while in the recently concluded Johor state election, it won 40 (71%) of 56 seats.
If Malaysia was to hold its general election today, there is a strong likelihood Umno-BN will prevail. Unlike the PRI, Umno-BN does not look as if it needs 12 years to regain federal power.
Sensing the people’s yearning for political and economic stability, Umno-BN vigorously pushed this theme in its campaigning in Malacca and Johor.
Umno-BN also engages in what Johan Saravanamuttu calls “manufacturing consent” by using money politics to buy votes, either directly or by promising various subsidies and development programmes.
Like it or not, the theme of political and economic stability with a benevolent government at the heart of it resonates well with voters – as seen in Umno-BN’s resounding wins in Malacca and Johor.
A Nadi Melayu Muslim 2021 survey, carried out by Invoke and the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development, indicated a strong pro-authoritarian bias among Malay voters, many of whom seem willing to trade their democratic rights for political and economic stability – not unlike what we see in Singapore.
This provides fertile ground for Umno-BN’s campaigning and explains its ensuing electoral success. It also explains why campaign themes run by PH – such as kleptocracy, corruption and the return of the people’s mandate – did not fare well compared to Umno-BN’s promise of political stability and economic benevolence.
So, what can PH and civil society do to stem the tide of Umno-BN returning to federal power?
Mustafa K Anuar exhorts PH to get its act together, present a unified front and offer concrete policies on bread-and-butter issues that are paramount to voters, especially those hit by the pandemic.
PH must show it stands firmly with the people, not the rich and powerful, in healthcare, education, environment, jobs and a host of other issues.
It should incorporate class analysis in its policymaking approach and move away from austerity-driven neoliberal policies that only punish the poor while rewarding the rich and powerful, namely by taking a page from the socialism playbook.
PH also has to be uncompromising in combating toxic ethno-religious sentiments currently plaguing Malaysian politics and society. The coalition cannot and must not play a similar “out-Islamise” game like Umno and Pas have done since 1980s. This game has led to a highly polarised country sharply divided along ethno-religious lines, like we are seeing now.
Despite regaining the presidency in 2012, the PRI lost it again a mere six years later, primarily due to slew of corruption scandals. As it were, a leopard is simply unable to change its spots.
One silver lining from the PRI’s historic loss in 2000 is that Mexican politics has become more fragmented and competitive, with no party dominant over others.
We can observe similar dynamics in Malaysia too since Umno-BN’s shocking defeat in 2018. The Malaysian political landscape is now more open, diverse, and highly contested. Incumbency no longer guarantees a hegemonic hold on power.
But of course, this political vibrancy will not last if we the people remain passive and apathetic. It is high time we keep the politicians and the government on their toes by speaking truth to power and fighting on the side of justice, equality and solidarity.Azmil Tayeb
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
23 March 2022