Lesson for Brazil in the context of the Malaysian elections

Published on Nov 16, 2022 11:38 AM IST

The article has been authored by Devika Misra, assistant professor, political science and international relations, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University.

The opposition has already been thrashed last month in a state election in peninsular Malaysia thanks to an UMNO campaign led by disgraced former premier Najib Razak who focused on reviving a pandemic-battered economy.(REUTERS)
The opposition has already been thrashed last month in a state election in peninsular Malaysia thanks to an UMNO campaign led by disgraced former premier Najib Razak who focused on reviving a pandemic-battered economy.(REUTERS)
ByHindustan Times

Among the slew of elections slated to happen after the outbreak of Covid-19 in the Southeast Asian region, the upcoming Malaysian elections may ambitiously be said to represent the reordering of democracy and the shape of the post-pandemic social order emerging in the region. The very fact that this will be the 15th general election in the country itself makes Malaysia an outlier in Southeast Asia. However, the regular incidence of elections does not preclude Malaysia from the complicated game of power consolidation that rankles the core principles of liberal democracy. William Case at the Nottingham University of Malaysia, terms the Malaysian system as a ‘hybrid political system dominated by a single party,’ namely the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). The uninterrupted and consolidated rule of the UMNO functioned by favouring Malay voters and fostering racial, religious and ethnic polarisation at all levels of the Malaysian socio-political system. This ethnocentric populist strategy of the Barisan Nasional Coalition led by the UMNO resulted in consecutive victories and unchecked growth in its power.

The 2018 election was purportedly a turning point for the fate of democracy in Malaysia, when popular protests ruptured the continuity of the UMNO-led coalition. A spectacular corruption scandal and increasing disaffection of an alienated populace resulted in the rejection of the UMNO mandate, bringing to power the Pakatan Harapan, a multi-ethnic coalition. This transition of power generated great hopes for a successful and, hopefully, complete democratic transition in the country. However, protracted political conflicts, infighting, defections and communal politics sounded the death knell for such hopes. Since 2018, Malaysia has had three different administrations emblematic of the political chaos in the country. This state of affairs has had a debilitating effect on public trust in the government - which is never a good sign for democracy.

It needs must be asked, why did a positive change in the direction of democratic consolidation in Malaysia result in political turmoil? The answer to this question lies in the conflation of categories that beset Malaysian politics and society--there are no easily distinguishable binaries to be had. The politics behind the political change, the primary agents of effecting this change and the opportunistic politicking by those who came into power exposed the frailties of a political system that had few alternatives to replace the ousted UMNO. The crisis of the pandemic exacerbated the socio-political ills in the country, even as the urgency of pandemic management allowed for greater room to manoeuvre for politicians with shifting allegiances. This political meandering was propped by political personalities with convoluted trajectories of purpose, ideology and undistinguishable political priorities. What could elections mean in such a scenario?

Therefore, it must be asked what could the Malaysian elections reflect at this juncture? According to several analysts, the timing of the current elections is an effort by the UMNO to cash in on the momentum it has found in smaller victories in state elections. There have been reports on how voter turnout would be adversely affected due to rains and how the decrease in the voting age to increase political participation in youth might prove unequal to the task of combating their apathy. Finally, the same political actors with familiar polarising political mandates spell little to no hope for real change in how politics is conducted in Malaysia. The potential for the upcoming elections appears bleak when read in this light.

The questions of faith in the electoral process, bolstering of citizen participation in effort to reboot democracy and promotion of multiracial representation, however, are the pivots on which the question of validity of the current elections may be evaluated. A comparison with the recently-concluded Brazilian elections, another country where liberal democracy has been threatened, ideological polarisation increased and political turbulence increased during the pandemic is an interesting analytical lens to test these issues.

Comparing the Malaysian scenario to the Brazilian elections, firstly, an important difference in the political process in Malaysia is the faith of the participating political actors in the paramountcy of the electoral process. Unlike the defeated incumbent in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who mounted a long-drawn attack against the sanctity of the electoral process in Brazil, despite predictions of UMNO consolidating power in the upcoming elections as well the substantiated inability of the opposition to organise, in Malaysia, none of the participants or other social groups have voiced their unwillingness to accept the election results. William Case terms this ‘engrained regard for rules’, despite an unfair and uneven playing field the distinguishing characteristic of Malaysian hybrid politics. This regard for rules has remained unruffled and undisturbed despite political turbulence and the excesses of the pandemic.

Secondly, unlike the Brazilian case where ideological solidarities were disregarded in favour of a binary polarising fight between the current president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva and the defeated incumbent Bolsonaro, in the Malaysian scenario, for the first time there are three coalitions in the political race, predominantly, UMNO-led Barisan Nasional (BN), Perikatan Nasional (PN) and the Pakatan Harapan (PH). Moreover, the shifting allegiances in senior politicians, new interest groups and modified political agendas have led to an increasingly fractured political scenario in Malaysia, with the results of the elections more difficult to predict, for new reasons. This fractured political context has been accompanied by changes in the voting age and other assorted voting behaviour like automatic voter registration. There is uncertainty not just in how actual politics will be practiced, as is the case of Brazil, where the solidity of two political leaderships is interrupted by the changed domestic, economic and international context, but also in the shape that the political landscape in Malaysia will take, where an entirely new coalition may come to power with the potential for voter behaviour revealing how politics will be done in Malaysia.

Finally, the enduring characteristic of Malaysian politics is how support is fought for and won. The political transition from BN to PH had importantly included the multi-ethnic character of the PH coalition. However, the failure of the PH to hold onto power and the continuing struggle for the UMNO-led coalitions to maintain majority prove that even though ethno-religious polarisations continue to dominate how elections are fought in Malaysia, the multi-ethnic social fabric of the country has asserted itself into political conversations. Much like the Brazilian scenario where the Lula-Bolsonaro binary could be understood as two competing conceptions of Brazil, where the pro-poor, pro-women, pro-LGBTQ+ , pro-indigenous vision of Brazil was pitted against Bolsonaro’s pro-White, pro-military, Christian evangelical, anti-women, anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-indigenous vision of Brazil, even though traditional politics of the UMNO relied on the prioritisation of the ethnic Malay vote over other groups, this is no longer undisputed or unquestioned.

The upcoming elections in Malaysia are loaded with possibilities as well as the burdens of a weighted and unfair institutional and socio-political structure. At the very least, it is an important case study to understand how countries in the South do democracy differently and how the epistemologies of the South may add to the fate of understanding liberal democracy in the developing world.

The article has been authored by Devika Misra, assistant professor, political science and international relations, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University.

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