Wednesday, April 16, 2008

UMNO is good for democracy

New and more democratic political parties will emerge to replace the current decaying parties
by Abang Benet Aliran Monthly

One cannot see how UMNO's attempts at "internal reform" are going to succeed Ever since Dr. Mahathir Mohamad got the fright of his life when Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah came within a whisker of defeating him in the 1987 UMNO elections, UMNO has devised a system of electoral nominations within the party that can only be politely described as �innovative� since it is designed exclusively to benefit the UMNO President and those whom he favours. A brainwave of Dr. Mahathir, the system requires anyone who wants to stand for party elections to garner a minimum percentage of total nominations before they are eligible to contest. This is quite unlike previous electoral procedures in UMNO (i.e. before 1987) in which anyone wanting to contest any party post simply needed one or two nominations from any UMNO division. Under this �innovative system�, those wanting to contest the UMNO Presidency have to first garner 30 per cent of the nominations from the 191 UMNO divisions, i.e. 58 divisions. Aspirants for the posts of Deputy President, Wanita Chief and UMNO Youth Chief have to garner 15 per cent of total nominations (39 divisions); Wanita Deputy Chief and UMNO Youth Chief (29 Divisions); Vice-President aspirants 8 per cent of total nominations (20 divisions); etc. To reinforce this system, albeit subtly, it is the UMNO President who appoints all UMNO liaison persons at state level, thus giving all members an advance indication of his preferences for divisional party leaders. As well, the UMNO Supreme Council has periodically passed �unanimous resolutions� during party election years directing that there be no contests for top party positions, ostensibly in an effort to �preserve party unity�. And if all this is not enough, the UMNO President and Malaysian Prime Minister � who has control over official political patronage, the police and the judiciary � may if he so chooses use both a carrot-and-stick approach to keep any potential UMNO challengers in line. Anwar Ibrahim and his supporters chose not to stay in line and soon found themselves on the wrong side of Dr. Mahathir. In other words, the deck is deliberately stacked against free contests, and especially electoral challenges, to the UMNO President. System has "worked well" UMNO and the rest of the BN believe that their innovative system has �worked well�. After all, Dr. Mahathir went unchallenged as party president after setting up UMNO Baru in 1987, heralding in a long period of �welcome stability� to the party. Abdul Ghafar Baba was challenged in 1993. But he quickly gave up during the nomination stage of the contest despite being the incumbent when he realised he did not have a ghost of a chance against Anwar Ibrahim who was, at that time, Dr. Mahathir�s �favoured� political heir. Similarly, since Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was the �favoured choice� of Dr. Mahathir to succeed as Prime Minister, the UMNO Supreme Council directed that there should again be no contests for the top two party positions. To ensure that the system continued to �work well�, powerful UMNO bosses supportive of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi turned up the pressure on UMNO divisional delegates during the recent party divisional meetings. They made little secret in pulling out all the stops to ensure that Tengku Razaleigh (widely known as �Ku Li�) was not nominated for party president. No doubt, they wanted to avoid any latent challenge exploding into a full-blown contest for the UMNO presidency that would have likely seen Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the electorally unproven UMNO President, being swept aside by Ku Li. In the event, Ku Li was only nominated by his own Gua Musang division while the rest of the UMNO divisions overwhelmingly nominated Abdullah, an achievement that surely rivals the electoral accomplishments of Soviet Communist Party General-Secretaries. Similarly, UMNO�s �hottest� political prodigy, Khairy Jamaluddin (albeit a youthful 28), who also just happens to be the UMNO President�s beloved son-in-law, also managed to become UMNO Youth Deputy Chief when 178 divisions �nominated� him for the position � undoubtedly of course, on merit. All other �not -so- qualified� wannabe UMNO Youth Deputy Chief challengers to Khairy either drew single-digit nominations or beat a dignified retreat by putting on a brave front declaring that they were standing aside �for the sake of the party�. Similarly, Rafidah Aziz and Sharizat Abdul Jalil were �returned overwhelmingly� as Wanita Chief and Deputy Chief respectively. In consequence, the only real elections that are currently �allowed� within UMNO are the contests for the lesser posts of Vice-President, Puteri Chief and the Supreme Council. No more democratic contests Such an innovative system has engendered certain consequences. Chiefly, the UMNO system of democratic contest for party positions, which was once the only system of democratic contest within the country is now well and truly buried. This means that instead of the best, the brightest and the most competent UMNO party members rising through the