Trust, the bigger challenge for GE15 victors

Malaysia should not wait to become a full-fledged democracy to implement new forms of democratic participation, as such innovations would support the democratisation process.

Sophie Lemière, Malaysia Now

Elections are the crystallisation of political history: a moment in which one may see what the system is made of. They are like a snapshot of the country’s political dynamics at a certain point in history.

The election cycle includes the pre-election, election, and post-election period. Along this cycle, academics look at many elements including the debates, manifesto, nominations, media coverage and polling process to measure the quality of the election, and to weigh the degree of democratisation in the country.

The GE15 campaign having started, speculation is now going strong about possible outcomes: will Malaysia’s democratisation progress or reverse?

Many threats have emerged in liberal democracies, including institutional rupture, the manipulation of digital platforms and the absence of common narratives. These threats are the expression of a hostility towards democratic values and the main symptom of a global erosion of trust in political power.

All types of regimes are challenged by this phenomenon. While Malaysia is not yet a liberal democracy, it can indeed suffer from the same dysfunctions that challenge mature democracies. This means Malaysia is at a complex moment of its political history, somewhere on the long road toward democracy, and already challenged by the lack of participation or faith, or both, of citizens in the democratic process.

It was this erosion of trust in the political representatives at the time that led to the historical political change in 2018 when Barisan Nasional (BN) lost its political monopoly of six decades to Pakatan Harapan (PH).

This change was perceived as a major step towards greater freedom, even if this new democratic ideal – branded by PH as the New Malaysia – was being brought to Malaysians by the controversial figure of one-time-autocrat-turned-democrat, Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

However, the incessant political manoeuvres of PH and its successors became reasons for the further deepening of Malaysians’ disenchantment with democracy.

In a country where the same coalition had ruled for over 60 years, three governments in four years does not sound like democracy but political chaos. Chaos has, for 60 years, been the “fear factor” used by BN to remain in power by claiming that a power change would bring about instability.

BN was right as, in any system, the end of a monopoly opens up the possibility of political shifts, and greater political freedom means an expansion of the political offer and the fragmentation of historical blocs. However, if political change is expected and a sign of a healthy political system, politicking is not as it may reverse electoral choices.