Peaceful regime change: How to make it happen


The opposition must ensure that it wins a significant portion of the Malay and Bumiputera votes.

Ong Kian Ming, Free Malaysia Today

In an article appearing last Tuesday in The Straits Times, Singapore Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan was quick to interpret the current political struggle in Malaysia as one that pitted the Muslims against the non-Muslims and the Malays against the non-Malays, specifically the Chinese.

I was surprised by his choice to interpret the political events in Malaysia through this narrow lens, especially given his diplomatic experience, rather than to examine the political forces in Malaysia as part of a larger global trend where regimes that were once seen as impregnable were brought down through a peaceful electoral route. And it is this route which the opposition forces in Malaysia are committed to.

Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional coalition is currently the longest ruling government via popular elections in contemporary political history. But it is not the longest in history.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party ruled Mexico unchallenged from 1929 to 2000 with regular elections at the presidential, gubernatorial, legislative and municipality levels. It dominated state institutions, the legislature and every state governorship and its rule was seemingly unchallengeable. But in the 2000 presidential elections, its candidate, Francisco Labastida Ochoa, lost to PAN’s Vicente Fox Quesada, a former Coca-Cola executive and governor of Guanajuato, in a three-horse race.

In 2000, the uninterrupted rule of the Kuomintang Party in Taiwan was also ended with the victory of the Democratic Progressive Party’s Chen Shui Bian, also in a three-horse race.

More recently, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, which had dominated post-war politics in Japan for more than half a decade, lost the 2009 general elections to the Democratic Party of Japan.

Other less well known dominant party regimes that have lost power via the electoral route include the Socialist Party in Senegal (1960 to 2000) and the Colorado Party in Uruguay (1947 to 2008).

What did these regimes have in common? Many years of political dominance had led to ever increasing amounts of unchecked corruption. Inter elite splits within the ruling coalition had slowly weakened them over time. And the opposition had consolidated and/or strengthened over time in order to pool their forces to defeat the long ruling regime.

This is the context in which Malaysia is finding itself today. Given Malaysia’s electoral system, i.e. a parliamentary rather than a presidential system, the opposition cannot count on winning power via elite splits in a presidential race.

Furthermore, in a grossly malapportioned electoral system, the only way in which the opposition can win a majority of seats is by winning at least some of the semi-urban and rural seats on top of the urban seats it overwhelmingly won in the 2013 general elections. And given that these semi-urban and rural seats are predominantly Malay or Bumiputera (in Sabah and Sarawak), this would mean that the opposition would have to win a larger percentage of the Malay and Bumiputera vote.