ranks, UMNO�s electoral culture apparently promotes the best connected, the brightest sycophant, and the most electorally unproven of UMNO members to go up the political ladder. In the process, political principles are overlooked, political performance is untested, political ideas are unexamined, political commitment to democratic civil society is unaccounted for liberal democratic practices are cast to the winds, and intense dissatisfaction at the lack of internal party democracy is either ignored or contained. Given the stacked deck, what really matters within UMNO today is not meritocracy but rather unquestioning loyalty, political patronage and family connections. To make matters worse, since free contests are not really encouraged, what therefore happens is that candidates resort to other non-electoral approaches like malicious �whispering campaigns�, money politics and promises of future contracts/favours to boost and hopefully secure their UMNO candidacies. And as in previous years, the UMNO leadership has again this year loudly denounced money politics during UMNO elections in its �unfailing� and �repeated� attempts at reforming the party. But one cannot see how UMNO�s attempts at �internal reform� are going to succeed when the very essence of free contest and dynamic succession within the party is sacrificed thus undoing what the party leadership purports to promote.
Today, all our leading political parties lack democracy and they lack quality. Taking the lead from big brother UMNO, other minor component parties of the Barisan Nasional like the MCA, the MIC, Gerakan, the SUPP and the PBB have all sought to introduce somewhat similar forms of electoral controls and hurdles to protect the incumbents from internal party challenges. The MIC�s Samy Vellu did not take kindly to the attempts by his former deputy, Subramaniam at political maneuvering to outshine him, preferring instead to drop the hardworking Subra from the MIC 2004 general election candidates� list before he got too powerful. The MCA tore itself into two, with both factions ruthlessly engaged in fratricide in the run-up to party elections two years ago. Only Dr. Mahathir�s direct intervention put paid to both sides by imposing a compromise formula that only threatens to erupt again sometime in the future. Gerakan recently imposed a gag-order on all forms of speculation about the future of their gerontocrat leader, Lim Keng Yaik. No doubt, no opportunity will be available to any party member to contest against Lim at the next party elections. Instead, some form of engineered succession will likely be arranged once Lim �decides� to step down. The SUPP�s George Chan often chides his impatient deputy party leaders not to question his leadership or his decisions. No doubt, this is his way of pre-empting any electoral challenge even as he attempts to impose personal control and discipline upon disgruntled party leaders. The PBB does it differently. When a former PBB vice-president, Abang Johari, successfully dislodged Adenan Satem, the then �favoured� PBB Deputy President from his party post in the late 1990s, PBB President and Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud simply created a new party post, Senior Vice-President, and appointed Adenan to the position. Since then, Abdul Taib Mahmud has slowly but surely demoted Abang Johari within the state government hierarchy even as he slowly but surely advanced the political fortunes of Adenan Satem, who is now federal Natural Resources and Environment Minister. In all the above circumstances, the views of party members did not amount to much. Nor was much emphasis placed on open contests to gauge political support, to test competence, to promote meritocracy or performance as opposed to sycophantic loyalty. Instead, the existing authoritarian political arrangement in Malaysia which puts an overwhelming concentration of power and patronage in the hands of the Prime Minister, Chief Ministers and the respective party leaders merely allows for the continuation of such undemocratic practices, wherein party members are only seen as mere appendages of authoritarian, perhaps even feudal-minded leaders. Opposition parties also affected And yet, this malaise does not necessarily only affect UMNO and other BN component parties. Indeed, it affects key political parties from the opposition as well, with its detrimental impact upon democracy as equally pronounced as that among BN parties. This malaise thus contributes to the larger Malaysian predicament of authoritarian governance and the promotion of untested persons in our political society. This is evident within the DAP, where the long-standing leadership has, over the years, skillfully eliminated all internal party opposition to ensure their continued survival. The upshot of such dominance is that the DAP is now bereft of competent and visionary second-echelon leaders. Never mind that the party is currently devoid of creative ideas on how best to promote its cause of a �democratic Malaysian Malaysia� within a multi-ethnic society dominated by religious discourse simply because it has not allowed for any real contest of ideas within the party. Nor has the party countenanced any dynamic process of internal political succession. Thus, it is a no brainer to realise why its calls for democratic