The purpose of electoral politics is to gauge public support and harness that support to make a success of governmental policies. In short, elections are not mere rituals of democracy but a way for the government of the day to find legitimacy.
Of course, this is an imperfect system and there are times when a political party or coalition of parties is so strong as to make elections seem a mere ritual. The upside is that the ruling clique can push through controversial policies acting like a benign or benevolent dictatorship.
The downside, as can be seen in Singapore today, is that the government is never sure whether there is enough scrutiny to make those policies reach their full potential. Another problem with such dominance is public apathy, with citizens refusing to take ownership of those policies.
Public apathy that leads to a refusal to take ownership of governmental policies feeds into the delusion that the political elite are all-powerful. Because we know that only God is all-seeing, all-knowing and all-powerful then we know for a fact that the political elite is as dominant as we will it to be.
For example, under Dr Mahathir Mohamad the BN seemed infallible. But even in the thick of BN’s dominance of Parliament, it was not impervious to criticism and oppositional resistance.
Ultimately, the problem with such dominance is that it breeds the seeds of its own destruction in the form of hubristic and arrogant attitudes. Power corrupts, the saying goes and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
That is why it is important to have elections. One can argue, as the eloquent Khairy Jamaluddin, did that elections at this time of global economic crisis is irresponsible. He was referring to the Penanti by-elections, which to his mind is a waste of public funds and creates unnecessary politicking. This must be the first time in history a politician openly turns down a chance for politicking.
The merits of Khairy’s arguments are best left to the people. In the case of the Perak state assembly, now mired in judicial controversy, the prime minister reminds us that it was not BN’s doing. Some claim that the BN has a simple majority. The reality is that there is a stalemate between Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat. The kingmaker includes two assemblymen facing corruption charges and one very unpopular and disgruntled assemblywoman.
Can BN continue to defy public opinion?
Public opinion is now fixed on dissolving the state assembly and having state elections. In an ntv7 survey, some 99% of callers wanted the state elections. Mahathir does not, simply because he thinks the BN will lose.
The question then is whether or not the BN should hang on to power in Perak whilst openly defying public opinion?
The answer is based on the costs. There is no doubt that hanging on to power will have some effect on the next general elections. Mahathir himself said that he hoped the public will have short memories. But chances are, even if the economy recovers, it will never be able to close the income gap and thus create any feel-good feelings on the ground.
This will mean that voters will be less likely to forgive BN. In such a situation, issues become important and the memory of Perak will certainly swing some votes to Pakatan. This explains the dissenting voices in BN from the MCA and Gerakan over Perak. These parties know that they will be at the frontlines and will feel the full brunt of anti-government voting.
Political parties that cannot win votes are doomed. Even the mildest unhappiness will see both these parties wiped out in the next general elections. The MIC is already caught in a life-and-death struggle, owing to internal ossification and the Hindraf movement. If the BN were to lose in non-Malay majority and mixed seats, the MCA might very well be the only Chinese-based party in the world that can only win elections in Malay-majority areas.
Perak is also turning out to be a bane for Umno. It knows that if elections were held today, the BN may only get one-third of the seats. The casualties will be Umno. This will strengthen the
position of PAS within the Perak state government and end all the Umno accusations that Pakatan MB Mohd Nizar Jamaluddin is a puppet of the DAP. But more significantly, it will show that a PAS government is able to rule in a multi-cultural state like Perak.
Between a rock and a hard place
But can Umno take the risk of having elections now and ending up with a stronger PAS presence in Perak? This will mean a more ethnically balanced state exco and the seeds of PAS replacing Umno can finally sprout new branches.
The BN’s future as a coalition is now on the line. If it continues to hang on to power in Perak, it will mean MCA, MIC and Gerakan will have to take a gamble at the next general elections. With non-Malay voters fixed on the future and voting for non-sectarian political parties, they will face a great challenge even with elections were held in an improving economy. It does not take a genius to figure out that race-based voting does not benefit a shrinking non-Malay electorate.
Here is a case of being between a rock and a hard place for BN. If it continues to hang on to power in Perak, it will be forming a state government with the support of three very unpopular kingmakers.
As Mahathir said at the outset, why would BN want to associate with two assemblymen – former PKR excos Osman Jailu and Jamaluddin Mohd Radzi – which it had condemned as being corrupt? Meanwhile, DAP defector Hee Yit Foong is already a hate figure amongst the Chinese.
This will certainly strain intra-BN politics. Ultimately, it will convince the public that Umno calls the shots in BN, it always puts itself above its junior partners and rides roughshod of institutions whether that be the police, the civil service, the judiciary, and in Perak, public opinion.
If BN was to agree with the opposition and jointly put the case for dissolution to the Perak sultan, it may yet have a fighting chance. BN needs to show that it can set the agenda and turn the voters’ minds to bread and butter issues. This has always been its recipe for success.
Of course, elections are risky. There is always a chance of losing. The choice now is whether to risk losing one state or the entire Peninsular?
NEIL KHOR (PhD) (Cantab) is the co-author of ‘Non-Sectarian Politics in Malaysia: The Case of Parti Gerakan Rakyat’.
BN's choice – lose Perak or the Peninsular?