Boycotting Elections is A Road to Failure
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The decision of the opposition parties to boycott the upcoming Batu Talam by-election has naturally led to a substantial amount of criticism in the press and blogosphere. The response seems to be mainly split along three lines. One praises the opposition for boycotting what is clearly a very manipulated and unfair process. One criticises the opposition for cowardice - the line taken by most government supporters. The last is critical of the opposition for a different reason - for denying the voters of Batu Talam a choice. Even if that choice isn't really a fair one, the argument goes, it is a choice nevertheless, and since the opposition still has a chance of winning in this system, it is unfair to the electorate to keep them from voting.
It is the latter position which I adhere to, and I believe it is a defensible one for a number of reasons. The first is the sheer infeasibility and ineffectiveness of a sustained boycott. What would boycotting the by-election accomplish? Do we really believe that the government will say "Oh dear, you're right - this is a process unfairly fixed in our favour! Let's make things fair so we can give the rakyat a real and fair choice in the next election"? If you believe that, I'd like to know what you're smoking, because I want some of it - and I have a nice crooked bridge to Singapore to sell you as well.
After all, this is a government which has no qualms about campaigning for "kosong pembangkang" - zero opposition - in Parliament and the state assemblies. This is a government which has no qualms about cheating the rakyat out of their tax monies. This is a government which has no qualms about playing dirty to get what it wants. Do we honestly expect that a boycott will appeal to their non-existent conscience and make them feel a pang of pain at being undemocratic and unjust?
One line taken by supporters of the boycott is that if the boycott is sustained into the next general election, it will attract the attention of foreign observers, and that the subsequent backlash will cause the government to eat humble pie and even out the unfair breaks given by the system to the government. If you're one of these people, I'd like what you're smoking as well. Maybe I'll sell you a bridge to Penang, too!
Really, since when has international pressure been an effective tool for altering policy in an authoritarian developing country? Just look at every single international pariah out there - Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Myanmar, you name it - what has international criticism done for the suffering people in these countries? Nothing. Let's look at countries with situations comparable to ours. Venezuela has been targeted for the ludicrous actions of its President, Hugo Chavez, who seems intent on constructing a personality cult around himself and provoking the international community whenever possible with statements such as equating George Bush with the devil. Has this led the Venezuelan voters or government to reject Chavez and his extremist policies, which seem mainly predicated on continuing high crude oil prices in order to maintain Venezuelan economic growth? Chavez only got another resounding mandate in the recent election.
Or how about Singapore, whose patently unfair election practices (as far as I'm concerned, they're much worse than those here - often more than half the electorate can't even vote because of walkovers) have created an international uproar? They're still holding up. Even South Africa, which some extremists like to equate with Malaysia because of its apartheid policies, buckled only after about a half century of international pressure. Are we going to boycott the next ten general elections? Do we even have another 50 years to waste while our government runs Malaysia into the ground? As far back as 1990, the Commonwealth criticised our election system for its obvious bias against the opposition. The government's response has been to make things even more unfair, such as by preventing opposition parties from even presenting their manifesto on state media such as RTM. If you really believe international criticism will somehow make Malaysian elections fair, you might as well expect pink fairy unicorns to drop out of the sky and save us from Barisan Nasional.
In any case, is a sustained boycott of the general elections even practical? Elementary game theory assures us that it is not. For the same reason that any cartel such as OPEC is eventually doomed to failure, a cartel to boycott elections will eventually collapse. The DAP will not give up its strongholds - seats it is sure to win - and neither will PAS. Only PKR stands to lose nothing as things currently stand, since it has no safe seats (except possibly Permatang Pauh - which also happens to be its only seat). The boycott might last one general election, possibly even two - but not much longer, barring unusual circumstances. Personally, I don't think the boycott will even carry over to the nearest general election. There is no way that the opposition is going to give up its traditional strongholds - islands of assured votes in a sea of bought and/or dead Barisan Nasional voters. And if this boycott is not going to last even that long, what is the point of boycotting one by-election? None.