and meritocratic reform within larger Malaysian society often fall flat. Similarly, the PAS ulama leadership constantly make it a point to promote themselves as fountains of religious knowledge and paragons of religious virtue vis-�-vis other ordinary members. So, while PAS encourages �open party elections� (even for its women members, albeit within certain gender-defined limits), the ulama baldly insist that the party be led by a pious and ritualistic ulama theocrat (who inevitably is a man), irrespective of whether he has competence and progressive political vision. Put differently, the PAS ulama would have us believe that they are the only ones best informed and positioned to interpret God�s edicts and designs for society. Society has changed Despite diverse political views, all these parties whether from the BN or from the opposition share two similarities. One, all of them practice a minimalist form of internal party democracy. Two, all either do not comprehend or refuse to grapple with the fact that Malaysian society has changed. Thus, while they continue to �champion the cause of the people�, they have not managed to come to terms with the subtle, perhaps as yet imperceptible but nonetheless inevitable, paradigm shift within society that demands new, more democratic approaches in politics. Today, police excesses are being publicly scrutinised and questioned on an unprecedented scale. Corruption is being openly discussed and criticised. Laws are being re-evaluated for their consistency and applicability. The issue of preferential treatment is being raised not only by non-Bumiputeras but also by Bumiputeras (led by Dr. Mahathir) keen on being recognised for their competence and meritocratic worth. Programmatic politics and parliamentary performance is being emphasised instead of mere political handouts and financial transfers during elections. As well, competence and professionalism within the workplace is now primarily the criteria for promotion. Many Malaysians are also not merely satisfied to remain silent and cowed in the face of overwhelming political, economic, social, cultural and religious pressures upon their lives, the Broga Residents protests, the Kelantan Muslim apostasy cases being two recent but dramatic examples. And while it remains true that much in society remains the same, the fact is that much in Malaysian society is changing. And yet our political parties do not seem to recognise this in terms of their internal party mechanisms and processes. They carry on with a nonchalant air of serene isolation, ignoring the tide of social history in which democracy and democratisation is now the dominant theme. One cannot help but think of Eastern Europe in its communist heydays when the communist parties did exactly the same. Society changed but the political parties did not. Instead, the communist parties continued to deprive its party members and citizens of free choice and access to information; continued to practice stern market and other social controls, continued to promote the idea that the party and the State knew best. And while individual leaders like Gorbachev tried to promote perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), the communist parties were reluctant to truly grapple with the major social changes taking place as a consequence of creeping globalisation and market integration. Eventually, the communist project in Eastern Europe collapsed dramatically under the accumulated pressures of social change, a lack of credibility and a lack of public funds. While it would be wholly inaccurate to suggest that Malaysia�s political parties currently share the same fate, one cannot help but observe certain similarities. Globalisation and creeping market integration is putting pressure upon Malaysian society and changing it slowly but surely. Globalisation demands transparency and accountability. Market integration demands that we raise our standards and compete to survive. Globalisation demands that we master international languages. Market integration demands that we look out from under our tempurungs to engage the world with an open mind and an iron will without losing a sense of ourselves. Sadly, all our political parties fail to meet these demands within their own parties, let alone within the public arena, preferring instead to promote mediocrity within their ranks. New democratic dawn beckons Contest and competition provide society with the meritocratic best to lead it. The lack of the same ultimately leads to decay. Today, all our leading political parties lack democracy and they lack quality. And all are in decay, even though they deny it vehemently. So, the more they continue in this mode � led of course by UMNO and the BN � the sooner shall the whole edifice become utterly irrelevant to the needs of the market and the desires of a society attuned to merit and competence as a response to globalisation and market integration. And it is at this point when we shall see the emergence of new political parties more suited to the demands of the market and the multi-ethnic desires of the people. They shall emerge at a historical juncture to fill an undemocratic power vacuum. And that�s when we shall encounter a new democratic dawn. UMNO today is good for democracy!

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