CONVENTIONAL wisdom has it that democracy is in retreat. Fortunately, some countries are bucking the trend. In a surprise victory for the opposition in this year’s general election, the people of Malaysia put an end to 60 years of one-party rule via the ballot box.
All politics is local but what happened in Malaysia resonates across South-East Asia, where democracy seems to be backsliding.
On May 9, Pakatan Harapan, a broad coalition of opposition parties, defeated the Barisan Nasional coalition, ushering in the first transfer of power since independence in 1957.
This radical turn of events holds several lessons for Asia and the rest of the world.
First, it illustrates that politics has to keep up with socioeconomic change. Malaysia’s ruling party had not adapted to the great transformations wrought by decades of economic growth, urbanisation and mass education. Its traditional base in conservative, rural Malaysia had shrunk and aged while the growing young and urban middle class massively rejected increasing authoritarianism and endemic corruption.
Second, it highlights the importance of a united opposition. Malaysia’s opposition parties had never won before in part because they were fragmented. By coming together across religious and ethnic lines, they undermined the identity politics of the Barisan and created a credible alternative for voters to embrace.
Third, the 14th General Election (GE14) showed that a high turnout can offset a skewed electoral system. After decades of gerrymandering and malapportionment, the playing field was uneven – to the detriment of urban and minority voters – in favour of rural Malays. Yet, with a turnout of over 82%, these structural barriers were largely overcome.
Finally, GE14 was a victory for democracy in a region which has become something of a battlefield of political models. In this election, Malaysians squarely rejected authoritarianism, one-party rule and corruption despite rapid economic growth. They demanded accountability, transparency and reform.
This turn of events in Malaysia may inspire other electorates in Asia, many of whose leaders are championing various versions of authoritarian growth. Malaysia illustrates that economic growth is not enough, in the long run, to satisfy an educated, middle class population. The new administration has pledged electoral reform to entrench the democratic gains achieved and re-establish political legitimacy.
The Kofi Annan Foundation was invited by the Speaker of Parliament, the Election Commission and Malaysian NGO Bersih 2.0 to co-organise an electoral reform roundtable with the Electoral Reform Committee, political parties as well as civil society at the end of last month.
The Foundation teamed up with its partners in the Kofi Annan Electoral Integrity Initiative, such as the UN’s Electoral Assistance Division, the international Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems and the National Democratic Institute to field a distinguished group of regional and global experts.
The Kofi Annan Foundation accepted the invitation in the firm belief that international assistance to elections should focus on this kind of structural reform early on in the electoral cycle rather than on or around election day, by which time the electoral dice are usually already cast – if not the ballots.
Let’s hope that Malaysia is truly Asia and will start a trend in the region towards greater electoral accountability.
Kofi Annan Foundation
(The Kofi Annan Foundation is one of the co-organisers of the Electoral Reform Roundtable held in Parliament on Nov 30 and Dec 1)