Partyforumseasia: The question may sound surprising in the regional discussion in Southeast Asia, not to mention Malaysia itself. It is the headline of an analysis by Joan M. Nelson, a Malaysia expert at the American University’s School of International Service, and published in the latest Journal of Democracy, July 2014, Volume 25, Number 3, pp 105 – 119.
Too small to create a level playing field???
By comparing Malaysia’s UMNO with Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT), Nelson’s list of the main similarities is as follows: “The hegemonic party controls the legislature by a majority sufficient to change the constitution at will; penetrates the bureaucracy; constrains the judiciary and the media; and controls the institutions that organize, monitor, and adjudicate elections. The party is largely sustained by the distribution of government spoils and patronage.” (p.105)
The central points of the comparison are the gradual weakening of PRI and KMT and their loss of domination, opening Mexico and Taiwan to a more open and more democratic development and a more level political playing field with chances for the opposition to take over.
Sure, the Barisan Nasional coalition has lost the important two-thirds majority in parliament and in 2013 even the popular vote. But in contrast to Mexico and Taiwan, where party elites started leveling the playing field, UMNO elites remain dedicated to maintain the status quo. The central analysis in this article is bluntly describing the attitudes of the leadership: “Politicians and cadres long accustomed to electoral advantage and pervasive reliance on patronage (to advance within the party as well as to win inter party elections) predictably resist changing the system.”
This is underlining Partyforumseasia’s pessimistic outlook for a possible sea change in Malaysia, at least in the short and medium perspective. The ruthless judicial persecution of Anwar Ibrahim and other opposition figures show that the Barisan coalition has been digging in more than their heels to stem the tide and defend their domination. Too many of them see politics as business and not as a vocation, they simply cannot afford to lose. And the “Bersih fatigue“, observed by some, as well as the somewhat suicidal handling of the chief minister saga in Selangor by the Pakatan Rakyat contribute to a pessimistic outlook.