Dissolution: Bubar menjadi bubur?

Taken from malaysiakini

Questions over whether to dissolve Malaysia’s parliament and call elections are at the heart of recent debates about the country’s future. They are affecting the current stability of the Muhyiddin Yassin government as there are sentiments among factions of the different parties, especially in Umno, that a new electoral outcome would improve their leverage and return them to dominance.

At the same time, some Pakatan Harapan members and supporters believe the electorate will vote them back with a more secure majority and are already making calls for the return of a ‘progressive’ government. Rather than self-reflect on their own contributions to the government collapse, some Harapan leaders are moving ahead and laying out their electoral strategies.

Yet others rest their arguments on less calculating goals, pointing to the more idealist and essential role elections play in a democracy as empowering the electorate. There are real concerns with how some political party elites are securing power, allegedly buying the other side over or offering positions and other rewards. A new mandate, it is advocated, can reset the slate, bring in new entrants and ideas into the process and it is hoped, move the country forward.

Regrets and change

In framing the question of dissolution around the Malay idiom ‘nasi menjadi bubur,’ I raise the question of whether the calling of elections will lead to actual change and whether the change will be what people want. Will a dissolution bring about a more stable or democratic outcome with improved governance – will the porridge be sweet, savoury, and tasty – or just perpetuate the current uncertain and less ‘tasty’ circumstances and lead to regrets?

At this juncture, I see a new election as not yet bringing the comfort many seek, including those in Umno. The country’s weak political parties and fragmented electorate point toward continued division and even worryingly, an escalation of divisions. If anything, the turmoil and uncertainty over the last few weeks shows how much the legacies of the past have constrained a different future for Malaysia.

Leaders will need to make compromises and cooperate for the future of Malaysia and put aside personal interest and grievances. This is a real challenge as holding power in Malaysia is viewed as a right to use the system for personal advantage and, for some, as an entitlement.

At the same time, I acknowledge that the competitiveness of elections, enhanced by the entrants of a large number of young voters, offer an opportunity for a new outcome and greater inclusion of the people who have been left out of the negotiations and decisions affecting their lives.

Weaker parties and erosion of trust

Malaysian politics is changing. These changes began long before the power grab of the new government. The country’s political parties and its leaders are much weaker than in the past and the events of the political turmoil over the last few weeks will deepen these trends.

We see greater disconnect in society to political parties. Party machineries have eroded with fewer people joining parties. In the politicking and continued political fluidity, elite interests have overshadowed concerns with the livelihoods of ordinary Malaysians, contributing to greater alienation. Malaysians are tuning politics out with greater frequency. This disconnect will be hard to build up in a short period of time. Umno and PAS believe they have greater advantage due to their grassroots, but Umno leaders in particular overestimate their connectivity.

There is also limited transformative change within existing parties. They remain hierarchical institutions, led by leaders that are resistant to bringing in and genuinely empowering new leaders. Older leaders are not willing to let go. All of the major party leaders have considerable baggage which alienates large shares of the population. Personality differences and distrust shaped by the past and fanned in the present continue to constrain the possibility of stable cooperation among parties. This is true for the last government as well as the current one.

Political leaders overestimate the trust people have in them. While Malaysia remains a feudal society and overwhelmingly want their leaders to succeed (a sentiment that has seen a swing in goodwill towards Muhyiddin by some in recent days), Malaysians have less faith in their leaders and resent being patronised, not just in the more cosmopolitan urban centres. Many politicians are dismissed outright as unbelievable, indicating that trust in the parties and their leadership has precipitously declined.

Competitiveness and flux

Despite these shifts, attention rightly centres on elections and the outcome it could bring. When we look at the electoral scenarios, the results point to a persistent need to form coalitions and to cooperate to form any government.

There are unknowns in party alliances, leadership, candidate selection and seat distribution that make any assessment of election trends limited. We cannot also rule out the emergence of new parties in the next election. Scenarios are dependent on the information that is available and the situation remains in flux.

We can start from broad strokes. Malaysia’s elections are highly competitive and this would be the case in the next polls when they are called. First of all, there are significant shifts in the composition of the electorate, with a large number of younger voters being able to register to vote. Through 2021 those above 18 will likely not be able to vote due to administrative processes being put in place for the electoral roll and automated registration, but the entry of new voters above 21 years old over the last 21 months is already a significant number that could impact close races.

