Better politics because there is competition

What democracy has not done is deliver a good government or a good opposition. But democracy never promised us a perfect government or perfect opposition: it promises a better government and better opposition.

John Lee, The Malaysian Insider

There is much cause for complaint when it comes to Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat — self-centred, inefficient, and corrupt, both of them. Yet there is equal, if not greater cause for rejoicing: both coalitions are realising that Malaysians cherish their democracy, and that the key to political survival in any democracy is outperforming your rival. Before March 8, both sides believed there was no chance Barisan could lose — and no chance for another party to win. But now because both sides understand there is a real competition, with real rewards, both are finally stepping up their game, and trying to serve the rakyat.

In the real world, democratic politics rarely delivers the best solution. Most people can come up with at least one better policy than the typical government. But recall the insight of this oft-quoted aphorism: democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried. Government is by nature inefficient — but democracy is the least inefficient form of government, because democracy promotes competition.

The more competition a government has, and the more competition a political party has, the more incentive they have to do better. Prior to March 8, if you suggested that the PKR/PAS/DAP coalition presented a serious challenger to Barisan hegemony, most of us would have laughed you out of the room. Nobody believed there was a real contest for power until March 8.

At the state level, various state institutions immediately picked up on this shift in the power equilibrium. That’s why you began to see state Rulers meddling more in state governments, and also why the Pakatan state governments have been significantly more proactive than their federal counterparts — it’s because the Pakatan state leadership understand that they face a real and present threat from Barisan, as we saw in Perak. Political competition has directly led to better outcomes in the states.

At the federal level, both sides were still complacent. Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim overplayed his hand in trying to coax out crossovers, and it showed terribly. Besides Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the other Pakatan parties were content with behaving the way they had in the opposition before. After all, Barisan sat on its thumbs for a year and let every outstanding criticism of its policies remain unaddressed — so why would Pakatan have an incentive to compete, when there was no competition?

But now we have a serious competition at the federal level as well. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak is at least enough foresight to understand that the outcome of the next general election hinges on whether he can outperform Pakatan at its own message and its own game: he is taking serious action, at least compared to the stagnation of the past 14 months. And because Pakatan now has some stiff competition, it can’t afford to twiddle its thumbs either: Pakatan parties are starting to work together even more closely, like a real coalition, and Anwar has announced a Shadow Cabinet of sorts. Democratic competition has delivered both a better government and a better opposition.

What democracy has not done is deliver a good government or a good opposition. Flaws abound in both Barisan and Pakatan ranks. You only need scan the headlines to realise this. But democracy never promised us a perfect government or perfect opposition: it promises a better government and better opposition.

There’s a common joke about two hikers in a forest. They encounter a bear intent on devouring them. One stands frozen; the other starts undoing his bootlaces and putting on a pair of running shoes. “Why bother? We can’t outrun him anyway,” says the first hiker. “I don’t have to outrun the bear,” the other responds. “I just have to outrun you.”

And so it is with competition. Barisan doesn’t have to accomplish all its goals in order to win, and neither does Pakatan. To win, one just has to be better than the other. That is the relevant metric here.

A lot of complainers have an axe to grind about some of Pakatan’s mistakes, and some of Barisan’s missteps. But when you go to the voting booth, in almost all cases, your only choice is between Pakatan and Barisan — and faced with this constraint, you might as well at least vote for the better party. Yes, Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim had the cow scandal in Selangor — but compare that scandal with the scandals of the previous Selangor administration. Given the choice between Khalid’s cows and Datuk Dr Khir Toyo’s myriad piles of dirty laundry, who would you pick?

The beauty of democracy is that while it may not deliver the best politics, it delivers better politics than any authoritarian government ever could. Would any of us, Barisan or Pakatan supporters, want to go back to March 7 and undo all the progress we have made since then? With real competition and real democracy, both Barisan and Pakatan have stepped up their efforts to prove their leadership — and that democratic success is something we should all celebrate as Malaysians.

John Lee is a second-year student of economics at Dartmouth College in the United States. He has been thinking aloud since 2005 at