Coalition Politics: Beyond the Glue of Power

By Dr. Mavis Puthucheary

“They all have different ideologies and opposing views. You cannot form a government like that,” caretaker Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said confidently on Feb 25. He was referring to the electoral pact between the opposition parties, which has often had this criticism leveled against it. It is said that this electoral pact is merely an alliance of convenience which cannot be sustained should the opposition parties win.

Yet this is precisely what happened in Feb 1952 when Umno and the MCA entered into an electoral pact to contest the Kuala Lumpur (KL) Municipal Council elections. Umno had been formed to protest against the British-initiated Malayan Union proposal, which would give the non-Malays born in the country the right to citizenship. Umno viewed the large Chinese minority concentrated in the cities and towns as a source of inter-communal tensions. Through mobilising the Malays against the Malayan Union, there developed a strong Malay nationalism in which Umno played a pivotal role as the champion of the Malays.

The MCA was established much later and as a response to Umno’s success in mobilising the Malays. As a party formed to safeguard Chinese (mainly business) interests, however, it did not have the same success as Umno in mobilising Chinese support. Indeed, Chinese support was divided between several left-wing parties such as the Labour Party of Selangor. In terms of ideology, the MCA was nearer to these parties than to Umno.

Why then did the leaders of the two parties enter into an electoral pact to contest the KL municipal elections? They did so for the very same reason that the opposition parties today have agreed to an electoral pact.

Mutual gain
In a situation where there is danger of a single party or coalition winning the elections, the other parties join forces to prevent this from happening. In the KL municipal elections of 1952, both Umno and the MCA perceived the newly formed Independence of Malaya Party (IMP) as their main rival. Umno had been seriously weakened when Datuk Onn Jaafar left the party to form the IMP. He, after all, had spearheaded the Malay nationalist movement under Umno and it was unclear at this stage how much Umno support had gone with him. With no other Malay-based party contesting the elections, the fight for the Malay vote was between Umno and the IMP.

In the case of the MCA, the national leadership had established close ties with the IMP with whom it had a lot in common ideologically. Indeed, Tun Tan Cheng Lock was invited and spoke at the meeting when the IMP was formed. But the sticking point in the negotiations between the MCA and the IMP was Onn’s insistence that all candidates stand in the name of the IMP. This was not agreed to as the MCA leaders did not want to subordinate their party to the broader interests of the multi-racial IMP.

Umno leaders shared with the MCA a desire to keep a separate identity but at the same time they realised the importance of working with the latter as the Chinese constituted a significant size of the electorate. Thus even though the two parties had very different ideologies and held opposing views especially on how the nation-state of the newly independent country should evolve, they entered into an electoral pact for mutual gain.

It was the electoral success of the Umno-MCA alliance at the KL Municipal Council elections and in all subsequent elections that brought the leaders together to form a permanent coalition rather than the sense of any common values and shared interest. It was what Chandra Muzaffar once referred to as the “glue of power”. Even though the partners in the ruling coalition hold compartmentalised (and conflicting) rather than shared expectations of competitive politics and representative government, they need each other to win elections.

This does not mean that the Alliance, or its successor, the Barisan Nasional (BN), is free from tensions and conflict. The coalition faced its first crisis in 1958 when disagreement between the leaders over the allocation of seats between the parties resulted in a split in the MCA. A more serious crisis occurred in 1969 when both Umno and the MCA suffered a serious loss of support. The crisis was resolved through a series of measures, which resulted in less democracy (gerrymandering, more authoritarian style of government) and a power-sharing arrangement that was skewed in favour of Umno.

Today the parties in the BN are committed to different and often conflicting goals and there is no agreement on principles or fundamentals. Where there is a clear consensus within the BN, it is on the importance of excluding opposition parties from most of the decision-making process. The emergence of a multi-ethnic coalition government is then used to justify the argument that since all groups are represented, there is no need for an opposition in Parliament.

At the same time, the adversarial form of politics of the Westminster model precludes the participation of civil society groups such as trade unions, issue-based non-governmental organisations and professional associations. Consequently a body of concerned citizens, who can take on the responsibility of maintaining a vibrant civil society, has been excluded from the political process.

The ruling elite has often taken the view that broader oppositional voices are not only irrelevant but dangerous to the country’s stability. This lack of tolerance for dissent has meant a loss in intellectual resources for the development of better governance and sound policy formulation.

The art of coalition-building
What then would be the major task of the opposition parties in the next five years assuming it succeeds in gaining more parliamentary and state seats in this election? Up to now we have heard very little from the opposition parties except their appeals to deny the BN its two-third majority. Such an appeal, by itself, does little to excite people to vote for change. Should the opposition parties succeed in making electoral inroads, the next five years will be crucial in determining whether the country will move from a virtual one-party state to a more democratic two-party system.

For this to happen, the opposition party leaders must focus their attention on building bridges and creating feelings of trust among themselves. No party should be allowed to dominate and decide the agenda for the others as is the case with the BN. There have been times in the history of the BN when parties have joined and later left the coalition and we should incorporate this flexibility into the new coalition.

Should the opposition parties win control of any state government, efforts must be made to ensure that the government is composed of more than one party even when a particular party wins the majority of the state seats. For example, should the opposition win control of Kelantan, it will be a PAS-PKR government rather than a PAS government even though PAS may win enough seats to form the government on its own. So also, should the opposition win control of Penang, the government should be a DAP-PKR coalition government. This arrangement is important to ensure that one party does not dominate the coalition and dictate terms. It also acts as a moderating influence on political decision-making.

Coalition-building is an art requiring a new vocabulary and a genuine effort to negotiate and reach agreement through discussion and open debate on important issues. In many respects, the task of building a meaningful coalition based on mutual respect and trust is more difficult for the opposition coalition than it was for the Alliance/BN coalition which had the advantage of a continued period of being in power and was thus able to build alliances through the distribution of patronage.

But the opposition coalition is in a position to learn from the mistakes of the BN coalition and avoid some of the pitfalls associated with coalitions that are narrowly based on race, region or religion. The BN, despite its power-sharing rhetoric, has failed to develop a social consensus in which all citizens can feel they have equal stake in the country. Any attempt by the opposition parties to build a coalition on the lines of the BN would be disastrous for the nation.

Dr. Mavis Puthucheary is an associate senior fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (Ikmas) in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. She and Norani Othman, an associate professor and senior fellow at Ikmas, co-edited the book, Elections and Democracy in Malaysia.