Second, a large number of too-close-to-call seats can shape the outcome. In some elections such as 2013 this was over half of the seats. The next election will continue to have a large share of competitive seats which will make the campaign important and outcome uncertain.

Third, voting will change. GE14 showed that Malaysians were willing to change their party loyalties – to break old patterns – and this voter movement is likely to continue. There are many undecided voters, who not only are not sure how they will vote but also whether they will vote at all.

Finally, by-election results while pointing to consistent recent trends, are not the same as consecutive federal and state elections where resources and campaigns are tested.

Persistent need for a functioning coalition

With imperfect information, I nevertheless examine potential vote swings and patterns, drawing from in-depth polling station analysis of seats and voting trends across generation, class and ethnicity as well as assessments of party grassroots strength.

Here is a summary of my findings of potential electoral implications:

1. Borneo power: The parties in Peninsular Malaysia would still depend on parties in Sabah and Sarawak to be able to form a majority government. They would need their numbers.

2. Plurality not majority: Trends suggest the Muafakat Nasional coalition could win the plurality of seats in Peninsular Malaysia in a new election and would be the largest coalition, as much as 95 seats. The allocation of the seats within the coalition would determine the distribution, but based on previous results favour Umno over PAS. MCA, MIC and other non-Malay parties face more uncertainty in winning seats compared to the Malay Muafakat coalition partners.

3. Less secure and ethnically-inclusive Harapan: Harapan could only be secured in 35 seats. Amanah and PKR would potentially lose the most seats. DAP has the best electoral prospects in Harapan but would also face possible losses. Harapan will struggle at this juncture securing broad ethnic representation.

4. Too close-to-call seats remain high: There are 60 seats that are too-close-to-call at this juncture, with too many unknowns shaping the outcome. Disproportionally these are concentrated in Sabah but extend throughout Malaysia.

5. Bersatu most vulnerable: While Muhyiddin is working to strengthen his government, at this juncture, Bersatu faces serious losses unless it is able to secure an electoral pact due to its lack of grassroots.

6. GPS stronger position than Warisan: GPS has a strong advantage in Sarawak and will retain most of its seats and possibly pick up seats in competitive races. Warisan faces more political uncertainty and competitive races, but the drivers of this competitiveness are more local than national.

Collectively these findings showcase that the stability and viability of any new potential government will still rely on leaders working together to form a functioning coalition. Malaysia is moving to a post-election coalition system, which brings with it instability as well as the need for greater party development and compromising leadership.

Addressing mistaken assumptions

Moving forward, parties across the divide need to question their own assumptions. Despite the numbers pointing to a potential advantage in seats, it would be a mistake for the Muafakat coalition partners to take trends for granted in the changing political environment.

Electoral success depends on successful cooperation within any coalition. Umno continues to disrespect the Islamist party, seeing it as a means to an end. PAS on its part sees Umno as its own vehicle for power but will want to set its own terms. Umno’s sense of entitlement that they should govern the country, a view prevalent especially among its top leaders, will shape their negotiations over seats and impact power-sharing at federal and state levels.

Umno is also wrestling with the reality of division within its own ranks, as while its own leaders claim this period as an end of the ‘Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim’ leadership, there is similar sentiment amongst its members, especially its younger members, for the end of the leadership of ‘Najib Razak and Zahid Hamidi’.

Factionalism in Umno remains divisive, especially around seat selection, as it sets the setting for the Umno party polls scheduled for next year as well as the national candidates for any general election.

Harapan on its part hopes that the Sheraton Move ‘betrayals’ will give them an advantage. They have yet to fully appreciate how much damage the feeling of disappointments among the reform-oriented electorate has hurt them. There is alienation among younger voters and parts of the business community over the economy. Harapan underestimates the task ahead in electoral recovery.

All the parties have some time, however. Muhyiddin’s government is facing pressure to stabilise and form a majority, with the greatest pressures coming from within his own coalition. Minimally, any national elections are at least two months away.

A lot will change in the next few months, but the questions of the effects of a dissolution will remain. Pressures and changing public sentiments may in fact force political parties to accept new realities, engage in reform, focus more on policies to solve national problems and strengthen connectivity to society. This has happened in the past, but this will not be an easy process as it is curtailed by mindsets of the past.

Porridge is supposed to bring comfort but all the parties may in fact have regrets. Sadly, there is no guarantee that new elections in the short term will bring a cure to the country’s challenges.