To vote or not to vote: Why has this question surfaced?

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Photograph: Malaysiakini

Important questions – such as why the call for spoiled votes as an expression of dissent has surfaced – have been left unattended, observes Barathi Selvam.

“Whoever fight monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” – Friedrich Nietzsche.

Bizarre developments are taking place around the world such as the much touted Artificial Intelligence purported to be the fourth Industrial Revolution, with the capacity of outwitting human intelligence and the nauseating US presidential election, which saw Trump emerging triumphant.

While the US elections might have less of an impact on the larger segment of Malaysian society, an important democratic process in our nation is looming, the coming general election.

As critical as any other election, the coming general election is proving quite interesting, at least for me as a first-time voter. Even with rose-tinted glasses, I find the current political scenario somewhat disturbing.

Malaysian citizens above 21 are given the right to elect candidates who they believe are suitable to be the people’s eligible representatives. The right to vote is granted to us every five years – a proud statement of the nation’s democratic credentials – which enables Malaysians to have the power at their finger-tips to determine their leader.

But let’s take a detour before we over-indulge in boasting about our democratic credentials. An iconic figure of the Indian political system, an astute thinker who was fundamental in writing the Indian Constitution, Dr Ambedkar, had some thoughts about democracy.

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Ambedkar strongly believed that democracy is neither exercised nor exhibited through the ballot box alone. He argued that in a democracy, there should be:

  • no glaring inequalities in society (ie privilege for one class)
  • an opposition in existence
  • equality in law and administration
  • observance of constitutional morality, and
  • no tyranny of the majority.

Malaysia faces its coming general election with a significant segment of opposition voices in disarray – publicly clamouring for democracy while secretly having an ‘affair’ with autocratic tendencies.

Larger opposition parties that have sizeable influence with the public should not abuse the mandate given by the people to bully smaller parties that have been doing better work than elected representatives.

The question is, why does genuine democracy look to be unviable here? This leads to a deeper question: are the opposition parties genuinely championing democratic rights as they claim to be, or are they merely dangling the eye-candy of pre-election propaganda that will vanish into thin air as soon as they come into power?

In the 1980s, a film called Yellow Earth used the pre-revolutionary era of the Kuomintang as a metaphor to criticise the ruling Communist Party of China (CCP), whose promises of modernity and prosperity were in vain. The filmmaker mocked the CCP, which claimed the wound was located in the pre-revolutionary era, while the cure was only feasible through the revolution.

Now, in Malaysia, how farcical is it is to know and actually live with the fact that former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad is taking the plunge as the leading voice of the opposition. Some might claim that Mahathir’s previous dictatorial nature has dissolved and his only cause now is to reclaim the nation from his one-time Umno-BN protégé, thus saving the ship from sinking, so to speak.

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Thinking aloud, the initial wreckage of the ship took place under none other than Mahathir’s watch. The most infuriating part is to see the opposition acting like headless chickens, supporting the same legendary figure who played a crucial role in crushing the democratic features of the nation. Borrowing the concept of Yellow Earth, the cure for the wound is being offered by the cause himself, putting the masses in jeopardy again.

Such tendencies in Malaysian politicians further suggest that there are neither permanent enemies nor friends in politics, only permanent fools – the masses – who believe them. Remember: “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”

The current attitude of the opposition parties – their undying claim of election seats as if those seats have belonged only to them since the birth of elections in Malaysia – is perplexing.

Young and new voters are craving genuine change, a change not only in terms of political parties, but a change to an incorrupt system, a structural change in the administration – a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

But a reality check of the current line-up of Malaysian politics is not convincing, especially with Mahathir’s return, backed by the opposition parties, which named him as their choice for prime minister. A clear reflection of leadership inadequacy and unpromising quality – which creates tension between the undecided masses, the change-craving masses and the opposition parties.

The opposition parties are making a mistake if they cannot ride on the growing public dissatisfaction with the present ruling regime, which has been in power for a long time. Their inability to make a constructive seismic shift in the political arena may be one of the main reasons for the expression of dissent through the idea of boycotting the election.

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Democracy enthusiasts have raged against such a notion, but if the alternatives are merely superficial – a change from Alpos to Gigantes – isn’t the point and objective of casting a vote itself questionable? Is the vote beneficial to those who would be in power or to the masses?

If the upcoming election sees a large boycott, then the problem is not on the surface but deep-rooted in society – something which the political parties must attend to immediately without further rhetoric or camouflaged promises.

Like casting a vote, abstaining from voting is an equally significant statement made by the people which has to be recognised.

Many parties around the nation are trying to persuade the public to refrain from boycotting the polls or casting spoiled votes. But important questions – such as why the notion of a boycott and spoiled votes as an expression of dissent has surfaced – have been left unattended.

While William Blake wrote in The Four Zoas, “the dark religions are departed and sweet science reigns”, I would like to end with a thought on the nation’s political situation: “the dark politics are departed and sweet politics reigns.”

Baratvhi Selvam, an undergraduate student majoring in journalism at a local university, is enraged with the social injustices he sees around him. He hopes to use writing as a medium to advocate for anyone who is discriminated and oppressed and to empower the marginalised.

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