Monday June 12, 2017
03:06 PM GMT+8

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JUNE 12 — The proposal for Tun Mahathir to take over leadership of the opposition and for Bersatu to become the dominant party in Pakatan Harapan to win Malay votes, instead of securing victory will end in disaster.

It is indeed critical for the opposition to win the Malay-majority constituencies, especially the rural Malay areas. There are 114 Malay-majority constituencies in peninsular Malaysia alone. In 2013, BN won 77, PAS 20 and PKR 17. Najib can retain power by winning these 114 parliament constituencies without drawing on his Sabah and Sarawak BN save deposit vote banks. A way must be found for the opposition coalition to win these constituencies but it has to be based on principles, respect for all interests and consensus. The proposal fails in these respects.

The proposal in essence is infusing racial politics into Pakatan Harapan. This will not sell. The proposal to win office, is to attract Malay voters by turning Pakatan Harapan into a BN and the continuation of Umno’s racial policies minus Najib. This proposal has serious flaws, three of which are set out below.

Betrayal of the Reform Agenda

Firstly, the assumption that by adopting a racial supremacy policy, Pakatan can hold on to the 52% who voted for the Reform Agenda in 2013 is false.

If Pakatan Harapan trade Ketuanan Rakyat for Ketuanan Melayu-Minus-Najib in exchange for power, it will be a betrayal of principles, a selling-out of core beliefs. Pakatan Harapan cannot argue they are acting as statesmen or being pragmatic. The argument that such a compromise is justified by the higher objective of Pakatan Harapan forming the government cannot hold water. It is disingenuous to say gaining power is better than remaining in the opposition when the deal requires Pakatan Harapan to give up the very core reason to gain power — to institute change through implementation of the Reform Agenda.  It is not a compromise. It is not even a rotten compromise. It is a capitulation. Power without principles is simply greed. Winning office without the power to implement the reform promised is a betrayal of the 20 years of struggle and the cause so many have sacrificed so much for.  

Mahathir cannot hope to hold onto Pakatan Harapan supporters with such a proposal. Even though they will not vote BN they will prefer not to vote at all. This will reduce Pakatan Harapan’s vote share.  

A recent example of the significance of a reduced vote share is the US elections. Hillary Clinton just could not hold onto the support given to the Obama coalition. This proved to be her fatal undoing. Hillary obtained 88% of African-Americans compared to 93% for Obama, 65% of the Latinos to Obama’s 71%, 54% of the younger voters to Obama’s 60%. Although, Trump’s 58% of the white votes was less than Romney’s 59% in 2012. Distaste for Trump was not sufficient to overcome their apathy for Hillary. Democrats stayed at home and handed victory to Donald Trump. If the proposal is implemented, Pakatan Harapan will suffer a similar fate. 

Leadership of the reform movement

Secondly, the assumption that by taking over the leadership of Pakatan Harapan, Mahathir will take over the leadership of the opposition is false.

The opposition is not Pakatan Harapan. Pakatan Harapan is only a vehicle for the real opposition, the masses who arose from the Reform Movement. The opposition are the reformists, activists, civil society, the 62 NGOs that formed BERSIH, the thousands who with their own money, time and energy went to the towns, villages, estates, Felda settlements and long houses to spread the word for change, the hundreds of thousands that came out to the streets, and the millions that voted against BN.  

There are no elections in the Reform Movement. Anwar Ibrahim holds no official position in Parti Keadilan Rakyat. He is the de facto leader of the Reform Movement because he inspired commitment, built consensus, mobilised resources, recognised opportunities, devised strategies, framed demands and influenced outcomes. He appealed to the various races, religious groups and diverse interests by being inclusive. More importantly it is his courage of conviction for the Reform Agenda in choosing imprisonment over freedom that the masses accept his leadership.

The Reform Movement is an assertion of popular leadership by the people themselves. Democracy does not come from the government, from high, it comes from people getting together and struggling for freedom and justice. Politicians are elected and selected but mass movements do not elect officials or seek blessings or legitimacy from anyone. Mass movements transform society, they aim to persuade the courts, politicians and other actors to fall behind them, not the other way round. Mass movements accomplish this through appeals to shared sets of deep and widely held convictions among the people they aim to mobilise[1].

