Tuesday, May 28

Does first-past-the-post still work for Malaysian politics?

Malaysia Day — hundreds of people gathered in downtown Kuala Lumpur to protest against a controversial ‘discharge not amounting to acquittal’ recently granted to Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

Originally facing 47 charges of corruption, criminal breach of trust and money laundering, Zahid is an embarrassment to Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim who positions himself as an anti-corruption champion. Zahid’s discharge, applied for by the prime minister-controlled Attorney General’s Chamber, raised questions. Among these are how far Anwar — who denied his personal involvement in Zahid’s case — would go in compromising the reformist and multiculturalist platform of his coalition, Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan, PH), to keep his post-election coalition government afloat until December 2027.

The bigger question is whether Malaysia’s majoritarian political system still works after the end of the one-party dominance enjoyed by Zahid’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) until 2018. For decades, the multiethnic coalition, National Front (Barisan Nasional, BN), through which UMNO co-opted and tamed minority and regional parties, was synonymous with political stability, authoritarianism and corruption.

Since the 1980s, Malaysian democrats expected that the replacement for UMNO–BN’s one-party rule would be a benign and centrist competition between two multiethnic coalitions. Instead, the first PH government faced a nasty all-Malay opposition pact between UMNO and PH’s archenemy, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). The next two short-lived coalition governments were monoethnic, with UMNO, its splinter Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) and PAS in the driver’s seat, while the multiethnic PH sat on the opposition benches.

The election in November 2022 returned a hung parliament, with PH leading 82 seats, closely followed by PAS and Bersatu’s National Alliance (Perikatan Nasional, PN) at 74 seats. BN held a pivotal 30 seats while regional and minor parties, and independent parliamentarians commanded the remaining 36 seats. Eventually, PH outsmarted PN in inter-party negotiation, winning over BN and all others to form a government that commanded exactly two-thirds of Parliament.

But Anwar’s position is precarious with threats from two fronts. One is PN’s continued threat to bring down his government by inducing the defection of UMNO and other partners, and the other is UMNO’s demand to let off its corrupt leaders. The last UMNO prime minister Najib Razak is currently serving a 12-year term for corruption relating to the 1MDB scandal and standing trial for three others.

When six states held their state elections on 12 August 2023, PN tried to frame it as a Malay–Muslim referendum on Anwar, whom it painted as a puppet of the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party — the largest party in the PH coalition. While PH and PN retained their three respective states, PN managed to wrestle many Malay-majority seats from UMNO and PH in Selangor and Penang.

While PN’s electoral gain was not enough to cause a revolt in UMNO against Zahid and force UMNO’s exit to end Anwar’s government, Anwar has been pandering to the right to prevent PN from winning more Malay-Muslim votes. Not long after banning the rainbow pride Swatches alongside philosophy and literature books under publication laws, the Home Ministry just banned a movie about a Muslim girl’s spiritual quest around the afterlife.

Zahid’s discharge has raised concerns that Anwar may eventually set Najib free, giving in to UMNO’s claim that its leaders convicted or charged for corruption were all victims of selective prosecution by the first PH government.

The poor turnout at the Malaysia Day protest, organised by PN’s youth wings, suggested that the opposition coalition might, for now, have lost its momentum in pushing for another government collapse. PN lost two August by-elections in the UMNO-held, multiethnic, southern state of Johor despite public wrath over Zahid’s DNAA.

The phenomenally low turnout of 47 per cent in the Pulai by-election suggests a deeper problem that might plague the next national or state election. On one hand, many UMNO voters found it hard to vote for PH candidates as the PH-UMNO coalition nominates common candidates and no longer offers choices for their respective supporters. On the other hand, the liberal and minority constituency feels caught between allowing Anwar to go back on his reformist and multicultural promises in the name of survival and allowing the ultra-right PN to come into power, even just by abstention.

This cannot be resolved even by a fair redistricting of electoral constituencies. As the current boundaries over-represent rural Malays at the expense of both non-Malays and urban Malays, correcting that has been ethnicised by PN as a means to weaken Malays’ political power. Most of all, Malaysia’s first-past-the-post system (FPTP) will continue to enable the standoff between a multiethnic coalition and a monoethnic coalition — to the eventual favour of the latter.

For decades in Malaysia, FPTP was credited with incentivising centrist politics and stability by punishing smaller parties via seat–vote disproportionality. Proportionality and inclusion brought about by proportional representation were seen as expensive virtues as they would also bring about the proliferation of parties and polarisation. Today, it seems that Malaysia has inherited the worst of both worlds — majoritarianism and instability.

Perhaps it is time to rethink whether Malaysia’s FPTP should be tweaked with the addition of some party-list seats — as in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Thailand — to give room for smaller non-communal parties and new issues like the environment, class, gender and youth interests, and to prevent the absorption of UMNO by PN, driving Malaysia further from inclusion and accountability.

This piece was written by Wong Chin Huat. Wong is Professor and Deputy Head (Strategy), the Asia Headquarters of UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) at Sunway University. It does not necessarily reflects the opinion of IKON Malaysia.

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