— Zairil Khir Johari
Malay Mail Online
July 23, 2015
JULY 23 —Many Malaysians are understandably dismayed by the recent break-up of the Pakatan Rakyat (PR), a seven-year-old coalition that had been cobbled together by force of necessity following the unprecedented results of the 12th General Election in 2008.
In the aftermath of the landmark polls, which saw the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition losing its customary two-thirds Parliamentary majority for the very first time, and in the process also relinquishing control over five out of 13 state governments, the three main opposition parties of DAP, PKR and Pas suddenly found themselves in the awkward position of having won enough seats to form five state governments – together. Thus, as entrenched differences were set aside for the sake of pragmatism, a tripartite coalition pact was forged.
For the most part, the arrangement functioned. By the next General Election in 2013, despite visible hairline cracks, the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition was able to present itself as a viable alternative to the decades-long domination of the BN. This premise was confirmed by the results of the 13th General Election (GE13), which saw the three-party coalition picking up 52 per cent of the popular vote – but unfortunately denied the right to form the Federal Government, thanks to creative gerrymandering and malapportionment of seats.
Alas, that was to be the pinnacle of the PR story. Everything began to slide downhill after that. Aggressive goading by the dominant, Umno-controlled Malay media, quickly saw the Malay-Muslim ethno-religious nationalist agenda gaining traction. Coupled by factional infighting within Pas, this led to the resurgence of highly divisive issues such as the shariah criminal code, or hudud law.
In the end, amidst broken promises and much mudslinging between and within the PR component parties, Pas capitulated by ushering in a new slate of right-wing hawks as leaders, and by means of a motion to cut ties with the DAP during its general assembly, the fate of the coalition was sealed.
Permanent and centralised coalitions are unsustainable
While some may mourn the PR’s demise as a setback for democracy in Malaysia, I would not necessarily agree. In truth, the fundamental differences within the coalition had always put its sustainability in doubt.
As such, I would posit that a break at this moment, with ample time before the next and very crucial General Election, provides an opportunity to reconfigure the Malaysian political landscape via the introduction of a more progressive form of coalition politics.
For too long, politics in Malaysia has been dominated by one formal coalition, namely the BN and its predecessor, the Alliance. Attempts were of course made to form opposition coalitions in the past, such as the Socialist Front, the Gagasan Rakyat and the Barisan Alternatif, but by and large they were sporadic and short-lived. However, given that the PR was not merely an “opposition” coalition, but one that governed in five states at its peak, there was great hope that the coalition would congeal into a permanent alternative to the BN.
However, as much as it was thought otherwise at the beginning, we now know that the PR was an unsustainable concept. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that any kind of coalition that seeks to bind together all the vastly divergent regional and cultural interests of our country in a uniform, permanent and centripetal manner would not succeed. This is because it would be unnatural to do so.
In the case of the BN, it is held together only by the practicalities of power and the fact that it is dominated from the centre in the form of Umno, a party that on its own holds two-thirds of the coalition’s total Parliamentary seats. Resultantly, smaller and previously influential parties have seen their relevance and capacity diminish. Today, their loyalty in the coalition is premised only upon the assurances of positions and largesse.
This is particularly applicable to previously influential regional parties such as the PPP, which has gone from being a major Perak-based party to one with no elected representation today, and Gerakan, which has seen their dominance in Penang gradually eroding to the point that they were outnumbered by Umno state representatives even before the BN lost the state in 2008. Another victim of the ruling coalition is Pas, whose short-lived stint in the BN eventually saw them ceding control over Kelantan to Umno, a loss that took them over a decade to recover from.
Though the PR coalition did not share the dynamic of a single dominant partner, the friction between the centre, in this case being the west coast Malayan leadership, and the periphery regions of east coast Malaya and the Borneo states, would prove to be its undoing.
Outside the west coast, the PR concept itself was a nebulous one. For example, while Penang, Selangor, Perak and, to a lesser extent, Kedah, could rightly be described as PR states, the same label was always dubious in reference to Kelantan. How was Kelantan a PR government when DAP does not contest in the state and PKR only has one single representative? For all intents and purposes, it was and still is, simply a Pas government.
At the same time, there was always the awkward question of East Malaysia. Was the idea of PR ever relevant to Sabah and Sarawak? How can it be, when Pas is as relevant to the two states as DAP is in east coast Malaya? This tension eventually led to DAP Sarawak adopting an independent stand with regards to the coalition.
