June 14 – I recently listened to a podcast on The Ezra Klein Show featuring United States Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who talked about the various plans she wants to implement if she wins office, such as a wealth tax, universal child care, and forgiving student loan debts.
In the US, people who want to run for president from either the Democratic or Republican Party must go through primaries, where the respective party votes for their presidential nominee. The two presidential nominees from both parties, plus any other candidates running as independents, then contest in a general election where Americans vote for their president.
The same process goes for elections to the House or Senate – party supporters first vote for their preferred candidate in the primaries, then the chosen Republican and Democratic candidates (or candidates from third parties) face off in general elections. Sometimes, primaries are more competitive than general elections.
Americans also generally identify themselves as either Democrat, Republican, independent, or from other minor parties – they don’t have to be card-carrying members.
So, technically, anyone in American can run for anything. Just get enough support from the people and off you go. Of course, money politics is big in the US too, but that’s a separate matter.
This is unlike Malaysia, where aspiring candidates need a “watikah” from their party president before they run for state assemblyman or Member of Parliament. Only two types of public office are open to elections, and that also only once every five years. Local elections still seem to be a faraway dream that will not likely be realised in Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) first term.
The requirement for the party president to approve one’s run for office concentrates political power in the leader of the party. Even if local branches may recommend their own candidates for election, decision-making power is still vested in the national leadership.
This explains why we rarely see contests for top positions in party elections across the divide, such as Warisan and PAS. Nobody wants to anger their leader or rock the boat. So-called “party unity” is prioritised above publicly running for presidency just because you think you might do a better job.
Umno only had an open race for the presidency in 2018, 31 years after the last contest in 1987. That only happened because Barisan Nasional lost the 14th general election; otherwise, it would likely have been business as usual.
A contest for the deputy president’s post in PKR last year was considered major, even if no one challenged Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim for party president.
If political power is concentrated in the hands of party leaders, it naturally follows that the prime minister possesses the most power.
Unfortunately, in the case of Malaysia, we have a prime minister who doesn’t really bother consulting people because he always thinks he's right.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad did not advertise a vacancy in the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) chief commissioner’s post after Datuk Seri Mohd Shukri Abdull resigned, unlike in the United Kingdom where applicants for public appointments submit their CV and go through interviews. UK ministers only appoint a candidate without a competition in exceptional cases, which they must justify publicly.
In the US, William Barr endured public questioning for over seven hours by the Senate Judiciary Committee on various issues in his confirmation hearing, before the Senate voted for his confirmation as Attorney-General, largely along party lines though a few Democrat and Republican senators broke with their party.
Here, Dr Mahathir simply announced Shukri’s resignation and Latheefa Koya’s appointment in the same breath.
The extensive powers of the Malaysian prime minister – who decides on his own who his successor should be, without caring much about democratic processes – makes it difficult for people to strive for the highest public office on their own merit because the PM’s office is seen as something that is “gifted” to the next person.
It almost doesn’t matter what policies or ideology the PM-elect holds.
Malaysian lawmakers across parties generally do not have their own positions on various issues, except to champion the ethnic group their party represents and to say vaguely that they uphold the people’s “welfare”. Compare this to any American lawmaker who spells out their policy positions openly on their websites, like Republican senator Ted Cruz or Democrat congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Because public office is seen as a “favour” bestowed by the PM, it’s not surprising then that there are no open bids for the country’s highest office. When there are no open contests, more insidious battles take place behind closed doors.
Sex scandals and gutter politics come to the fore, instead of people competing openly based on their ideology, policies, or character.
Open contests for top positions in a political party – and by extension, public office – should not be considered disruptive. A party should be able to withstand such competitions without falling apart, unless it is held together only by personalities without any real ideology of its own.
PKR deputy president Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali’s sex scandal – a regurgitation of the homosexual-type character assassination that happened every decade in recent history, following the sodomy allegations against Anwar in 1998 and 2008 – is the consequence of an opaque political culture that worships personality over democracy.
If we don’t want to see the repeat of gutter politics, then we must demand greater transparency and more decentralised decision-making, whether in government or within political parties.
We must promote a culture where Malaysians are free to openly run for top positions and push their unique personal platforms, instead of expecting them to curry favour in the background and wait for their “turn”.
Process should never be sacrificed for expediency. It is irrelevant if the PM made a good decision on his own.
The governance of Malaysia is not a sole proprietorship or a family-owned business. It is a democracy, which means that as many people as possible should have a say in how the country is run.
Dr Mahathir did not understand that in the ‘80s and he does not understand that now in 2019.
Unfortunately, Malaysians also don’t seem to embrace democracy all that much, as they prefer a strongman leader to unilaterally make the “right” decisions without bothering them about it.
As long as Malaysia worships YBs and sees political office as a “gift” that can only be given to certain people, then our politics will continue to go down the drain.