PR's spin on local elections

By Wong Chin Huat (
The Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’s promise to merely “strengthen local government democracy” in its common policy framework (CPF) is not a wider plan to go beyond local elections. It’s a compromise to substitute local elections. And from DAP chairperson Karpal Singh’s comment, the obstacle to the coalition’s commitment to local elections is clearly PAS.
But why does PAS object to local elections? What are its considerations? We have no idea, because no PAS leader has explained why the party does not support local elections. No Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leader has, either. For some, this is esprit de corps at its best between PKR and PAS. But when the tables are turned, this is also denial of information to the citizenry.
How can an election pledge, upheld explicitly by the DAP and PKR in their manifestos and signed up to indirectly by PAS, be thrown out of the window without any explanation? If local elections should not be held or pursued aggressively, why can’t PAS and — according to media reports — PKR politicians who support PAS make their case known? Is this not the practice of accountability?
Make no mistake: this is not just an academic debate. The PR’s CPF is the coalition’s de facto manifesto. If elections are called tomorrow, this is what the coalition will use. If elections are held much later, then the CPF will still inform the coalition’s manifesto.
Removing the phrase “local elections” and replacing it with a vague expression like “local government democracy” means that if the PR comes to federal power, it has no obligation to carry out local elections, not unlike PAS’s Kelantan state government today.
Can you accept a new Malaysia under the PR, which insists on continuing to appoint local councillors?
If today the DAP and PKR can use coalition unity to justify their compromise to accommodate PAS, then the case for “coalition unity” would only be stronger if the PR manages to form federal government. Think about it: if PAS threatens to pull out of the PR in objection to local elections, do you think the DAP or PKR would be willing to forego federal power to fight for local elections?
You may ask: What is the chance of the PR winning the next elections? If it is very low, should we make a big fuss over some undeliverable electoral promises?

The fear

The question is, then: If the chance of the PR winning federal power is extremely low, why should PAS and perhaps its other partners be so adamant to rule out the possibility of introducing local elections? Why should the PR fear local elections in the same way, if not more than, the Perak Barisan Nasional (BN) “government” fears a fresh state election?
There could be two answers. The first is that the PR has a problem with the outcome of democratic elections. Not unlike the BN, it wants to win as many seats as possible. It likes elections only when it can win them. Since local elections may lead to it losing some local council seats, or even the control of certain councils, the PR does not want local elections. In short, the PR is as authoritarian as the BN.
The second answer is that the PR has problems with the participants of democratic elections. In other words, the PR does not want local elections because in non-Malay-Malaysian-dominated urban centres, this would result in the political dominance of non-Malay Malaysians.
This is what is widely believed by the media and politicians to be the reason why local elections are excluded from the PR’s CPF. The PR can therefore be seen as racist because it will not allow geographically concentrated minorities to dominate their own local governments. In other words, if Ipoh is 70% non-Malay Malaysian, what’s wrong if the city council consisted of 70% or so non-Malay Malaysians?
One may argue, like Shah Alam PAS Member of Parliament Khalid Samad does, that PAS is not racist, but is merely worried that it will be attacked by Umno as “selling out Malay [Malaysians]”. This argument is lame because if PAS or the PR wants to avoid reforms to escape demonisation by Umno, they might as well not oppose the Internal Security Act, which some Malay-Muslim Malaysians claim is instrumental in defending ketuanan Melayu. The solution should be to educate the Malay Malaysian ground to demand for local elections together with their non-Malay Malaysian counterparts.
The return of the dhimmi
One may cite the inclusive language of PAS spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat and president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang in the PR national convention as evidence that PAS and PR are not racist. But how do you reconcile their two positions — “you are not outsiders”, and “you must not control the local government even if you are the majority group there”?
It looks as though the answer is the dhimmi discourse. “Dhimmi” is the term coined for protected minorities in the Islamic state. But the example of the goodwill offered to dhimmi in Muslim empires such as the Ottoman Empire has so far failed to convince Malaysians, especially non-Muslims, about the inherent goodness of the Islamic state. Hence PAS’s disastrous electoral defeat in 2004.
One cannot help but wonder: has the PR’s foolish resistance to local elections accidentally unveiled a larger lack of principles? What the PR needs now is not spin but corrective action before its credibility gets further eroded.
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He believes that smart politicians ride on the wave of democratisation, while the less smart swim against it.