Second Sphere: A different kind of political coalition

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 7, 2017 - August 13, 2017.
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Malaysia is a multiracial and multi-religious country. But since the country’s first general election (GE), the political contest has generally been about securing the support of the majority Malay and non-Malay bumiputeras, and mediation and compromise with other ethnic groups in a power-sharing model called consociationalism, brokered by political elites.

The prescription is based on the principle that each ethnic polity should enjoy a significant degree of autonomy and a right of veto over matters directly affecting the welfare of its members. It entails a balance of power within the government between clearly defined social segments, brokered by identifiable ethnic leaders representing distinct social groups.

It represents the dominant model of power-sharing in “societies that are sharply divided along religious, ideological, linguistic, cultural, ethnic or racial lines into virtually separate sub-societies with their own political parties, interest groups and media of communication”, as stated by political scientist Arend Lijphart.

Consociationalism is the political configuration practised by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN). However, the results of GE12 in 2008 and GE13 in 2013 have shown that this model is incompatible with open and competitive democracy. We must work on an alternative model — centripetalism — which is multiracial and moderate.

Our biggest hurdle is the prevailing — and heightened — practice of the politics of race. It is now time to form a coalition of minds that goes beyond partisan politics in putting a stop to the politics of race. We are in dire need of a new, and proper, multiracial political philosophy.

BN was born as an umbrella multiracial party. But all the affiliate parties are either race-based or predominantly controlled by a certain race. With the exception of some, most of the activities are not really done in the name of BN, but more in the name of each affiliate.

The structure of BN makes it more like a Malay (Umno)-dominated umbrella multiracial party. The chairman and deputy chairman of BN are from Umno. The presidents of the other affiliate parties are BN vice-presidents. The secretary general, treasurer, information chief, women’s chief and youth chief are all from Umno. All chairmen of BN at the state level — with the exception of Sarawak, because Umno is not allowed to be established there — are from Umno.

On the Opposition side, Pakatan Harapan (PH) is trying very hard to be more colour-blind. There is no structure that makes any party more dominant than the others.

Centripetalism is an alternative, and a better approach, for ethnically-plural democracies like Malaysia. It is termed as such because it aims to invite or pull the parties towards moderate, compromising policies, and to discover and reinforce the “centre” of a deeply divided political situation. It emphasises the importance of institutions that encourage integration across ethno-political divides.

In opposition to consociationalism, in centripetalism, the best way to manage democracy in divided societies is not to simply replicate existing ethnic divisions in the legislature and other representative institutions, but rather, to depoliticise ethnicity by putting in place institutional incentives for politicians and their supporters to act in an accommodatory manner towards rival groups. Centripetalism is about cross-ethnic behaviour, such as electoral and party systems that encourage the pooling of votes across ethnic lines.

Professor of history Benjamin Reilly defines centripetalism as “a political system or strategy designed to focus competition at the moderate centre rather than the extremes”.

It comprises three facilitating components:

• The presentation of electoral incentives for campaigning politicians to reach out to, and attract, votes from a range of ethnic groups other than their own, thus encouraging candidates to moderate their political rhetoric on potentially divisive issues and forcing them to broaden their policy positions.

• The presence of multi-ethnic arenas of bargaining, such as parliamentary and executive forums, in which political actors from different groups have an incentive to come together and cut deals on reciprocal electoral support, and perhaps on other more substantial policy issues as well.

• The development of centrist, aggregative and multi-ethnic political parties or coalitions of parties capable of making cross-ethnic appeals and presenting a complex and diverse range of policy options to the electorate.

The institutional recommendations of centripetalists often run sharply counter to those of the consociationalists. For example, rather than focusing on the fair representation of ethnically-defined political parties, centripetalists place a premium on promoting multi-ethnic parties and cross-ethnic activities.

To achieve this, the electoral process can be structured to require successful candidates to gain support across different ethnic groups and regions of a country, thus helping to break down the appeal of racialism or racism, and parochialism or regionalism.

Today, PH may not yet be a full-fledged centripetalist entity. But our conscience is clear — PH is not following the consociational way.


Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah is chief secretary of Pakatan Harapan and director (strategic and social development) of Institut Darul Ehsan. He is active on twitter: @saifuddinabd.