Will Malaysia’s new democracy survive? There are good reasons to think so. To be sure, Samuel Huntington would have regarded the country’s transition as a bottom-up mode of “replacement”, which in unleashing high expectations can threaten a new democracy’s health.
But in Malaysia, citizens avoided taking it to the streets. They instead declared their preferences at the polling station. Such peaceful transition to democracy is a good sign. The security forces calmly stood by as electoral turnover unfolded. Their loyalties shifted smoothly afterwards from the fallen Umno (United Malays National Organisation) and its once fearsome warlords to the new Pakatan Harapan government. The police and anti-corruption agents swooped quickly on their erstwhile master, Najib Razak, even exhibiting the fashion accessories seized from his family.
Finally, stunned Umno politicians accepted their defeat. After shedding their tainted leader they entered opposition, there to recover, prepare for elections, and one day, perhaps, regain office. On this score, Taiwan’s KMT might give comfort to Umno. In addition, for such parties to return to power, then again to opposition, signifies the passage of what Huntington once termed the “two-turnover test”, intimating the agreement between adversarial parties on democracy’s worth.
WATCH: Anwar's take on Mahathir and Malaysian politics
Umno retains enough assets and prospects that it might emulate the KMT, giving it a stake in the order. Umno still has a compelling campaign story: it is the party of national independence, rapid industrialisation, and Malay upward mobility, all the while safeguarding social peace.
So what could go wrong? Although Malaysia’s bottom-up dynamic was peaceful, it may still spur the Pakatan government to pursue institutional and policy reforms too far, too fast. In their classic writings on democratisation, Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter warned of the “inviolable” interests of the military and the bourgeoisie. Hence they argued that parties aligned with these interests must, in founding elections at least, “be helped to do well”, enabling them to moderate the reforms that follow. But in Malaysia, a triumphant Pakatan government deposes top civil servants, exposes debt levels, cancels state contracts, threatens jail terms over corruption, ponders the privatisation of state enterprises and turns away from China. Pakatan thus risks stepping on the toes of entrenched elites able still to “make trouble”, inviting what O’Donnell described as “authoritarian backlash”. At the same time, Pakatan may disappoint its new supporters. It has promised economic renewal, redressing Malaysia’s acute double bind of low wages and high living costs. But after abolishing the Goods and Service Tax and scaling back road tolls, it must now impose cutbacks and austerity. The popular frustrations that ensue could harden into the widespread disillusion with democracy that O’Donnell and Schmitter see as nearly inevitable.
WATCH: What Mahathir’s election victory means for Malaysia
Finally, rather than acquiring any more tolerant or reformist mien, Umno may discover a much frothier campaign strategy in piercing nativism. In the election, among the 70 per cent of the population made up of Malay-Muslims, 70 per cent voted for Umno and the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS). Pakatan won but a plurality of 47 per cent. Thus, Umno and PAS, in together gaining a majority, evoke the continuing resonance of exclusionary ethno-religious appeals. And any vile rightist populism, disseminated by Umno in deeper collusion with PAS, might bring resentment to the boil. But why in today’s world of populist revival and democratic recession should this surprise us? For now, it is more joyful to hail Malaysia’s new democracy. And long-time observers, still blinking in astonishment, dare to hope for more changes still, including better governance, a vibrant and loyal opposition, more amicable interethnic relations, and of course, now that it has arrived, democracy’s survival. ■
William Case is professor and head of school of politics, history and international relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia