Election issues and their effects

By Lim Hong Hai

SOME states might have their own peculiar issues, but on a national scale, the issues that are likely to dominate this general election fall under three broad categories: race relations, governance and economic wellbeing. These categories are not watertight compartments and a given policy issue can affect all of them, but they offer a simple and convenient way to understand the electoral issues. Formulated in this general way, these categories are familiar and longstanding in Malaysian politics, although there are changes in specific issues and their saliency. The specific issues also tend to evoke different levels of concern and indeed to be seen in significantly different ways among various groups in society.

Race relations
Race relations pertain to almost all areas of national life and underlie concerns with national unity and political stability. All groups, of course, want at least peaceful race relations. However, because of their particularistic interests, they do not agree on the terms for achieving good relations. Indeed, this is what gives rise to the problem in the first place and makes it particularly intractable and enduring in plural societies.

As the government plays a major role in almost all sectors in Malaysia, equity or fairness in public policy is likely to be a primary focus of concern. In recent years, the dissatisfaction of minority or non-Malay ethnic groups has been increasingly expressed with respect to areas like education, public employment, the conduct of anti-poverty programmes, and the intersection of religion and law. This has heightened concerns not only with national unity but also with political stability, as dissatisfied groups show more willingness to resort to stronger forms of expression.

The issue of minority dissatisfaction with the Barisan Nasional’s (BN) policies is likely to be more prominent in this election compared to recent ones. And this dissatisfaction can only hurt the electoral performance of the BN, especially its non-Malay member parties.

Governance, or its quality, is the second general issue that is likely to loom large in this election. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi began his first term by pledging to fight corruption and improve civil service performance, but he does not seem to have achieved enough to meet heightened expectations. The problems of public security and the lack of effectiveness and integrity in the police have been exposed and are still awaiting adequate redress. The more recent allegations of corruption in the highest levels of the judiciary have accentuated widespread public concern.

Despite their much touted successes, the Special Taskforce to Facilitate Business (Pemudah) and other top-down civil service reform initiatives, even by the government’s own admission, have to be translated into reality at the lowest level or interface with clients throughout the civil service. In other words, still largely remaining is the task of getting all (not just a few or some) public managers to do their job of managing subordinates better. As with all reform, exposing weaknesses and even introducing changes is relatively easy. The hard part – which involves ministers and civil servants, not Pemudah – is to enforce the changes and to ensure that they are accepted and sustained.

The above problems of governance are increasingly seen as systemic or as the effects of deficiencies in the system of governance, especially weak public accountability in the country’s dominant party system. This supports the argument that the country needs a stronger opposition to pressure the government to undertake more serious and sustained reform.

Opposition parties have been making this argument for some time, but without any great electoral success even among urban and largely middle-class voters. Urban voters might be more receptive to governance issues compared to their rural counterparts, but voting behaviour is clearly also influenced by other issues. Given the greater visibility of governance weaknesses, it is interesting to see how the stronger-opposition argument will affect voting behaviour in this election.

Directly related to the stronger-opposition argument is the issue of the electoral system and its reform. Non-governmental organisations and opposition parties have raised this issue in recent months, but whether they will continue to do so during the campaign period and how the issue, if raised, would affect voters remain uncertain.

It is also noteworthy that, for this election, former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has pointedly directed the stronger-opposition argument at Umno, the dominant party in the ruling coalition, by urging voters not to vote for tainted candidates from that party. The effect of this call by Mahathir, especially among Malay voters, is an interesting issue by itself. Presumably, the effect would depend on the extent to which Mahathir would actively propagate this view and the extent of its propagation by the mass media from now to the polling date. Let me also say that one can and should appreciate a proposed solution even if it is from someone who importantly contributed to the problem for which the solution is needed.

Economic wellbeing
Economic wellbeing is the third general issue. Specific issues of concern include price increases, unemployment, and our ability to compete in global markets. More directly felt and easily understood, price increases and unemployment may be given more prominence in campaigning, but national competitiveness is no less important in its not-too-distant effects on our economic wellbeing.

National competitiveness depends on, and accentuates concern with, political stability and the quality of governance institutions like the judiciary, police and the bureaucracy. It is also likely to raise issues about practices and performance in the education system and the government’s regulation of the economy.

The need to enhance our national competitiveness almost never fails to be reiterated by top leaders in their recent speeches. The question is whether they are willing to go the distance in making the politically difficult policy changes that are widely recognised, including by themselves, as necessary for realising our competitive potential. These changes, which prominently include the use of race-blind merit criteria and open competition in all relevant sectors, are politically difficult because they entail some curtailment of the particularistic benefits of presently favoured ethnic groups.

Concluding thoughts
Overall, the above issues would probably put the BN government on the defensive in this election. Almost certainly, the BN would campaign on its past record. But unlike in 2004 when a new BN leader effectively appealed to voters by promising to correct weaknesses to make its record even better, this time around that record also includes newly revealed past shortfalls and incompletely fulfilled promises since 2004. These are bound to be exploited by the opposition and to have some effect. The BN has acknowledged as much and expects some deterioration of its 2004 performance.

But how much would the performance of the BN deteriorate? All sides are agreed that the BN would be returned to power. All sides probably also agree that the BN is likely to retain two-thirds of parliamentary seats that has enabled it to change the constitution at will. There is little to suggest that present dissatisfaction with the BN approaches the magnitude in 1999. And even in that year of palpable widespread discontent and cries of reformasi, the BN won 56.5% of total votes and obtained 76.7% of parliamentary seats. Moreover, the electoral constituencies re-delineated in 2003 have further enhanced the advantage of the BN and these constituencies, first used in 2004, would also be used in 2008. So the expected deterioration in 2008 cannot be expected to bring the BN’s performance to the 1999 level. The BN is likely to get well over half the votes and well over two-thirds, even well over three-quarters, of the seats.

Some will find these proportions comforting while others will find them disturbing. But to understand these results, we should turn our attention to the party system and especially the electoral system of the country. We would then understand why elections – this or any other – under the present party and electoral systems are unlikely to put enough pressure on the BN government to take stronger and more effective measures to cure or merawat (to borrow Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s term) the governance problems that afflict the country. We would also be better able and motivated to tackle the payoff question of what can be done – and join Mahathir in devising solutions.

Dr Lim Hong Hai teaches political science and public administration at the School of Social Sciences in Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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