Let's not forget, either, that elections are the lifeblood of political parties. The raison d'etre of any political party is to strive for power to carry out its agenda. In peaceful and democratic countries, political parties struggle for power through the ballot box. Cut off this avenue of access to power, and the only remaining avenue is armed struggle. If the Malayan Communist Party had stopped its armed insurgency, it would have had no point in existing any longer. If the African National Congress had stopped its extremist wing from carrying out violent attacks on South African whites, it would have had no point in existing any longer. Asking a political party to stop struggling for power is asking it to stop existing. I don't believe anyone advocating the boycott is advocating an armed insurgency against the government - so then they must be advocating the death of the opposition. Simply carrying out protests and making symbolic boycotts does not advance the opposition's agenda. Unless they can back up these protests with action in Parliament (even if that action is, for all intents and purposes, meaningless), they are up a creek without a paddle.
Don't get me wrong - I believe the government is very blatant in screwing the voters over by denying them a fair choice, and by cutting off means for the opposition to campaign and express criticism of the government. I don't think this is something that should be ignored, nor do I think that this is something to be tolerated. I just don't believe that a boycott of elections is the right way to confront this issue.
Actually, if you think about it, there is no perfect way to address the problem of unfair elections if you have a government without a conscience and without a care for democracy. The only way to end the unfair system would be to become the government. This could only be accomplished either through the ballot box or through the barrel of the gun. Since we must rule the latter out, we are left with the undesirable former choice of contesting elections and hoping for the best.
Personally, I am actually quite hopeful and optimistic about the prospect of opposition gains against the government. The way I see it is that even if the delineation of constituencies were perfectly fair at present, the opposition could not form the government (although the government would have never had that two-thirds majority it has so effectively used to rewrite the Constitution at will). The reason that I only consider the delineation of constituencies is that it is a variable whose effect can easily be ascertained. (It is much more difficult to say if the government would still be in power if we had a free press or freedom of speech - although my instincts suggest that the government would have been thrown out long ago in such a case.)
At any rate, what this means is that even if elections were free, the opposition would not have that much to gain because the voters do not support them. In other words, what I'm saying is that focus on the voters, then only on the system. If you can't even claim the support of the public, why are you complaining that you cannot win their votes under the system? Only a system biased in favour of the opposition would allow them to form the government - a fair election would still keep them in the minority.
The reason I am optimistic is that I think there is still a chance that the electorate can wake up and reject the government - and that there is still a chance the opposition can get its act together, stop clowning around, and behave more responsibly. I also believe that once this happens - once the opposition stops opposing for the sake of opposing, but also proposes alternative policies of its own and runs a slate of candidates palatable to the electorate - the proportion of votes won by the opposition will decisively sway from about 40% to 50% or more. The opposition will not necessarily have the majority it needs to form the government, but the government will have been dealt a decisive blow (it would be reasonable to expect that the opposition would hold more than a third of the seats in Parliament), and it will probably be the beginning of the end for the corrupt incompetent gang of crooks running this country.
You might think that this isn't very satisfying - to win the popular vote, but yet remain out of power. The thing is, once the opposition has won the popular vote but not gained the majority necessary to form the government, the failure of the present electoral system will be transparent to all. The issues of gerrymandering, which are often too complicated for the average voter to bother understanding, will be starkly illustrated in the open. And, more importantly, the opposition will now have a solid ground for complaining about unfree elections - because the unfree elections have clearly cheated the opposition. (At present, the opposition is consistently cheated out of what is rightfully its, but the situation is not as stark and clear because it looks to the typical voter like mere politicking. Even if there were no gerrymandering, they think, the opposition would still not be in power, so what's the problem?)
I know that this does not sound like a satisfactory solution. It is not. But if we wait for the perfect answer to our woes to come along, we'll be waiting forever. The opposition must focus its efforts and make itself electable. If it still cannot get elected, then that is the time to raise the hue and cry. Otherwise, if you would not be elected even under a free system, why complain? Your complaints have standing, but in the public eye, they will be ignored. Whining about the issue of unfree elections obscures a more deeper problem with the opposition - its sheer inability to win elections by running candidates acceptable to the electorate and presenting a visonary manifesto with clear policies for development.
A comment thread has been opened for this subject at the forums.