Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why is the BN against local elections?

AT least on the surface, the Barisan Nasional (BN) agrees with the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) on two things: ethno-religious inclusion and governmental reforms. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's 1Malaysia and Government Transformation Programme are basically the BN's answer to the PR's ketuanan rakyat and "competency, accountability and transparency".

But the two coalitions now differ on one thing: local government elections. While Penang and Selangor are writing to the Election Commission (EC) for authorisation to carry out local elections, the BN has shot down the idea. The question is, why is the BN so against the idea of reviving local government elections?

Federal and state elections, too?

Najib dismissed local elections because they may cause too much politicking. He said those vying for a spot in local councils will be too busy campaigning for their posts rather than performing their roles effectively.

By this logic, we should not have parliamentary and state elections, either; appointed federal and state lawmakers would perform their roles more effectively if they didn't have to campaign for their posts. And by extension, senators would be the best-performing political officers in the country.

Nazri Aziz (File pic)
Sin Chew Daily also reported Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz's objection to local elections on another point: intergovernmental conflict. According to Nazri, the people would suffer if the elected local government does not agree with the state government. He argued that the "winner-takes-all" nature of the current appointment system makes management and fund allocation easy.

By extending Nazri's logic, it might be better not to have state elections, just federal elections. After all, if whichever party won federal power controlled all states, then the federal government could easily manage and allocate funds.

As we are commemorating the second anniversary of the sea-changing 2008 elections, will everyone accept that Selangor, Penang, Kelantan and Kedah should just be under BN government to ease administration and development?

The implication of the divide between the two coalitions over local elections is clear: the BN is against democratisation while the PR is for it. Theoretically, the BN proposes a more inclusive, more efficient but not more democratic Malaysia, while the PR offers a more inclusive, more efficient and more democratic Malaysia.

If you believe that 8 March 2008 was about citizens taking ownership of their public life and nationhood, then the BN is the antithesis of this very idea.

Like father, like son

For Najib, the purpose of government seems to be about providing good service as he sees fits, not him deciding together with others how society should govern itself.

But don't be surprised. Najib's father, second Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak paid only lip service to democracy. He said, "The view we take is that democratic government is the best and most acceptable form of government. So long as the form is preserved, the substance can be changed to suit conditions of a particular economy."

Tun Abdul Razak (Public domain |
Wiki commons)
Why did Abdul Razak want to preserve only the form and not the substance of democracy? It appears he saw an internal contradiction between democracy and interethnic unity. He said this in 1973: "[In] our Malaysian society of today, where racial manifestations are very much in exercise, any form of politicking is bound to follow along racial lines and will only enhance the divisive tendencies amongst our people."

Thirty seven years later, his son Najib says almost the same thing about local elections: "We feel it will increase politicking at the local [government] level. We want to improve services for the rakyat. By having [local government] elections, the focus will be more on the political process."

Midterm elections

Najib's rejection of local elections is in fact perfectly rational. If one wants to keep a one-party state, one should have as few elections as possible, or have them all in one go.

Local elections are problematic to autocrats in both ways: not only would they increase the number of elections, but, more importantly, they would inevitably constitute a midterm election for the federal and state governments.

In other words, voters could potentially use this third vote to protest against the federal and state governments.

Midterm elections have always been the BN's, and its precursor the Alliance's, nightmare. In 1959, state elections took place at different times in different places. The result? The Alliance lost Kelantan and Terengganu to PAS.

Beginning from 1964, the Alliance/BN went all out to make sure that the general elections meant simultaneous federal and state elections, except in Kelantan, Sarawak and Sabah, when they were held at different points in time.

With the state elections thus fixed, the leftover midterm elections now occurred in only two forms: local elections and by-elections for parliamentary or state seats.

In 1965, first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman suspended local elections in the name of national security. He promised Parliament that local elections would be restored once the Indonesian Confrontation was over. But then local elections were officially abolished by the introduction of the Local Government Act 1976.

Shahrir Samad (File pic)
And after Umno's Datuk Shahrir Samad's resignation and reelection as an independent parliamentarian in the 1988 Johor Baru by-election, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad moved to amend the federal and state constitutions. Lawmakers were effectively barred from re-contesting within five years of their resignation. This rule has effectively killed off another avenue for midterm elections and protected the government from occasional political challenges.

Of course, some might point at the string of nine by-elections post-March 2008 — were these not effectively "midterm elections"? Yes, they were, but six out of the nine were necessitated by the incumbents' deaths.

In other words, had it not been for these "acts of God", the BN might have been spared six whole by-elections held in 2009.

If it's a "no"

I don't expect the EC to respond positively to the requests by Penang and Selangor. And after the prime minister's open objection, it would be surprising if the EC opted to carry out its duty under Article 113(4) of the Federal Constitution — to conduct elections other than parliamentary and state legislative elections authorised by federal and state law.

However, if the EC were to say no, how should the Penang and State governments respond?

Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim have three options before them:

accept the EC's rejection, blame it on legality, and forget about local elections;

challenge the EC's position by amending/passing state laws to explicitly authorise the EC to conduct elections and force the EC to take up a constitutional case in court;

organise a mock election (hence bypassing the EC) and then appoint the winners as councillors.

Let us be clear here. Neither the EC nor the BN federal government calls the shots on local elections. The PR state governments do. Let us hope they differ completely from the BN on this.

written by Wong Chin Huat, who is a political scientist by training and journalism lecturer by trade. He hopes that the BN-PR divide on democratisation will become a key criterion for voters to choose between the coalitions. Courtesy of Nut Graph

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