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Compromise politics and the battle for the middle ground

By Farish A. Noor

And so, after what appears to have been a rather long meeting that stretched beyond four hours, the Pakatan Rakyat coalition has come to a compromise, of sorts.

That the result of the compromise may not be to the satisfaction of everyone is to be expected. But nor should anyone expect such a discussion to lead to definite results with one side surrendering all its claims to another. That’s the nature of coalition politics and anyone with any experience or knowledge of coalition politics in Western European countries like France, Germany, Holland, Greece or Italy would know that as well. Furthermore it ought to be noted that in some countries like Italy where compromise politics has been the norm for decades, there has been no negative result as far as the economic performance of the country is concerned: Italy remains a G20 player despite the fact that since World War Two there has hardly been any instances when one party came into power with total control over the Parliament. So why worry?

Malaysia, it has to be said, despite its small size and geographical location, is an extremely difficult country to govern: Representative politics of any kind will have to take into account its complicated and sometimes confusing demography and ethnic-religious landscape; and anyone who wishes to occupy the seat of prime minister will have to balance all these centrifugal demands that threaten to rip the national social fabric asunder. Adding to the difficulty is the problem that Malaysian politics remains divided along cleavages of ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious and class divisions, and the rise of communitarian parties that represent their specific constituencies also means that coalition politics becomes a contestation of different, sometimes divergent, communitarian interests as well.

Which brings us back to the contentious hudud debate that has been resurrected of late, and why this issue won’t go away. Some say that it was unreasonable for PAS to demand the enactment of hudud punishments, though others might also state that it would be unreasonable to expect PAS to give it up. After all, socialist parties are not asked to give up socialism any more than conservative parties asked to give up conservatism. But what if a socialist party was forced to form a coalition with a conservative one? How and where would the compromise come about?

It seems that for now the Pakatan will stick to the line that PAS has the right to speak, discuss, propose and even formulate and demand hudud. I concur with this, on the basis that all parties have the right to discuss the basic tenets and demands of their ideology. But PAS also has to accept the fact that this right to demand is also accompanied by the right to disagree and reject, and on that grounds other parties also have the right to reject their demands as well. That too is part of compromise coalition politics, and all the parties of the Pakatan better wise up to that.

So, in the lead-up to the coming general election, we are left with little to do but to speculate on the possible outcomes. All this speculation is, of course, hypothetical and thus cannot be verified/falsified at this stage. But as Malaysia's political parties have demonstrated some degree of normativity and predictability in their behaviour, we can make tentative predictions as to what might happen in some instances:

Scenario 1: BN wins big, on the scale of 2004.

In the event that PM Najib's public relations exercises bear fruit, there is the slim possibility of a rebound. What then? Well again it all depends on the composition of a BN-majority government and how the seats in Parliament and the state assemblies are distributed. We recall that in 2004 when former PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi won a huge mandate — in fact, the biggest in Malaysian history — the government was dominated by one party, Umno. Interestingly, it was at this time that Umno's clear majority and dominance gave Abdullah the opportunity to reform his party and the country by extension. But instead the Malaysian public was witness to a series of actions — keris-waving and all that — that effectively robbed the BN of its credibility in the eyes of the wider Malaysian public.

But in the event that there is a more even spread of seats (however unlikely) between the BN parties this time, then the PM will have to balance the demands of Umno, the MCA, Gerakan, et al at a time when Malaysia's economic pie is shrinking and communitarian-economic demands are rising. Needless to say, it won’t be an easy task.

Scenario 2: Pakatan wins big, on the scale of 2008 or bigger.

Should the reforms of PM Najib be stalled (for whatever reasons, including sabotage by his own supporters and resistance from his own coalition) then we are faced with the possibility of a PR government: Something unprecedented in Malaysian history. Now let us clear some misconceptions first: Some have said that a PR government will be an unstable one because it would be a coalition government; but frankly this critique does not hold water as the BN has always been a coalition too, like the Alliance (Perikatan) from the 1950s to the early 1970s. Being a coalition is not a problem for the PR; but rather balancing the demands of the different parties which they have to do.

In such a scenario a second question emerges: What if a PR government is dominated by PAS? Or DAP? Or PKR? It is perfectly fine (and correct) for Pakatan's leaders to say now that hudud will not be implemented without the consent of Pakatan as a whole. But what if PAS dominates a Pakatan federal government, and has a majority in the same way that Umno did in 2004? And what if it is the DAP that dominates the government with the same sort of majority instead? The outcome of such a result may throw out of balance the coalition that has been built thus far, which brings us back to the starting block.

Like it or not, BOTH the BN and PR are coalitions and in the event that one side assumes power (one side has to assume power, naturally) BOTH coalitions will have to find ways to seek and secure a working consensus that will alienate as few Malaysian voters as possible. Yes, it is frustrating for ordinary Malaysians to see their fate and the fate of the nation being tossed in the air by politicians who discuss in closed rooms behind closed doors. Yes, it is worrying that most of us don’t even know what sort of horse-trading is taking place, and what the deals and compromises are. Yes, it is worrying that in the end compromises may be made that will affect our lives and futures in a permanent way; and to know that the sentiments of the lonely individual do not count in the calculations of our political representatives and leaders. But that is the nature of politics and is, in fact, how politics has been conducted in Malaysia since 1957/63.

I, for one, have no doubt whatsoever that nobody in the corridors of power gives a toss about me, my life, my aspirations or even my single vote. We are statistics, and not important unless aggregated in large numbers. My only hope is that as the politicians in this country debate, bicker, bargain and bitch against each other, at some point cool reason, common sense and pragmatism might eventually prevail — and that the politicians of both coalitions and all parties will take into account the national interest for once.

* Dr Farish A. Noor is a Senior Fellow at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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