In the same vein, regional interests and aspirations also meant that Pas in the east coast had much difficulty accepting the PR arrangement. In a way, the hudud issue – the straw that broke the proverbial camel, was a manifestation of this conundrum. According to its supporters, the Kelantan state government was merely exercising its democratic rights in pursuing its legislative aspirations – the constitutionality of it notwithstanding. In this context, as much as Pas Kelantan has the right to attempt the implementation of hudud, the DAP and anyone else has as much a right to oppose it, not merely legislatively but also through the courts.
However, such a dynamic, which reflects a functioning democracy, cannot emerge in the context of permanent coalitions. As hudud was not part of the PR Common Policy Framework that all three parties signed off on, Pas Kelantan’s attempt to implement it constitutes a clear breach of agreement.
However, therein lies a bigger question – should the Pas state government have been bound by the PR contract, when it was in actuality not really a PR government? The problem, therefore, was a structural one.
That some interests and aspirations of the various regions of our country differ, and at times even seem at odds with one another, should not come as a surprise. After all, every region is different, culturally, socio-economically and demographically.
Hence, instead of trying to impose the unwieldy structure of a permanent coalition for all, a better option is to encourage decentralised coalition-building through non-permanent, contractual coalitions. This means that different regions or states could have their own local coalitions, which may be very different from their own party’s coalition at the federal level.
Such a concept is actually widely practised throughout the world. In Germany, for example, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) forms a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) at the federal level, while the opposition bloc is made up of the Green Party and Die Linke.
However, the configuration is vastly different at the state level. In the state of Brandenburg, the SPD governs in partnership with Die Linke, while in North Rhine-Westphalia, the SPD shares government with the Green Party. Even more interestingly, the state of Hessen currently sees the CDU in a coalition government with the Green Party, an incredible arrangement bearing in mind the two parties come from opposing ideological axes.
Far from being confusing, these flexible and dynamic configurations make a lot of sense, as they reflect the needs and aspirations of the different regions and levels of politics. One may wonder how such coalitions can be held together, especially given the often-contradictory ideology of the parties involved. Simple – because they are not permanent, each coalition is bound by contractual agreements agreed for the duration of a single electoral cycle. These agreements are made public so that the people know exactly what to expect.
Another advantage of such an arrangement is the ability of smaller parties to play an important role without permanently binding themselves to any particular coalition. Take the case of the Free Democratic Party (FDP). While it is a minor player compared to juggernauts like the CDU and the SPD, the FDP has interestingly been in power longer than any other party in Germany. They have achieved this by playing the role of junior coalition partner in both CDU and SPD governments at separate times.
In addition, decentralised coalition-building also means that smaller parties such as Die Linke and the Green Party, though lacking in national strength, are also able to contribute to the governance of various states through forming state-level coalitions, something that would not be possible if they were all part of permanent and centralised coalitions.
Decentralised coalitions are not only more democratic, they are also less polarising. Two-party or two-coalition dichotomies often manifest itself in very antagonistic terms, such as is the case in Malaysia, hence leaving very little room for compromise and cooperation. However, when parties are aware that their opponent today may become their partner tomorrow, there would be an instant, moderating effect.
Are decentralised coalitions relevant for Malaysia?
A natural question that arises when discussing this issue is whether the Malaysian electorate is mature and sophisticated enough to grasp the idea of non-permanent and decentralised coalitions, given that they are so used to the existing framework. I am also often advised that I should not compare Malaysia to Germany, as the latter is an advanced, democratic country.
However, as valid as that concern sounds, I must correct the fallacy. Lest we forget, the whole of Germany has only been democratic for the last 25 years following the collapse of the iron curtain and German reunification in 1990. That said, even the former West Germany had only been democratic since 1949. Prior to that, Germany was the most infamous fascist dictatorship in the modern world.
Furthermore, it is not only advanced countries like Germany that practise decentralised coalitions, but also our neighbours like Indonesia and the Philippines. Therefore, there is nothing to suggest why Malaysians would not be able to comprehend the concept.
Given the demographically diverse make-up of our federation, and the clear differences between the various geographical regions, decentralised coalitions may actually be the most practical and efficient political configuration for our country. Not only would it encourage the formation of regional coalitions that better reflect local aspirations and needs, it would also set the tone for a more progressive and inclusive political landscape.
Hence, in the midst of the on-going political crisis in our country, with the PR dissolved and the BN heading towards implosion, there is much hope and opportunity that a brighter and more democratic future for Malaysia can be forged.
* Zairil Khir Johari is DAP Assistant National Publicity Secretary and the Member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera.