(Pic by Jirikabele / Dreamstime) WHEN the Barisan Nasional (BN) federal government dismissed local government elections and school elections on the grounds that these involve “politicking”, it was telling us that it either misunderstands democracy, or holds it in contempt. But when the Selangor and Penang Pakatan Rakyat (PR) governments pushed to restore local government elections, does it necessarily mean that they embody democracy?
Democracy carries different meanings for different people. Even North Korea, with its history of dictatorship and repression, calls itself a “democratic people’s republic”. Clearly, better tools are needed to assess or predict a country’s democratic journey. This is why The Nut Graph decided to run a short series of features assessing internal party democracy in Malaysia. Our logic was that the state of a party’s internal democracy could be one indicator of how it may govern when in power.
We looked at six different political parties: the BN’s Umno, MCA, and Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB); and the PR’s PAS, DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). We evaluated them on three broad areas, and they all fared pretty dismally.
To be fair, our ratings were pretty impromptu, and it was hard to cover all the areas exhaustively. Besides, we were benchmarking them against democratic ideals, which are probably difficult even for parties in established democracies to achieve. But the point is, we were rating them from a citizen’s perspective. After all, if a democracy is to be truly viable, then citizens also need to take ownership of the political process and get real about the performance of political parties.
|Power-sharing and division|
So what “ideals” are we talking about here? For starters, some key ideas that actually make a “democracy” truly democratic are that:
All members have their own interests that are affected by collective decisions.
All adults are capable of figuring out the best or least bad options for themselves, and also for the entire association.
In the long term, the best decisions are those where all views have been publicly heard and discussed.
In case debate and discussion fail to produce a consensus, decisions should be taken by a vote of all participating members.
The principle of “one person, one vote, one value” means that all members in a democracy are of equal worth.
Then there are the other factors to consider. For example, does an association’s leadership truly represent the diversity of its members? Are there independent mechanisms to prevent abuses of power?
Thus, it is little wonder that parties like Umno, PAS and the MCA scored very low on issues such as representative democracy — they cater to an exclusive club based either on race or religion. A party like the DAP scored marginally higher because it is diverse only in theory, not in practice. And PKR also did not score well, because even though its composition is diverse, it still has not figured out a sound mechanism to deal with the conflicts that result from its diversity.
US Democratic Party logo (Wiki commons) Workable models
There are workable models from around the world that Malaysian parties could replicate. For example, when the Democratic Party of the USA had to choose its candidate for the 2008 presidential elections, it boiled down to a contest between a member of an ethnic minority and a woman. That in itself speaks volumes about the party’s seriousness in respecting diversity. And when the Australian Labor Party‘s disciplinary body stringently upheld the party’s commitment to diversity, this gave hope that parties, too, could have their own independent judiciaries.
These parties are far from perfect. But they do give Malaysians a glimpse of the kind of principles political parties are capable of upholding. And it is important to note that these parties operate in more established democracies, meaning that a larger environment that respects free debate is also crucial to a political party’s democratic evolution.
When citizens reclaim democracy
And this is why the debate on local government elections in Malaysia is long overdue. This is the kind of discussion political parties should be having, alongside civil society. Contrast this with the PR’s sabre-rattling in 2008, in which it promised to topple the BN government by engineering defections. Public debate at that time was unfocused, and the voices questioning the democratic implications of such a strategy were drowned by either the PR’s hardcore supporters or the BN’s.
Perhaps it is the citizens who need to up the democratic ante. One way to do this is to ask, whenever a political party is hit by a scandal: How does this affect the party’s internal democracy? Is it an opportunity or a threat to the party’s democratic structures? Will Malaysian democracy develop or suffer because of this?
Even when political parties appear stable, citizens can still ask: How goes the party’s democratic health? After all, political parties do not exist in a vacuum. Their members are part of the larger population that has a say in how our country is governed.