What must first be fixed if we want democracy?

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On the second anniversary of the 2018 regime change, allow me to make the case that the most important project in Malaysia’s re-democratisation after the February coup is fixing political parties.

Political parties are not well-regarded by many Malaysians, especially in civil society. Two views commonly found amongst social activists are first, we need a third force in party politics. Second, and more radically, we should keep political parties out as much as we can.

Interestingly, the latter was even recently shared by Mahathir who founded two parties – New Umno in 1988 and Bersatu in 2016.

Why do we need parties in a democracy?

Why can’t we do away with parties and just keep democracy?

The short answer is that we do not live in ancient Athens where a few thousand free citizens - whose livelihoods were supported by other souls who are less free - could sit in the square and discuss politics all day long.

With large populations and complex activities, modern societies adopt representative democracy with parties acting as the intermediary, with three important roles, regardless of the governmental system.

First, parties are electoral machines that nominate and elect representatives into government.

Second, parties aggregate and harmonise policy preferences of their constituents into coherent policies. Voters may want incompatible policy outcomes like tax cuts, increase in social welfare spending and no increase in government debt. Parties study the opportunity costs, sort out the trade-offs and formulate sensible programmes on how the country should be run.

Third, parties connect the masses to the political system and legitimise the state. Party members can influence the policy positions of the party or even government. Some may get to run for public offices while others may campaign or donate to get the candidates elected.

Political parties serve a specific function in a parliamentary democracy – facilitate the formation of the government. Technically, both legislative and executive elections in presidential systems can be run without parties.

This is not possible, however, for parliamentary systems like Malaysia. Because we elect only the legislators, and they indirectly elect amongst themselves the prime minister, parties become the key device to organise parliamentarians into meaningful blocs to support or oppose the government.

Criticise political parties as much as you like but to do away or partially disable political parties can only mean either a total rejection of democracy or rejection of parliamentary democracy in favour of presidentialism.

What needs to be fixed?

Many people hate parties because of their opportunism and the compromises they make. No, opportunism and compromises are why parties are needed, all over the world, not the reasons to fix them.

Malaysian parties need to be fixed because of party-hopping, clientelism, implosion and most of all, failure to produce policy competition.

None of these is new but some have got increasingly worse after these milestones of democratisation or de-democratisation – the 2008 tsunami, the 2018 party regime change and the February 2020 party coup.

With the endless realignment and party hopping and willful abandonment of election manifestos, voters cannot hold their representatives responsible.

Instead of offering meaningful alternatives in how the country should be run, often Malaysian parties and elected representatives retain their support through patron-client networks, well disguised in the name of constituency service and local development. This is a key reason why lawmakers are susceptible to lucrative offers to switch party allegiance.

Parties are also highly centralised such that even performing lawmakers can be denied candidacy by top leadership. Government backbenchers and opposition lawmakers often have little influence on government bills or policies, making them more reliable on constituency services to please voters.

At both federal and state levels, operatives of government parties are often funded using government monies by placing them – at all levels – in government agencies and government-linked companies (GLCs).

Good parties should be sufficiently ideology/policy-based, internally democratic, accountable, and well-resourced to sustain some professional cadres. And beyond constituency service, lawmakers should develop expertise and strike a good balance between party discipline and independent minds.

Here are five reforms that should be undertaken before the 15th General Election, most of which can be done by state governments if the federal government is not interested.

Reform 1: Recall Elections

Recall elections are elections to sack sitting elected representatives if enough voters sign a petition to initiate such elections and enough voters vote in favour of their sacking. Now, only the representatives (employees) can resign before their employment contract is due. Recall elections give the voters (employers) the corresponding right.

This is a superior alternative to an anti-hopping law to curb the crossovers of lawmakers. For anti-hopping laws to be effective, lawmakers must be disqualified when they are sacked by their party. This, however, gives parties unchecked power to control lawmakers and can render legislatures to become even worse rubber stamps than now.

Recall elections leave the punishment on crossovers to voters – lawmakers who leave their party will be sacked only if the constituents disagreed with their move.

Reform 2: Reforming constituency development fund (CDF) to end clientelism

At both the federal and state levels, all opposition representatives are denied access to the constituency development fund (CDF) – either fully or partially – available to their colleagues in the government camps.

The allocations for those opposition-held constituencies would be channelled to the government parties’ appointees called “constituency coordinators”, who often are future candidates. The idea is to force opposition voters in those constituencies to turn to the government parties for help and therefore feeling obliged to switch their future votes.

CDF can be easily abused but until the need for it as a bypass from bureaucratic processes is eliminated, it should be transformed into a formal responsibility of all elected representatives, regardless of parties.

The dispensing of such funds should be tightly regulated and publicly monitored such that recipients do not owe any personal favour to representatives for administering the allocation.

Reform 3: Public funding for political parties

As modern politics are costly affairs, parties should be subsidised by federal and state governments based on the voter share of their last elections. This would allow parties to survive more healthily and lessen their dependence on elite donors.

The funding should be designed in such a way that certain portions go to the state and local branches where votes are won so that the branches would not be starved by party headquarters.

Reform 4: Effective national roles for gov't backbenchers, opposition lawmakers

Lawmakers often focus on constituency service and allocation at the expense of parliamentary work because most of them cannot effectively play national roles if they are not government backbenchers.

Law-making is effectively an executive’s function carried out by the Attorney-General’s Chambers when government bills are passed without amendments and private member’s bills never get debated.

To build policy-strong parties, both government backbenchers and opposition lawmakers must be allowed to play effective national roles with more parliamentary committees and special slots for private member’s bills.

The PN government’s plan to replace 10 domain-specific select committees with a single catch-all committee is a blatant attack on Parliament that should be opposed vigorously no less than the nonsensical one-day parliamentary seating.

Opposition’s national roles can also be more effective by the establishment of a shadow cabinet with privy access to key information. This would prevent the opposition from making unfulfillable election promises.

Reform 5: Introducing 'party list' for issues and demographic representation

The last but not the least reform is to diversify our Parliament by not having only constituency representatives, but also party-list representatives. With a party list, parties can nominate issues champions in their party list.

Demographic quotas on gender and marginalised groups should also be legally introduced to oblige the parties. This would ensure both more diverse legislatures and more substantive debates.

Wong Chin Huat is an electoral system expert at Jeffrey Sachs Centre on Sustainable Development, Sunway University. He also leads the clusters on electoral systems and constituency delimitation as part of the government’s Electoral Reform Committee (ERC).