Anatomy of election candidature, Pt 1

Sim Kwang Yang | Jan 12, 08

Now that the general election is generally reckoned to be held within the next eight to 10 weeks, how many of you out there are contemplating the possibility of contesting as a candidate?
By this time, the jostling for a seat in the various political parties has reached a feverish pitch. The incumbent will have little to worry about generally, but first-timers have to lobby hard for his appointment as a party candidate.
In the American presidential election, aspiring candidates have to seek approval from the ground within their party through a primary or a caucus voting process, state by state, in all 51 US states. Then the official candidates representing the two contending parties will have to fight each other in another round of national voting in November this year. That way, the voters have a say in the choice of a party candidate from both the Republicans and the Democrats.
In Malaysia, it is much easier and much less expensive to become a candidate to contest in federal and state elections. In keeping with our patriarchal authoritarian culture, all you have to do is to get the blessing of the top party leadership by hook or by crook, and your dream will be fulfilled.
The process is seldom so straight forward though. Obvious choices for candidature are often the exceptions rather than the rule. More often than not, within every political party, there are factions embroiled in internal strife for power at the local level. To gain advantage over their competition, these rival factions invariably try to form alliances with other factions at the state and national levels.
Of all the issues that divide a political party, none is more divisive than the issue of candidature.

Political patronage

In fact, for party top brass, the power to appoint party candidate is the source of the most important political patronage within the party. Those who seize such power can decide the political future of party members who dream of becoming a Yang Berhormat, and for the BN component parties, their chances of cabinet positions in federal and state governments in future.
Within any political party, internal factional fight often centres on the eventual goal of welding precisely this power to appoint party candidates. Once such powers are within their hands, they will appoint candidates from their own faction, and the candidates from the losing factions will be dropped at the general election, including established, competent, and prominent incumbent YBs and ministers! Chua Jui Meng of the MCA was such a victim.
When the election arrives, the losing faction at the local level may even sabotage the winning chances of the official candidate from their own party by various means. The electoral history of Malaysia in the past 50 years is strewn with such surprise defeat of a party candidate because of internal discord.
This is often the case with the ruling BN coalition. Different component parties of the BN will often be trapped in an acrimonious claim on certain seats. There is much wheeling and dealing at the very top levels, and sometimes, the local leaders have to be sacrificed for the “big picture”. The local leaders may not be happy with the sacrifice. They may sabotage the BN effort by withholding their forces on the ground in the constituency concerned, and that may be just enough for the BN candidate to be defeated in a close fight with the opposition.
For the hazy, uncertain, and convoluted opposition coalition, their electoral understanding on candidature is even less binding. For the past few months now, we have witnessed their open quarrel in the press over which party is better suited to contest in certain constituencies in certain states. The much touted co-operation between the PKR and the DAP is especially tenuous. At the time of writing, they seem to have come to some general agreement in some states, while very unpleasant noises are still heard elsewhere.
My guess is that these two opposition political parties will quarrel right down the line to the eve of nomination day, and it is likely that we will witness a three corner fight in some seats, to the delight of the BN.
For me personally, a three-corner contest involving two opposition candidates going against the BN is not such a disaster.
The stakes of the next general election are not all that high. There is no indication that the BN government is likely to be toppled any time soon. They would easily get their two-third majority in parliament, and maintain their stranglehold on state power except in Kelantan. If on vote count on polling day the opposition parties can come up with 30 parliamentary seats out of the total 221 seats, they could already herald it as an unprecedented historic opposition surge in Malaysia.
We often think of opposition parties as offering a political alternative to the ruling party. An uncontested election in any constituency would be boring beyond words. For many pragmatic voters, only a contested election will bring Father Christmas to the constituency will a shower of election gifts of all sorts, ranging from minor development projects, street lights, repair to potholes on the roads, to even hard cold cash in abundance. That is the surreal scenario of Malaysian polls.
With the ‘Big picture” of BN permanent rule in little doubt, a three-corner fight between two opposition parties against their common enemy is not necessarily a bad thing. It allows voters a choice of different opposition parties.
221 truly independent independents?
Generally, voters vote for the opposition because they are unhappy with the government. They are votes of protest rather than mandate of support for the nation-building policies of the opposition parties. In a three corner fight, the opposition parties will then have to come out with declaration of their political ends and the quality of their candidates for opposition supporters to discuss among themselves and make their final choice at the polling booth accordingly.
There are enough people who are not government supporters, and yet who find all the opposition parties unpalatable.
A few months ago, a Malaysiakini reader wrote a letter to the editor declaring his intention to stand as an independent candidate in Selangor. One other writer who had stood in the past actually gave his support to this aspiring independent candidate.
By and large, given the realities of party politics in Malaysia, independent candidates are not likely to win. They do not have the cash, the organisation, and the collective platform of party candidates. The voters may feel that even if they win, alone in Parliament or in the state legislature, the independent would be quite helpless. In past elections, a victory by an independent is always accorded the status of a miracle.
But this Malaysiakini letter-writer did give me a jolt from my cynical slumber. If in theory we vote in the opposition to ensure checks and balances against government excesses, who is going to provide the checks and balances against opposition excesses? The media is a natural answer, but unfortunately, the mainstream media is more than likely to concentrate on demonising the opposition rather than providing rational criticism.
Suppose we have 221 truly independent independents contesting in all the parliamentary seats on a common platform and using a common manifesto, how would it affect the election narratives of the ruling and the opposition political parties?
I put the idea to a senior journalist. He was thrilled. That would grab headlines in the press, he opined.
That is a good idea that would not work though. The candidates would have to face the prospect of finding the hefty money required for the election deposit that would almost certainly be forfeited at the end. In rural and semi-rural constituencies, the campaign funds would be prohibitively high. Besides, it would be well-nigh impossible to find 221 such individuals who are ready to make such sacrifices and can agree on a common platform with a common vision.
They are likely to come from only the middle class, and the Malaysian middle-class activists are better known for their highly personal, cowboy-style, individualistic heroism, rather than collective organised actions.
So, if you are thinking about contesting the next general election, think again. Election fever is worse than the flu-bug making its round in the country. I have seen numerous men and women going completely off their head when the lure of becoming an election candidate hits them. They may even become hysterical, as if possessed.
Why this is so has escaped public attention and private study. Yet it is a fascinating phenomenon. Ordinary people simply do not want to become a candidate. What drives certain individuals into the cauldron of public electoral politics in the first place?