Enter new era of coalition politics

Emmanuel Joseph

Barisan Nasional has been the strongest example of a Malaysian coalition government with 14 and half a dozen allied parties. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, November 30, 2022.  

IF the 2008 general election put a chink in the undefeatable Barisan Nasional (BN) hegemony, and the 2018 one established a two-party system, it would not be wrong the 2022 polls introduced true coalition politics to Malaysia. 

Although critics may argue that each of these have introduced more instability into an established, they are actually signs of maturing democracy. 

It can further be argued that our system has always been coalition-based. 

BN was its strongest example with 14 parties and half a dozen allied parties.  

These parties did not always see eye to eye. Gerakan’s liberal, multiracial politics stood in stark contrast to Umno’s nationalist, pro-Malay stance.  

Shorter-lived coalitions such as Gagasan Rakyat, Barisan Alternatif and Pakatan Rakyat attempted to mimic the cross-community, multi-ideological pact to appeal to a wider base. 

A strong Malay-Muslim core with peripheral non-Muslim support. The formula always seemed to work.

The balance always tipped slightly left or right, but the representation was roughly proportional to the demographic, and designed to assuage Malay-Muslim fears of a system dominated by non-Muslims. 

This was the fear Perikatan Nasional, the new coalition on the bloc, manipulated to great success in the elections. 

But is coalition politics really unstable? 

With the right motivations and safeguards, it doesn’t need to be. 

Ismail Sabri’ Yaakob’s cabinet, for all its flaws and alleged lack of support when compared to Muhyiddin Yassin’s, stood firm until it brought about its own downfall.  

All it took was a little give-and-take on the government’s part, and for the opposition to be content with a little reform and a little allocation for their constituencies. 

The rest, arguably is managing expectations, and dealing with the ensuing polemics. 

Coalition politics is the norm in both developed and developing countries.  

As politics evolve to reflect the growing and evolving spectrum of needs – ideological, social, economic, communal, geographical and even spiritual – there will be an increase of niche parties and individuals, to reflect the expression of those needs.

That, with the high level of reach with social media and Internet, have simultaneously removed the high barrier of entry in terms of effort and initiative, to reach the average voter, while considerably reducing the cost of the same, thus making the voter more accessible to a party, while reducing the need of a huge political base as a requisite use case to launch a political platform. 

The vote bank will split, and in a majoritarian system like ours, where popularity and support are measured relative to the contestants, could commonly result in a winner with just a fragment of votes, with the majority actually against said candidate. 

It is a natural political progression of sorts, as voter sophistication increases with education and exposure, as well as the desire for more exact representation of their values, needs and wants. 

Apart from more accurately capturing voter ideals, more parties enable better checks and balances.

With a seat only certain for the termpersonality cults that typically develop around figures of power, are less likely to develop, and without it, the ecosystem of corruption, largesse and favours that come with it, are less likely to take root.

Similarly, the seat of government itself becomes impermanent and lobbying reduces as the stakes become smaller. 

The next few years would prove an acid test for Malaysia to gauge its readiness to embrace the fact corridors of power often come with revolving doors. 

If we achieve what was unthinkable just a year ago, we could even be ready for minority governments, and instability fermented by politics of perception will hopefully be a thing of the past.  – November 30, 2022.

* Emmanuel Joseph firmly believes that Klang is the best place on Earth, and that motivated people can do far more good than any leader with motive.

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