The opposition in Malaysia needs to form a solid coalition if it is seriously thinking of challenging the BN, writes Faisal S Hazis.
Although talk of the impending 14th general election has been making the rounds since the end of 2015, it has further intensified in the last few months, thus pushing character assassination, ethno-religious nationalism, political manoeuvring and ‘dedak’ offerings into overdrive.
The most fundamental agenda for the next general election is change. Yes, the same issue that was featured in the last two elections simply because we have not yet seen significent change. Opposition leaders, prominent corporate figures, technocrats and some political analysts agree that Malaysia has to go through fundamental change to steer it back to the right path.
We need to free ourselves from divisive ethno-religious politics, the worrying middle-income trap, weakening public trust in institutions, widespread corruption and abuse of power, the spiralling cost of living, the widening urban-rural gap and the rapid decline of Malaysian democracy. Failing which, the future of our children and the country looks uncertain.
A couple of pieces in Aliran portray the state of turmoil that the country is facing. Linda Lumayag laments the government’s foolish decision to cut public university budgets as another manifestation of the slide that we are experiencing. Human Rights Watch meanwhile reported an increase in human rights violations in Malaysia throughout 2016.
Lacking legitimacy and the political will to bring about fundamental changes, the ruling party seems to be the least favourable choice among voters yearning for change. This has been the case in the last elections, which saw a majority of voters opting for the opposition’s “Ubah” over the BN’s “Transformasi”.
Despite the severe split among the opposition, there is no indication that the trend has been reversed. So the focus is now on the opposition to deliver on the hope of change.
With election fever building up, the big question is whether the BN’s flagging popularity and the prolonged scandals engulfing the ruling party will finally see the collapse of its 60-year rule.
Many analysts say the prospects for the opposition are bleak, especially when they are severely divided and lack leadership. But some opposition leaders remain optimistic and hope that they can ‘do a Myanmar’ here.
Is it possible to topple a ruling party through the ballot box in a competitive authoritarian system like Malaysia? It is extremely difficult but still possible. Myanmar is a case in point.
Apart from Myanmar, in a study of 50 competitive authoritarian elections, Howard and Roessler (2006) found that 15 countries actually went through liberalising electoral outcomes in which the ruling parties were defeated and the countries were able to go through fundamental changes.
The Georgetown University researchers identified one key feature that all 15 countries shared: an opposition coalition. This is something that the opposition in Malaysia needs to emulate if it is seriously thinking of challenging the BN.
Forming a coalition is not aimed solely at ensuring straight fights with the BN, thus increasing the chances of winning. It is also about building a positive image for the opposition. An image of unity, solidarity and stability that the opposition can project via a coalition would definitely strengthen its image as a viable alternative to the BN.
A coalition would also allow an opposition with different ideologies and aspirations to become a catch-all party that appeals to a larger segment of the electorate rather than a niche party that only appeals to a small group of voters. This will definitely moderate far-right and divisive politics.
Another important need for a strong opposition coalition in Malaysia is to promote competitive elections, which would definitely force the ruling party to be more responsive and accountable and the opposition to be more responsible and constructive.
But coalition-building alone is not enough. The opposition has to build a strong narrative that marries urban and rural concerns. In the last two elections, they were too fixated with urban narratives like democracy, good governance, transparency, equality, and Sabah and Sarawak special rights that they unintentionally neglected rural voters, who are mostly Malays and East Malaysian bumiputera.
Equally important is for the opposition to propose policy recommendations and institutional reform agendas that can help Malaysia out of the current turmoil. Indulging too much in politicking does not help Malaysia move away from its current problems. Worse, we might have a new government but still stuck with old structural problems.
Another key strategy for the opposition to unseat the BN is to invest in party-building initiatives, ie setting up party branches, carrying out new membership and voter registration drives, grooming young leaders, holding fundraising activities, and organising community empowerment programmes. This was one of the strategies used by the opposition in ending the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s 71-year rule in Mexico.
Party-building helps the opposition to create a sense of presence and visibility at the grassroots level. Furthermore, it would strengthen the opposition’s machinery especially during election season.
Forging a coalition, pushing for an inclusive narrative, offering policy recommendations and investing in party-building initiatives are no easy tasks for the opposition. Then again, an opposition victory in a competitive authoritarian regime “requires a level of opposition mobilisation, unity, skill and heroism far beyond what would normally be required for victory in a democracy” (Diamond 2002).
So the opposition’s chance of unseating the BN and then making fundamental changes in the country lies in its ability to perform the extraordinary. If this is unattainable, we will surely witness another electoral victory for the BN and the further slide of our nation.
Faisal S Hazis
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter