Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Debunking “politicking”

MY previous column, which analysed the Barisan Nasional (BN)'s aversion to local government elections, drew one particular reader's comment that amazed me. KIM GAN wrote: "To avoid the politicking that may impinge on racial [sensitivities], perhaps the campaigning can be minimal and voting can be carried out electronically through the net, sanctioned and monitored by the [Election Commission] and political parties."

As much as the commenter accepts the argument for local democracy, he or she apparently has no confidence in its operation because of his or her fear of politicking. If this is the case, then what is this fear of "politicking" really about?

What is politicking? says politicking is "to engage in or discuss politics". It is also (1) a "political activity, [especially] seeking votes, and (2) an "activity directed towards acquiring power and influence, achieving one's own goals, etc."

Reverso makes clear the word's negative connotation: "If you describe someone's political activity as politicking, you think that they are engaged in it to gain votes or personal advantage for themselves."

But the question is, if politicking is actually competition amongst political parties and politicians for votes, why should we fear it? Analogously, do we fear price wars among hypermarkets or hawkers in their quest to win our bank notes? Would we fear "negative competition" if prospective employers tried to outdo each other to win us over? To take it further, would we fear our admirers if they went all out to defeat each other to win our affections?

I'm sure many people would be flattered to be the focus of some high-stakes competition where rivals try to outdo one another to win money, services or love.

What is wrong with our perception of politics?

So the question remains: What's wrong with politics, or more precisely, our perception of politics?

I would argue that the "politicking" discourse — which is fundamentally an attack on electoral and party politics in a representative democracy — has two roots. The first is a Hobbesian fear of violence. The second is sheer elitism.

Hobbesian fear

The Hobbesian fear makes politics different from all other human endeavours because it may lead to violence. Or, more precisely, politics is born out of our fear of violence. This fear leads us to believe in and hope for government as the ultimate, disinterested arbitrator. As long as the government is perceived as being fair, then suppression of freedoms is justified.

And because Malaysia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual society, the argument escalates. It goes: In the absence of government, there would not only be an "all-out war", but group differences would likely lead to deadly ethnic riots where all members from one communal group attack all members from another group.

But if the over-riding purpose of government is to minimise violence, then a government that suppresses freedoms but allows violence to be carried out with impunity is perhaps not so Hobbesian after all. Such a government is not conservative, but reactionary.


The second line of attack on modern party politics, elitism, treats the population as intellectually inferior — they are just incapable of choosing what is best for them.

Why provide choices that allow voters to decide against their best interests?
(pic of desserts © bewiki | rgbstock)

Hence, while they can handle competition among hypermarkets and act in their best interests as consumers, they would fail miserably as citizens when it comes to competition among politicians.

Instead of choosing what is good for them, the masses would do the opposite — they just like shooting themselves in the feet. The term to describe their stupidity is "populism".

And how would we know when voters fall prey to populism? Is it when they vote for the government in response to handouts like bicycles or sewing machines or last-minute repairing of potholes on the road? No — according to the "politicking" rhetoric, voters respond to populism when they vote against the government despite all these goodies. And so, is the "politicking" discourse then not a sour-grapes response by the sore loser?

An attack on democracy

tea party
(screenshot of prime minister's Facebook page)

We must ask, what is the difference between politicking and "meeting the people"? How does a feel-good Facebook fan party by the prime minister differ from an anti-goods and services tax (GST) rally, or a public forum attended by representatives from both sides of the divide?

The ultimate difference is really about whether there will be differences of opinion. In all likelihood, the PM's Facebook party was not meant for different or alternative viewpoints to emerge. The anti-GST rally, on the other hand, would have offered the public an opinion other than the official line propagated by the government-controlled media. This is also what public forums with multi-partisan participants — and by extension, election campaigns — do.

"Politicking" is essentially about public debate. When we attack politicking, we are actually attacking the very concepts of freedom of speech, the public sphere, and the foundation of democracy — that citizens are capable of making choices advancing their interests.

This is not to say that democracy does not make mistakes. Democracy cannot prevent voters from choosing the wrong government. Democracy minimises that danger by having meaningful debates and deliberations — "politicking" if you like. And as long as society has zero tolerance for violence, "politicking" can remain civil.

If after substantial deliberation, the citizenry still wish to make what may turn out to be the wrong choice, then it is their right to do so, for they will bear the consequences. After all, who can tell them what is right?

The BN's objection to local democracy is therefore greater than the issue of local democracy itself.

It is no different from its objections to a longer campaigning period, to televised election debates and to media freedom in general. It is but a symptom of the BN's anti-democratic "politicking discourse" that was championed by Tun Abdul Razak in the post-1969 atmosphere of fear.

It is sad that the BN has not shifted its position at all on local elections despite a week of criticisms by civil society, the Pakatan Rakyat and even some BN leaders.

It shows a stubborn hostility towards democracy, which may have suited a post-1969 Malaysia, but should not be tolerated by the post-2008 Malaysia.

written by Wong Chin Huat, who is a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade. Former Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamad Khir Toyo asks Malaysians to give Najib a chance, but Wong asks Najib to first give democracy a chance. Courtesy of Nut Graph

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