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Sharing The Nation

Published: Sunday March 2, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday March 2, 2014 MYT 7:48:24 AM

To change or not to change

A strategic option for Barisan Nasional relates to the clear signal from the last two general elections.

TAIWAN, South Korea and Indonesia were once ruled by authoritarian regimes. And yet the dominant ruling parties of all three countries successfully chose the road to democratisation and still won elections.

The work of two political scientists, Dan Slater and Joseph Wong, on their theory of “democratising through strength” makes Malaysia today a prime candidate to choose that path which will actually enable the ruling party, Barisan Nasional, to still thrive.

They argue that Asia’s developmental states like Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and China all possess the kind of antecedent institutional strengths that make these countries with strongly resourced ruling parties exceptionally well-suited to “strong-state democratisation”.

Slater and Wong developed a causal framework where three things need to unfold for authoritarian regimes to concede to demands for democratisation and free and fair elections. They call this “concede-to-thrive” theory.

First, the ruling parties must possess substantial antecedent resources and marked relative strength vis-à-vis the opposition.

Second, ruling parties must suffer an ominous setback, signalling that they have passed their apex of power.

Third, party decision-makers must openly acknowledge these setbacks as an incipient lapsing of their party’s authoritarian legitimation formulas, publicly adopting a forward strategy of conceding to democratic reforms.

Let’s apply this theory to Malaysia today. First, Slater and Wong argue that there are incentives for strong parties to adopt this strategy when their antecedent resources provide them with “victory confidence” and “stability confidence”. This means ruling parties will concede to democratisation demands if they are confident that change will bring neither the party’s electoral demise nor political instability.

The most important antecedent strength a strong ruling party can possess is a long-term connection to a highly capable state apparatus. They argue that democratisation in the wake of decades of rapid state-led growth tends to be marked by continuity more than upheaval in governing coalitions.

In the context of Malaysia, Barisan’s long record of state-led development and poverty reduction and the extraordinary strength of the state apparatus stands the country in good stead that a more open and robust democracy will not be destabilising. Not only that, the ruling party also would still remain a major force in national politics in a new democratic era.

A large educated Malaysian middle-class and a strong business community with moderate to conservative political leanings also make citizens reject the radical appeals of extremists on any side.

Thus the likelihood of continued political stability remains strong with a well-run state apparatus to ensure effective governance and a citizenry averse to any hint of chaos and instability.

More importantly, too, Barisan’s institutional strength, in particular Umno’s much vaunted party machinery in every nook and cranny of Malaysia, and its long history of coalition politics put it in better stead than a Pakatan Rakyat that is still finding difficulty acting as a government-in-waiting in spite of the abundance of young talent it has attracted.

The second cause in the Slater and Wong framework that makes “concede-to-thrive” a strategic option for Barisan relates to the clear signal from the last two general elections, which shows that the dominant ruling party has passed its apex of domination. For the first time in its history, it lost popular support, winning less than 50% of the votes in the 2013 general election.

The signals are clear. It can choose to resist reform and find its popularity plummeting even further and defeat is certain, or it can choose to concede while it still has prospects to win.

But the third scenario that needs to take place remains a major uncertainty. It is obvious that the Barisan leadership, Umno in particular, remains unclear on which direction to take. Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s attempt at democratisation was undermined and rejected by his own party cadres. His failure to follow through on his reform agenda led to a massive electoral fallout in the 2008 elections. A change in party leadership and a more pronounced return to “business-as-usual” both in politics and business saw further losses in 2013.

It is obvious that the ancien regime legitimisation formula of Umno and Barisan has run its course. Citizens are no longer willing to make what was once a bearable choice to acquiesce in silence in return for stability and growth.

Long-term grievances over corruption, rising cost of living and income inequality, intertwining of politics and business, politics of race and religion, unfair electoral rules, government controlled mainstream media, restrictions on constitutional guarantees of fundamental liberties – all remain largely unresolved. Government attempts at reform have not built public confidence that it is really serious about changing the ways in which it governs, does business and conducts politics.

The signals that change is necessary and urgent, and that Barisan actually does have a lot of ante­cedent strengths that will ensure it remains a major political player, are clear. But as Slater and Wong state, “signals need to be strategically interpreted in ways that press decision-makers to view democratic concession from a position of strength as the most viable choice to advance the party’s fortunes”.

This is where Umno is in a conundrum. It remains uncertain which way to move forward. Fully embrace and implement a democratic transformation agenda and win back public confidence that it is truly capable of change or turn back to authoritarian rule to assert its dominance.

The grand coalition that embraced inter-ethnic accommodation and eschewed a zero-sum game is breaking down. The dominant partner in a coalition that had firmly placed itself in the moderate centre as the means to manage the competing interests of an ethnically diverse country has swung to the extreme right playing the politics of race and religion.

The three major race-based parties set up to protect and promote the interest of their own ethnic communities have today lost much of their language of legitimacy in the eyes of the electorate.

Signals of political trouble are palpable. To still continue to resist genuine reform while your popularity is plummeting, internal cohesion is fraying and your legitimacy formula is increasingly discredited is to invite certain defeat, and maybe even retribution.

So how then can a strong, well-resourced ruling party that is in decline acquire new legitimacy to continue to win the public mandate to rule?

In Taiwan, South Korea and Indonesia, incumbent presidents saw clearly that time was running out for the old form of authoritarian politics and adopted new legitimacy strategies of democratic reforms in order to survive.

According to Slater and Wong, President Chiang Ching-Kuo of Taiwan reasoned that the party’s political prospects would be better served in a democracy and the KMT could, by conceding, craft a credible new legitimacy formula. So he marginalised hardliners, elevated reformers, initiated discussion with opposition leaders and re-invented the KMT as a party of democracy.

Democratic concessions did not lead to defeat despite the party’s weakening monopoly on power. The KMT continues until today to maintain uninterrupted control over Parliament.

While it lost two presidential elections in 2000 and 2004, it regained control through the techonocratic Ma Ying-Jeou in 2008, who won re-election in January.

In South Korea, President Roh Tae Woo cast himself as a democratic reformer, and distanced himself from his party’s authoritarian past. He won the country’s first fully democratic elections in 1988 and announced that “the day when freedoms and human rights could be slighted in the name of economic growth and national security has ended”.

In Indonesia, the fall of Suharto saw a weak B.J. Habibie installed as President. He was seen as a Suharto surrogate and undeserving of presidential power. Given his perilous position, his best strategic option to remain in office was to expedite democratic elections and introduce reforms, including decentralisation that could enable Golkar to take advantage of its long-established nation-wide political machinery.

While Golkar came out second to Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDI-P party in parliamentary elections in 1999, it still gained the largest vote share in half of Indonesia’s 26 provinces, gained more parliamentary seats than PDI-P through the military’s appointed seats, and played the kingmaker in denying the presidency to Megawati and delivering it to Abdurrahman Wahid, whose party controlled only 11% of parliamentary seats.

Slater and Wong’s findings are clear. The empirical fact is ruling parties that face up to their weaknesses and reform can concede democracy without conceding defeat.

> Zainah Anwar is the inter­nationally acclaimed and award-winning co-founder and former executive director of Sisters in Islam (SIS Forum) and the co-founder and director of Musawah, a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. She is a former member of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam). The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

Tags / Keywords: Opinion, Sharing the Nation; Malaysia; Government; Politics

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