How losing might help the BN

By Shanon Shah

BARELY 48 hours after the Barisan Nasional (BN) was nearly brought to its knees in the March 2008 elections, Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said the coalition would "learn its lesson" and "improve".

Nearly 16 months after that fateful general election, Malaysians can be forgiven for being confused. Political temperatures have been rising, not cooling. Even a quick listing of the major political events in this period would leave any citizen breathless: the second round of sodomy charges against Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim; the BN's controversial Perak takeover; the targeting of Selangor exco Elizabeth Wong's private life to discredit her; the unity government talks between Umno and PAS; and the dizzying succession of seven by-elections.

Although BN leaders have brushed off accusations that the coalition has not learnt the lesson of March 2008, many voters think otherwise. And these voters might ask: does the BN need to be taught a bigger lesson during the next general election? Will the BN lose the federal government after the 13th general election, which has to take place before March 2013? More importantly, if this happens, will the BN be forced to truly reform for the better, and will it be able to make a comeback in the general election after?

Good news for Pakatan Rakyat

Monash University Sunway Campus's Prof Dr James Chin tells The Nut Graph that at this time, it is difficult to predict whether the BN can remain in power after the next elections.

"It depends on whether Najib can improve the economy, and this in turn will depend on whether the world economy will recover by the first quarter of 2010," he says in a telephone interview.

Chin cautions that there are many variables to look out for. The Pakatan Rakyat (PR) could be easily defeated if parliamentary Opposition Leader Anwar loses control of his coalition. It also depends on which coalition manages to woo the support of the millions of young, yet-to-be-registered voters.

Francisco Labastida (Source:
"Generally speaking, however, the BN is set to lose the next general election," Chin says.

His analysis tallies with the experiences of other electoral democracies that were for a long time dominated by a single party or coalition. For example, Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) didn't lose a presidential election for 71 years until its presidential candidate Francisco Labastida was defeated in 2000.

As with the Umno-led BN government in Malaysia, the PRI-ruled Mexico saw little distinction between "government" and "ruling party" for several decades. The PRI was also famous for suppressing opposition parties and engaging in several dubious measures to win votes, including vote-buying. From the 1960s onwards, however, an increasingly literate electorate began demanding for democratic reforms. The regime tried to pacify voters by introducing a series of electoral improvements.

Mexico's democratisation was cut short when an opposition candidate's near-certain victory was nullified by the mysterious "crashing" of electoral computers in the 1988 presidential elections. But the clamour for reforms continued until the National Action Party (PAN)'s Vicente Fox was elected president in 2000.

Vicente Fox (Public domain; Wiki
Chin paints a grim picture of a post-BN Malaysia. "If the BN loses the next general elections, the coalition's components will be reduced to the pre-1974 Alliance. The other components are most likely to leave the BN. The MCA and MIC will [continue to exist and remain in the BN] only because they will have nowhere to go; the PR will not take them in."

Hence, he says a PR-ruled Malaysia could have a very weak opposition — a worrying sign for a growing democracy.

Good news for the BN

From his analysis of trends among Malaysian voters, Merdeka Center for Opinion Research programme director Ibrahim Suffian thinks otherwise.

"If the BN is defeated (in 2013), they can definitely make a comeback, especially the older parties in the coalition like Umno, the MCA and MIC, and perhaps Gerakan," he tells The Nut Graph.

"This is because they already have strong structures and resources to win the people back to their side."

Ibrahim points towards Taiwan's Kuomintang party. Like Mexico's PRI, the Kuomintang all but dominated Taiwan's political scene for several decades. But the formation of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the 1980s began posing the island's ruling party a serious threat. The DPP's presidential candidate, Chen Shui-bian, eventually ended the Kuomintang's one-party dominance in 2000, and was even re-elected for a second term in 2004.

Like the Umno-led BN in Malaysia, the Kuomintang seemed unbeatable. It was and still is corrupt, and had money to throw, state institutions to manipulate, and years of experience in government.

Chen Shui-bian (Pic by Jamalij /
Wiki commons)
The good news for Malaysia's PR, however, is that the DPP was also embroiled in internal bickering, and many of its leaders were also accused of corruption, including Chen himself. Yet, this did not seem to deter voters; in fact, it was the Kuomintang that could not get its act together and had its leaders jumping ship regularly.

But behold the 2008 presidential and legislative elections — the Kuomintang came back with a vengeance. According to Ibrahim, the Kuomintang was smart: it used the island's local government elections to build itself back up and slowly gauge support levels for its candidates.

"Local government elections actually increase competition among political parties, [which] makes them sharper," he says. In other words, if the BN were smart, it would introduce local government elections as an effective strategy to stay in power.

Political scientist Dr Mavis Puthucheary tells The Nut Graph that there are also other regimes in which former dominant parties have returned more resiliently after the countries were democratised.

"There are many examples of post-communist countries that have managed to reform for the better and come back to form effective governments after suffering electoral defeats. I would suggest we examine countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland," she says in an e-mail interview.

But she differs from Ibrahim in that she thinks the BN will not have such an easy time returning to power if it is defeated. "In my opinion, the only way BN can survive is for the coalition to reform itself now, rather than wait until it is defeated in the next elections," she says.

Pack of playing cards with the ace of hearts revealed
(Pic by nighthawk7 / sxc.hu)
The regime's trump card

Chin says these analyses are valid only if we are assuming a smooth transfer of power should the BN lose.

"We still have to take into account the role that the unelected institutions will play if the BN is ever defeated at the federal level," he says.

He says the civil service, for instance, is populated with BN loyalists who have benefited from the coalition's policies. As part of the state apparatus, they could make it very difficult for the PR to govern effectively.

"Many in the civil service are also conservative Muslim-Malay [Malaysians] — if they were to even support the PR, they would limit themselves to PAS.

"Besides, we have seen in Perak how the state civil service and the police were openly biased [in favour of] the BN," Chin says.

The monarchy is another institution that will determine whether or not there is a smooth transition of power if the BN is defeated. Already, many have speculated that the Perak palace played a part in facilitating the reversal of power not even one year after the PR formed government there.

Therefore, according to Chin, the analyses of Malaysian politics must not only project the outcome of the next general elections. It must also predict its aftermath.


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