Two recent events raised my concern about the direction of our country’s new politics, even if I was not bewildered by the episodes themselves. In Malaysian politics, just like at any asylum overrun by its inmates, anything is possible.
It was inevitable to involve my party, though the lessons are broader and relevant to all politicians.
First, a former disgraced state boss and federal minister entangled prior in a royal nuptial uproar, finding thereafter solace in not one but two opposition parties, finally flees back to Umno.
The final chapter on Muhammad Muhammad Taib — Mat Taib for short, or if you prefer, the cheekier Mike Tyson — may yet be written, as he might verily return as Selangor’s Umno mentri besar when state polls are completed, presumably in 2018.
A short while before that, also over my home state Selangor, PKR Vice-President Rafizi Ramli sets out to forfeit Deputy President and Selangor Mentri Besar Azmin Ali’s stratagem to speak to Islamists PAS till the dawn of the state’s Nomination Day by demanding a special congress to measure members’ support regarding the matter.
I never cared for Mike Tyson, and PAS-flirting is indeed PKR’s unfailing addiction, but arising from these missteps are observations about the pain of being a party member.
Pain because, party leadership accepted and paraded Mat Taib as a weapon despite being damaged goods, and in the aftermath of the miscalculation expect party members to explain to wagging tongues despite not having a say about receiving him in the first place.
I’m not saying similar to the mob — mobsters, as in organised crime — method, where the sponsor has to pay the ultimate prize when his man turns traitor, but should there be no accountability?
Mat Taib was vouched for, which is why he was on PKR posters across the country, shouldn’t someone inside be admonished for reading the situation pretty badly?
Because it seems, members are relegated to the status of serfs who must accept what is decided for them and defend those decisions in a complete fait accompli.
Which beckons us to the second development, where Rafizi asks for an unprecedented step to allow members to weigh Azmin’s approach to PAS.
It would be admirable if it was not just a novelty. For it has to be the first time he turns to the masses to shape policy. Always in line with the party’s culture of anointments and arbitrary appointments rather than elections, and never asked PKR Kajang’s leadership and members if they wanted to have an artificially constructed by-election in 2014, it is earth-shattering that he now feels non-double degree holders should decide anything important.
Both events, to me, ask a deeper underlying question which has far-more reaching effect than Mat Taib’s electoral relevance and vagueness of Selangor’s opposition electoral pact. It asks, are party members at the centre of our political parties?
Though only PKR is on the examination table here, it is no mistake placing the spotlight on it for obvious reasons.
It claims to be the party of new politics and therefore seemingly the only national party with aspirations to empower the man on the street. If they fail, or have already irrevocably failed, then it emboldens the nasty view in the foreseeable future that only elitism and opportunism have value in our political space.
Why must members be at the centre of political parties?
Political parties are representation of the values-beliefs of a section of the country, and through their participation in the electoral process seek to forward their ideas to run the country.
The party’s size correlates to the party’s value or relevance to the country. If a substantial number of the citizenry support the party, then there is a basis for the rest of the country to consider the party to assume leadership.
Party membership is not a requirement for voters, but for a political process to claim legitimacy as a whole it needs to have political involvement from a substantial number of its citizens, which is through political parties.
The persistent disenchantment regarding political parties in developed countries evidenced by lower membership and general participation has reduced not any political party’s relevance in particular, but the whole political process.
There is resuscitation underway in the form of third forces or rebel factions seeking greater participation from outside traditional political parties, which in turn will result in new parties or re-imagined older parties.
Big or small, few or many, it does not matter, political parties along with the ebbs and flows are the lifeblood of the system. Malaysia has numerous parties, but all of them are heavily elitists and exclusionists.
All parties like to display their membership numbers — in instances, including the dead — to indicate their relative strength but when it comes to day to day operation and policy formation, party leaders prefer their ordinary members to be an ocean away.
Parties are safeguards against dictatorships of authoritarian governments. The leaders have dual obligations, to the people and then party. If the checks and balances in the country fail, the party keeps leaders in check.
If both government structures and the party’s members are at the mercy of the party leadership, then it is an authoritarian state.
Party names are no indicators of ideology or democratic zeal.
Look at these exotic ones: Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front, Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party or Ba’ath and Chile’s Independent Democratic Union.
Solid names until the realisation strikes that in order, they were or are the parties of dictators Robert Mugabe, Saddam Hussein and Augusto Pinochet.
I have lost faith in those who prescribe the idea, let’s manage the simple-minded Malaysians by giving them a new government first and then begin to engage them. The usual mantra remains: Let’s not confuse the people with the need to understand nuance and purpose, let’s just collect their votes and take it from there.
A political party is that opportunity to engage.
They misconstrue mass membership participation as chaos. Participation is power, quite to the contrary. And yes, full and equal participation would result in volatility in leadership positions. Ins and outs as frequent as the conversations shift inside.
In time, the conversation finds balance, between trends and principles.
The answer to the unwieldy state of PKR, and other parties, to provide brave new leadership perhaps lies within their members, and not their political opponents.
If membership is seen as the new answer, perhaps the tried and failed methods of amassing a coterie of leaders past, present, geriatric and shirt-swapping can be replaced by an army with principles accrued, not imposed on.
Then there is a real chance at the general election. Or at least the chance to call themselves the party of the masses and not get laughed out of the polling station.