Opinion: Little chance now of an election boycott

Abdul Razak Ahmad (NST)
25 Feb 2007

The opposition’s threat of a general election boycott looks doubtful after the outcome of their ‘sit out’ in Batu Talam but it is not the end of the plan.
EVER since Batu Talam, “boycott” is a strategy few in the opposition seem eager to pursue with as much zeal as before.

The decision to snub the Pahang state assembly by-election, which left the Barisan Nasional squaring off against an independent, was supposed to mark the start of something much bigger — an opposition campaign to press for electoral reforms, failing which a general election boycott was touted as a possibility.
Despite those in the opposition urging constituents to sit out the polls, the voter turnout was 67.8 per cent, more than the 50 per cent or less that some opposition leaders publicly called for.
Spoilt votes — the other possible indication of a protest — totalled 384, fewer than what a successful pullout should have caused.
Was Batu Talam the end of the road for the boycott strategy?
Parti Keadilan Rakyat deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali insists the by-election’s outcome was a success, not a failure.
Compared with the last general election three years ago, there was almost a nine per cent drop in voter turnout.
That, and a drop in the number of votes cast for the BN by nearly 1,000, argues Syed Husin, shows that the boycott actually did make headway.
But he admits things could have turned out better:
“At the ground level, it was not as effective as it should have been.
“There was not enough organisational and publicity work to make people understand what the boycott was about.”
Is a general election boycott on, then?
Syed Husin is non-committal.
“If the mood of people is such that they want to boycott, then we’ll have to discuss it at all levels and make a decision.”
Pas secretary-general Datuk Kamaruddin Jaafar is equally guarded.
“We just wanted to boycott Batu Talam.
“We never said anything about boycotting the general election.
“Until now, we have neither discussed nor considered it.”
So too DAP’s Central Executive Committee member Ronnie Liu.
“The DAP is keen on finding (other) ways to clean up and reform the electoral system. A boycott is not on our radar.”
A general election boycott may not have been a formal agenda for Pas, PKR and the DAP.
But the fact is that several prominent opposition party leaders did voice the possibility of a pullout from the polls, if calls for electoral reforms are not met.
This post-Batu Talam reluctance to explore the subject has some wondering how serious the opposition is about a general election boycott in the first place.
“Boycotting Batu Talam is one thing.
“Boycotting a general election is quite a different matter and needs a very different set of calculations,” is how Kamaruddin puts it.
Political analyst Wong Chin Huat explains the calculation as cost versus benefit — a loss of seats versus “the ability to force reform demands and challenge the legitimacy of the system”.
“If the opposition parties see the electoral process as flawed, and which they cannot win anyway, the benefits of boycotting will outweigh the cost,” adds Wong, who is doing his PhD on electoral systems and who participated in studies on the 2004 elections conducted by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Malay- sian and International Studies (Ikmas).
It’s hard though to imagine the opposition willing to risk losing seats in a boycott, especially when the parties have in fact been steadily gearing up for the next general election.
The DAP, buoyed by its strong showing in the Sarawak elections, recently tied up with PKR to make a bid for Penang.
Pas, on the other hand, is showing no indication that it’s letting up on efforts to make sure it retains Kelantan, where it has a mere one-seat advantage over the BN.
The party has also been working hard to reach out to non-Muslims, and the momentum of its efforts has been steadily increasing.
Just last week, the party officiated a Pas supporters’ club for Indians to follow in the footsteps of its Chinese supporters’ club.
Iban and Kadazan supporters’ clubs are also in the pipeline to gain support from Sarawak and Sabah.
This week, Pas is moving house to its new national headquarters in Jalan Raja Laut, Kuala Lumpur.
It will turn its present office in Taman Melewar into a training centre, part of what one party official calls “a capacity-building plan”.
In short, the moves DAP and Pas have been making are hardly those one would associate with parties seriously considering a boycott.
Bersih — a coalition of non-governmental organisations and political parties including the DAP pushing for electoral reforms — also has no plans for a boycott yet.
Pas strategist Dr Dzulkifli Ahmad, who is involved with Bersih, says the coalition is focused on three core demands:

  • The electoral rolls to be truly cleaned up and updated;
  • The use of permanent ink to mark the thumbs of voters to prevent duplicate voting; and,
  • A cancellation of postal votes within the country.

But the extent to which Bersih will go if these three demands are not met is a mass demonstration, not a polls boycott.
Bottom line: As things now stand, the likelihood of an opposition general election boycott is slim.
Liu, who is also on the Bersih committee, says the only feasible boycott is an all-out pullout, the kind that opposition parties in Thailand mounted in April last year, alongside street protests that were part of a series of political events which ultimately led to the ouster of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
“That’s the only kind of boycott that will work. Everyone, from Nik Aziz (Pas spiritual adviser Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat) to Wan Azizah (Keadilan president Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail]), must pull out,” says Liu.
A Pas insider also agrees that for the party, a boycott is at present merely possible in the event of a “doomsday” scenario: For example, if Pas, on the eve of the next general election, realises that its chances — for whatever reasons — have become virtually nil.
Interestingly, it isn’t the possibility of losing Kelantan that’s keeping the option of a boycott alive for Pas.
“Pas is confident it has a fighting chance of retaining Kelantan. A possible boycott is actually related to our chances of making headway to re-capturing Terengganu, our number two priority state. We feel it can only happen if the three primary reform demands are met,” says the insider.
Whether the opposition has a case, and whether electoral changes would increase the opposition’s chances, remain hotly debated topics.
But even in the event that a boycott fails to materialise, the whole brouhaha over pulling out may not have been for nothing.
Few noticed, but the push for election reforms has been the first real inter-party platform for co-operation between Pas and the DAP.
Both have not been on friendly terms with each other after the 1999 general election due to the DAP’s rejection of Pas’ Islamic state ambitions.
“The Batu Talam boycott didn’t achieve the expected results, but it provided the first effective forum for Pas and DAP to work together,” says the Pas member.
“The fact is that Pas and DAP have been trading potshots and have not really been able to sit on the same stage or see eye-to-eye on many things. This campaign is changing all that,” he adds.
Ironically, unity may well be where the whole threat of pulling out of the polls ends up: Opening the door for Pas and DAP to re-heat their frosty ties and mount a unified opposition challenge to the BN in the coming general election.