By Dan Slater
After Elections, the Losers Don’t Always Lose
After enlightenment, says the Zen proverb, the laundry. It’s a wise statement about how to approach democracy as much as life itself. Even when elections deliver breakthrough democratic results, they’re typically followed by a messy but necessary business of forming coalitions and cabinets. The difference is that laundry makes what felt dirty feel cleaner. Scenes of our electoral favorites sharing power with their erstwhile rivals make what felt clean feel dirtier.
This is how progressive voters in Malaysia feel right now. Their experience is similar to what their Indonesian counterparts next door have gone through over and over for more than two decades. Indonesian protesters toppled the dictator Suharto in 1998, but they couldn’t get rid of his old authoritarian ruling party, Golkar. The 1999 elections delivered Golkar a huge rebuke, but the party still wheedled its way into becoming the largest party in the cabinet.
Ever since, Indonesia’s quinquennial democratic elections have led to the construction of oversized, rainbow coalitions in which many or even most of the losers of elections simply don’t lose office. Perhaps the most shocking example came in 2019, when President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) offered the defense ministry to the man Indonesian voters had just twice rejected at the ballot box, a man with especially rotten roots in the old Suharto regime, Prabowo Subianto.
Malaysia is now at a similar juncture to Indonesia at the turn of the century. The 2018 elections saw the ruling UMNO party and its BN coalition defeated for the first time in Malaysian history. UMNO splintered over the leadership of its obscenely corrupt prime minister, Najib Razak. Former strongman ruler Mahathir Mohamad formed a new splinter party that helped Harapan, the opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim, prevail in the vote.
In an epically tragic miscalculation for Malaysia’s democratic prospects, the winning electoral coalition made Mahathir rather than Anwar prime minister. Less than two years later, the feckless and fragmented anti-UMNO government crumbled. Freshly shorn of Najib, UMNO rejoined forces with its biggest splinter party, Bersatu, to forge a new ruling coalition with PAS, Malaysia’s Islamist party, under a new PN label.
The 2022 elections put this new Islamist, Malay hypernationalist PN coalition to the test. Results were mixed. But since Anwar’s Harapan won a narrow plurality of the seats as a coalition – even as PAS won the most seats as an individual party – it was given the opportunity to craft a majority and form the government. That meant either allying with the old UMNO, or with the new PN alliance of ex-UMNO leaders and PAS Islamists.
A Grimy if Necessary Business
It wasn’t really much of a choice. Harapan and the UMNO-led BN coalition cobbled together enough seats in combination with small parties from the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak to build a solid majority coalition. They ushered the hardline PN coalition into opposition. There, it can do far less harm to Malaysia’s fragile, fraught constitutional pluralism than if it remained in power.
But the dirt is on full display. Anwar became prime minister this time around, but he has named Zahid Hamidi, UMNO’s embattled leader, as both his deputy prime minister and his rural development minister. The problem is that Zahid, like Najib before him, is covered in dirt. He has recently escaped one corruption conviction and is staring down the possibility of many more corruption charges, if his lofty positions in government don’t short-circuit the legal processes against him. It’s not as high a price as letting Mahathir become prime minister in 2018, but it’s uncomfortably close. And if time reveals that Zahid put Anwar on the throne in exchange for Anwar keeping Zahid out of prison, the price for Malaysian democratic development might wind up being even higher.
How Democracy (Actually) Works
There are obvious upsides to post-election powersharing in a multiparty system. Governments are formed with a majority of seats, not just a plurality. This means more voters get to see their will reflected in the composition of parliament. Moreover, the government is harder to topple and destabilize through party defections and votes of no confidence. Furthermore, when old ruling parties get to keep sharing executive power as “authoritarian successor parties,” they enjoy the “victory confidence” and “stability confidence” necessary for them to accept democratization at all.
There are clear upsides to this particular powersharing deal in Malaysia as well. These benefits begin with a non-UMNO politician becoming Malaysia’s prime minister for the first time, in the person of longtime opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Secondly, the new ruling coalition reflects Malaysia’s ethnic diversity rather than the Malay and Islamic chauvinism of the parties now in opposition. Tellingly, elections did not deliver a decisive victory for pluralism – but powersharing has.
Has Democracy (and Pluralism) Won?
In fact, Malaysia’s 2022 elections look more polarizing and less pro-pluralistic when we go inside the coalitions, and examine the support of individual parties. The two most popular parties in the country are now the Islamist PAS and the ethnic-Chinese-dominated, social-democratic DAP. They effectively bookend Malaysia’s ethnicized party system. The UMNO-led BN always ruled in large measure by whipping up scare tactics against both parties, and building coalitions that were Malay-dominated but included ethnic minorities. It is a tectonic shift for PAS and DAP to be Malaysia’s largest parties in parliament. This electoral drift toward the ethnic extremes does not augur well for ethnic harmony.
From this perspective, Malaysian powersharing has in an important sense just defied the voters’ will; but it has done so in defense of ethnic and religious pluralism. Anwar Ibrahim’s party, PKR, and Zahid Hamidi’s party, UMNO, both lost considerable ground to DAP and PAS in the 2022 elections. Yet it is Anwar and Zahid who now run Malaysia. The losers have not lost. But pluralism should be better protected, and the democratic reforms Anwar’s Harapan coalition have pushed for decades may finally come to fruition. If so, Malaysian democracy will have won.
About the Author
Dan Slater is the John Orin Murfin Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Ronald and Eileen Weiser Professor for Emerging Democracies in the International Institute at the University of Michigan. His most recent book (cowritten with Joseph Wong) is From Development to Democracy: The Transformations of Modern Asia.
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