Questions on two-party system
First Published: 7:00am, Jul 10, 2013
Last Updated: 7:23am, Jul 10, 2013
What held back the two-party system in Malaysia for so long before 2008? asks Wong Chin Huat
SINCE 2008, "two-party system" has become a defining phrase in Malaysia's political discourse. Most opposition supporters desire it while most BN supporters dread it.
Few have gone beyond the dichotomy of yes or no and asked if a two-party system would work for Malaysia or if it can be brought about by a change in government.
(For ease of discussion, I will use the term "two-party system" throughout, rather than "two-coalition system" or "two-bloc system", which may be more accurate but is also clumsier. In political science, if parties form permanent coalitions and do not compete against each other, then they are not too different from formalised factions within parties, hence, Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat can be seen as two parties.)
Why two-party system?
Vis-à-vis multiparty system, the two-party system is desired by many, including beyond Malaysia, for two reasons.
First, its means single-party governments, which in turn means "responsible government", as the single ruling party has to assume full responsibility for its performance.
In contrast, if a coalition government fails, the partners can always blame each other. Even when a coalition government collapses, some parties with substantial seats may find their way to the next coalition government. And if the government lets the voters down in a two-party system, the voters get to "kick the rascals out" – party alternation is wholesale and complete.
Second, it encourages moderate moderation. Since there are only two parties, the winner has to win the middle ground. Therefore, to not alienate the centrist voters, the two parties are forced to take moderate positions and meet in the middle.
The extremist members of the two parties cannot pull the parties to the flank, because they cannot pose an effective threat – supporting the other party is further against their interests.
In Malaysia, single-party government means political stability – ad-hoc coalition would likely see the partners bickering before the next election. And political stability in turn derives from moderation.
A two-party system is seen as the ideal model because Malaysians – including both the opposition and civil society – have learned to believe in the virtue of the multi-ethnic permanent coalition model of the Alliance/BN.
Hence, a substitute for the BN must not be better than it, but also somewhat looks like it.
Despite or because of FPTP?
Conventionally, following the propositions by French political scientist Maurice Duverger, the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system in Anglo-American democracies is thought to tend to produce two-party system, while the Two-Round System (TRS) in France or the Party List Proportional Representation in many other European countries tends to produce multi-party system.
We are then with the right electoral system since 1955. But why didn't we see a more permanent two-party format until 2008?
After being purged from Umno, both Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim (then already in prison) united the Opposition parties for the 1990 and 1999 elections respectively.
However, both the Gagasan Rakyat-Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah and Barisan Alternatif were effectively dead before their second elections.
How do we explain this?
This happened despite FPTP or because of FPTP?
The former implies that there is something wrong with our society while the latter implies that there is something wrong with the electoral system – at least it is incompatible with our society.
What's wrong with our society?
There are again two possible answers.
The first answer is the authoritarian rule of the BN – from the Internal Security Act, Sedition Act, media control, extensive patronage machine, to election manipulation. In other words, a two-party system would have been possible if BN has ruled democratically.
Following this line of reasoning is that a two-party system will be established in Malaysia if there is a change of government, which the next piece of this series aims to challenge.
The second answer is the pluralism of Malaysian society – we are multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual, and multicultural, – which pose a huge challenge to the Opposition to be united.
This is similar to the ancient premise – which can be traced back at least to the 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mills – that diversity is an obstacle to democracy.
Is this the case? We will shall come back to this before this article ends.
Do we defy the logic of FPTP?
What about the electoral system? Does the uniqueness of Malaysia simply defy the logic of FPTP?
Built on the work of Duverger, contemporary American political scientist Gary Cox links the number of viable parties in a constituency to its magnitude, or the number of seats within the constituency.
Cox argues, while a society may produce as many parties as the number of socio-political groups it has, voters in a constituency will only support up to the M+1th party/contestants if they can rank all the parties/contestants by their estimated vote share.
Hence, since M in the FPTP system is 1, voters will support up to only the top two parties, because the votes for the 3rd, 4th… nth parties will not have any chance to be translated into any seat.
Taking this formal explanation of strategic voting beyond the constituency level, Cox further argues that the national party system is determined not by the legislative electoral system, but by the executive electoral system.
In presidential systems, because the magnitude is naturally 1, it produces a two-party system. Within parliamentary systems, if the office of prime minister is as powerful as that of a president, as in the case of single-party governments, then it will also produce two-party systems.
However, if the executive power is shared, and the prime minister is not dominant, as in the case of coalition governments, it will produce multi-party systems.
Has Cox's theory failed us completely? Not so if we divide West Malaysian politics into two constituencies: Malays and non-Malays.
The Malay politics was basically a two-party system between Umno and PAS, for 42 out of 53 years from 1955 to 2008, safe for the four years PAS joined BN (1974-1977) and the six years when Tengku Razaleigh's S46 existed as the alternative Malay opposition party (1990-1996).
Anwar's Parti Keadilan was not a match to PAS before 2008 as it won less than one fifth of PAS' seats.
The non-Malay politics was also basically a two-party system between DAP and Umno's satellite parties from 1974 (after Gerakan and PPP joined BN) to 2008. Even after 2008, PKR is no match to DAP in commanding the Chinese support.
The question is then: why didn't PAS and DAP join force right from 1978, when both were the leading Opposition parties for the first time, winning 35% of popular votes between them? We would have had a two-party system 30 years before 2008!
Are ideologies or institutions at work?
Are we cursed by our diversity? Not really. In 2006-7, Malaysia was torn by the thorniest religious disputes: demolition of temples, cases of "body snatching", disputed conversion of minors, fears of apostasy, but none of these stopped PAS from working closely with Hindraf and the political tsunami from happening in 2008.
Those who place too much importance on ideology should remember the words of wisdom of Anthony Downs, who authored An Economic Theory of Democracy: "Parties formulate policies in order to win elections rather than win elections in order to formulate policies."
In other words, the difference between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola is only important for marketing purposes.
So, if not ideology, what held back the two-party system in Malaysia for so long before 2008? Will it hold back the two-party system even after a change of government?
Attached to Penang Institute, Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and a political activist by choice. He believes that like it or not, we are witnesses to history. We can choose to shape it or be shaped by it.
This article is part of a series on electoral reforms written by Wong. Watch out for the next instalment on Friday, July 12.