Bersatu cannot demand and Pakatan Harapan leaders cannot give to Mahathir the de facto leadership of the opposition movement. Even if Pakatan Harapan yields the leadership to Mahathir the masses will not necessarily accept his authority. The masses by their courage, conviction and commitment for change had withstood tear gas, water cannons, police brutality, beatings, arrests, detention without trial, selective prosecution, imprisonment, repression and ostracism. They will not accept the very policies they have been fighting for so long and so hard to abolish, even if this is proposed by the new de jure leadership of the vehicle. Without the mass support, the vehicle is but an empty shell.  

The relationship between the leader and the masses is dialectical, it takes the agreement of both to work together: ”the leader cannot take the people where they do not want to go and he cannot operate outside the possibilities that were already part of the existing social structure and cultural heritage of the original movement.”[2] They will not want go back to a future, substituting Najib for Mahathir without a return to the rule of law, restoration of the institutions and the guaranteed implementation of the Reform Agenda. Weber’s analysis of charismatic authority still holds true: the charismatic leader has to be recognised by his followers in order to achieve the degree of legitimacy required, it cannot be demanded nor given.[3]   

Policy-oriented coalition

Thirdly, the assumption that an opposition coalition founded on the removal of Najib from office and not a policy-oriented coalition is sufficient to win the election and sustainable to govern is false.

Coalitions formed for the purpose of securing enough votes or combining a sufficient number of parliamentary seats to govern through power-sharing arrangements without an agreement on the policies and their implementation are referred to as “office-seeking coalitions.” Office-seeking coalitions are coalitions whose main goal is access to power. Cabinet portfolios are the payoffs. Office-seeking coalitions have been accused of being “unprincipled” because their members were ideologically remote and therefore perceived as political opportunists interested in short-term gains rather than long-term policy goals.[4]

Policy-oriented coalitions are party coalitions justified by policy goals. For opposition alliances which sole aim is to defeat the incumbent to form a new government, there is no place for ideological affinity and the common-post election strategy in the case of defeat is to join the winner. Such alliances usually collapse as quickly as they are formed because they are, themselves, essentially an office-seeking strategy used by politicians to position themselves in such a way as to make themselves attractive to the governing party or coalition. The lack of ideology and the absence of a post-election strategy make office-seeking opposition coalitions difficult to sustain. In a study of five African countries, Kenya, Mauritius, Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa, it was found that it has been easy for the government of the day to buy off opposition leaders of office-seeking coalitions after their electoral defeat.[5]

The case of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) of Kenya is illustrative of the pitfalls of an office-seeking coalition. Daniel Arap Moi of the Kenyan African National Union (“KANU”) won Kenya’s 1992 and 1997 presidential election with 36.8% and 40.51% of the vote respectively. Combined the opposition garnered far more votes than the eventual winner. However, by splitting the votes, they failed to secure the presidency and gain a majority in parliament. In 2002, 14 opposition parties formed a coalition, the National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAK) with the Liberal Democratic Party (“LDP”). LDP consisted of a splinter group of disgruntled KANU leaders following Moi’s choice of Uhuru Kenyatta as presidential candidate. The coalition of NAK and LDP was called the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). NARC put up Mwai Kibaki to contest the presidency against Uhuru Kenyatta of KANU. NARC won a landslide victory. NARC began to face problems within days after winning the election when Kibaki did not honour the agreement on cabinet posts to the coalition partners. In 2005, President Kibaki dissolved the cabinet, dismissed all the LDP ministers, allocating ministries to KANU, the party NARC had united against. In the 2007 elections Raila Odinga, formerly of the LDP ran against President Kibaki, formerly of NAK. Absence of a common ideology for political reform is one of the main reasons for the rapid disintegration of NARC.

South Korea has shown the sustainability of coalitions bonded by the common goal to implement democratic reforms. In 1987, the formation of a pro-democracy coalition and an unprecedented level of mass mobilisation pressured the authoritarian regime to accommodate democratic reform. However, neither of the two civilian candidates, Kim Dae Jung nor Kim Young Sam was willing to yield in their quests to become president causing civil society to be divided in supporting them, clearing the way for the regime candidate Roh Tae Woo to win the election with only 36% of the vote. In the 1997 elections, for the first time in South Korean history, an opposition candidate, Kim Dae Jung was elected president. Civil society and its mobilisation were crucial in the democratic transition and consolidation. It was the resurrection and remobilization of various civil society groups and their grand-democracy coalition with the opposition party that ultimately induced the authoritarian ruling coalition to agree on a set of democratic reforms.[6]

