The force is strong?

We should not lose sight of the fact that our parliamentary elections send “individuals” to the Dewan Rakyat. That the person who enjoys the confidence of a majority of its members becomes prime minister is a secondary detail. 

Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz, Sun Daily 

I HAVE been asked my opinion on the “Third Force”, even though those to whom the term is applied deny that that is what they are. Competition is usually a good thing: the more choices the end user – in this case, the voter – has, the better.

However, in this case, the availability of choices is problematic to some, since while one might prefer Option A to Option B, the existence of an Option C might reduce the votes for Option A, and thus Option B gets in. This is the argument that some Pakatan Rakyat supporters were citing in opposition to the idea of the Malaysian Civil Liberties Movement (MCLM) putting up candidates (although this in itself assumed that three-cornered fights would only have damaged Pakatan Rakyat, which may not be true in every case). Perhaps that objection is now moot, because the MCLM may not want three-cornered fights as a point of policy anyway.

Nonetheless that objection to three-way fights on the basis of “it will help Barisan Nasional” exposed a great deal of sycophancy that seems to afflict the opposition coalition just as badly as the governing coalition. This attitude will do nothing to improve the quality of the chamber. This kind of blind loyalty to the party’s candidate – in practice, the leader’s candidate, given the undemocratic nature of candidate selection – is exactly what leads to a lobotomised Dewan Rakyat in which loyalty is to leaders instead of to principles or constituents. That’s why it’s heartening to note that the MCLM is pressing hard to have candidates revealed early: it isn’t as good as full democratic selection of candidates, but at least it’s more transparent than announcing the candidates on the eve of election (a practice so prevalent that some commentators now advocate proportional representation for our lower house, which could lead to even less democratic practices).

We should not lose sight of the fact that our parliamentary elections send “individuals” to the Dewan Rakyat. That the person who enjoys the confidence of a majority of its members becomes prime minister is a secondary detail. Many people will disagree, but I believe that upgrading the quality and independence of Parliament is even more important than sending “better” people to Putrajaya: a high quality Parliament will be able to contain and expose an arrogant or incompetent executive, and furthermore would have cascading effects in terms of increasing accountability and transparency in other institutions, aside from being more faithful to our founding fathers’ vision of what Parliament should be.

Detractors may say that the executive branch already has in practice supremely more power than the legislative, and so we must therefore change the executive first if we want to empower the legislature. But there is not much point if you are replacing one set of authoritarians with another set of authoritarians. It is too risky simply to trust that the new people will relinquish power from themselves – every Malaysian knows how power can corrupt – therefore, it’s better to have a Parliament that will stand up to the executive, and one way to do that is to fill it with MPs who are less at mercy to top-down power structures.

The blogosphere is rife with comments like “both are devils, but one is less evil than the other”. This sad situation has arisen because voters have little power over who the candidates will be. Herein lies the greatest strength of the “Third Force” – these individuals explicitly do not want to form a government, and the term “reluctant politicians” has been coined to describe them – so the campaign forces the parties to think about the individuals they put up. In some cases, the prospect of a “Third Force” candidate contesting may be so unappealing to a political party that they might change their own candidate.

Still, defection must remain an option – particularly when it is party leaders themselves who break their own manifesto commitments. Sycophants who think that their party leaders can do no wrong want to ban party hopping altogether, but the MCLM’s method (in theory at least) is superior: to put forward people who believe in things other than power itself.

However, if they become too strongly affiliated with Pakatan Rakyat, then they risk becoming no more than a faction within it: an internal wing lobbying for its candidates to be chosen. But if they really believe in principles, then they must be courageous enough to fight any and all candidates who don’t chime with them.

Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is president of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.