By focusing efforts on making South Korea’s democracy deeper and more substantive they provided the foundation for the empowerment of civil society that has allowed South Korea’s Constitutional Court to rule unanimously on March 10 2017 to remove President Park Geun-Hye from office backing the National Assembly’s impeachment of the president. This was a historic incident for the reaffirmation of South Korean democracy and confirmation of the rule of law.[7] The first candle was lit at a protest in Seoul’s downtown plaza on October 29, 2016, about 20,000 people joined to protest Park’s inadequate apology. The next Saturday, the protest had grown tenfold; a week later, on November 12, the protest drew a turnout of one million. The series of peaceful Saturday protests pushed a segment of the ruling-party members of parliament to break ranks to vote for impeachment of the president.

Civil society and the mass movement in Malaysia will not buy into an office-seeking coalition. Bersatu and the component parties in Pakatan Harapan have to weave the policies for winning the Malay votes into the Reform Agenda while maintaining and extending support from all races, religious groups and diverse interests in Malaysia. Umno’s racial politics have spawned corruption, cronyism, patronage and rent-seeking activities. Malaysians want policies that will liberate the Malay mind, induce empowerment and self-reliance, not continuation of policies that chained the Malays economically and socially to Umno, enslaving them politically. The proposal is only providing a change of political master not social-economic and political freedom.   

Coalition building and consensus

Elections in Malaysia are not democratic, not free and not fair. Opposition leaders and government critics suffer harassment, arrest, detention, imprisonment and abuse of state resources skewed the playing field heavily in favour of the incumbents. Coercive and unfair means are used to disadvantage the opposition. Civil liberty violations, patronage, gerrymandering, malapportionment, media bias, manipulation, co-optation and repression are relied upon to guarantee incumbent re-election. The application of a divide and rule policy has caused deep cleavages in the society according to ethnicity, religion, rural and urban divide.

Many opposition movements have been challenging authoritarian governments but only a few have succeeded. The opposition forces in South Africa voted out an apartheid regime, people power in the Philippines ousted a dictator, popular unrest in Indonesia forced President Suharto to resign, a broad coalition in Chile won a plebiscite that led to the removal of Augusto Pinochet and Solidarity defeated the Polish communist. Bersatu and Pakatan Harapan can learn, draw strength and inspiration on how these opposition ended repressive regimes[8]:

·       They were able to achieve their goals through broad support, coherence and legitimacy;

·       They were able to bridge deep disagreements about aims, strategies and leadership among the opposition and convince diverse opposition groups to work out their major differences;

·       They were able to encourage convergence, forge consensus and built coalitions among the opposition;

·       They were able to connect the opposition to social movements, workers, students, women, human rights and religious groups;

·       They were able to connect with the wider public to provide a sense that the movements were democratic, truly inclusive and not vehicles for particular individuals or groups;

·       They focused sharply on what united the people rather than on what divided them;

·       But they also made the difficult decisions to exclude groups that refused to renounce violence or insisted on uncompromising demands for regional, ethnic or sectarian autonomy;

Bersatu and Pakatan Harapan leaders can apply these lessons by adopting the 4 C’s of coalition building — communications, consultations, consensus and compromise to forge the broad coalition amongst the parties, civil society, the different ethnic and religious groups and the Malaysian public on an inclusive basis. There are no simple solutions, the Gordian knot of cleavages in Malaysian society cannot be solved by one stroke of the sword. It requires patience, tolerance, mutual respect and goodwill. The proposal has to be sent back to the drawing board.

*This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.


[1] Bruce Dixon, “It’s Time to Build a Mass Movement”.

[2] Raby, Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today 253.

[3] Max Weber, Max Weber on Charisma and Institution Building-Selected Papers (1968), 49-50.

[4] Wolfgang C. Muller, Kaare Strom, “Policy, Office or Votes? How Political Parties in Western Europe Make Hard Decisions”.

[5] Denis Kadima, “The Politics of Party Coalitions in Africa” EISA and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

[6] Sunhyuk Kim “Civil society and democratization in South Korea”.

[7] Sook Jong Lee, “A Democratic Breakthrough in South Korea?” Carnegie Endowment For International Peace”.

[8] Abraham F. Lownthal and Sergio Bilar “From authoritarian rule toward democratic governance: Learning from political leaders” International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance 2015. 

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