Why the constant call for the fall of a legitimately installed government?
Over the Mother’s Day weekend two weeks back, there were three elections’ outcomes in Asia that turned out to be of interest to many observers.
In an election held in the Indian state of Karnataka, the Indian National Congress won a landslide victory over the Bharatiya Janata Party with 135 seats, their largest gain since the 1989 elections. The hotly contested Turkish presidential election—which observers claimed to be neck-to-neck days before voters went to the polls—saw the two top candidates going to a runoff on May 28, 2023. One of those candidates is Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has been prime minister and president of Turkey since 2003. Finally, our neighbour to the north, Thailand, also saw the progressive Move Forward Party defeat the populist Pheu Thai and royalist military United Thai Nation.
Why should we in Malaysia pay attention to these elections?
For nearly a decade, political observers have noted a democratic backsliding with authoritarianism, sometimes merged with civilizational populism, taking over not just our consciousness but also our institutions. Civilizational populists threaten democracy as their idea of majoritarian democracy sometimes may be oppressive to those who do not agree with them.
Recently, I was asked by a journalist for an upcoming television programme if I think euphoria over right wing populism is sustainable, and I answered unequivocally “no.”
The reason is because political scientists have long discovered that one of the factors explaining support for democracy and its players lies in their ability to deliver necessities and welfare to the people.
Make no mistake, among the causes for the rise and obstinacy of right-wing populism is the economic marginalization felt by people of certain backgrounds. Civilizational populists take advantage of people’s frustration to paint a doomsday picture that somehow this specific group of people would be further oppressed unless the electorate vote for parties that share their ethnic and/or religious identity.
Obviously, the campaign period for the November 2022 election in Malaysia also saw the same narrative. Although hate speech could turn dangerous, in a democratic country people are allowed to speak their mind however unsavoury it may be to most.
But in a democratic country also, election results are to be respected bar obvious transgression such as a sudden and rapid fall in the value of the currency such was the case that led to Liz Truss’ resignation in the UK. Or covering up misconduct of a fellow party leader and ignoring Covid-19 prohibitions such was the case leading to Boris Johnson’s resignation, also in the UK.
Now in Malaysia, emboldened by the so-called soft coup in 2020, it appears that some politicians in the country believe that it is their job to constantly call for the fall of a legitimately installed government. It is true that democracy is beyond elections. One can call for the dismissal of the government through various mechanisms and pressure points such as protests or, taking the UK as an example again, the mass resignation of MPs preceding Boris Johnson’s ouster. But for democracy to survive, such effort must be done democratically and legitimately. How?
Well, for one thing exchanging statutory declarations for positions lacks transparency and invites questions on integrity. In a democratic parliamentary system, if the government has lost support of its own members, a vote of no-confidence is sufficient to bring down the government. To arbitrarily claim the government does not have support and that it has failed the people is not enough. How has the current government failed?
A simple indicator for us is to look at the Fragile State Index developed by Fund For Peace, an independent NGO headquartered in Washington, D.C. Despite its possible limitations and biases, it provides a good overview of the possibility for countries to fail based on indicators such as social cohesion, economic stability, and public service delivery.
Fortunately for Malaysia, since 2016, we have seen stability in our country improving with 2023 being the best year for us, thus far. In other words, despite the rhetoric of politicians—and we understand politicians have to paint certain pictures in the minds of the people—Malaysia is far from failing and in fact is improving in terms of the sustainability of the state and our institutions.
Thus, if Malaysia is improving on most indicators of the index (except most notably on elite factionalisation, human rights, and state legitimacy), there is no justification to call for the fall of this government—or any government—before the end of its term. In contrast, the UK has seen its fragility index going up since 2016 (although it is still doing better than Malaysia).
To claim the government has failed is a hyperbole to say the least. There is no mass casualty either physically or economically. To claim it has failed because it has not fulfilled certain promises in six months is not only unfair but also insincere because previous governments are plagued with this problem as well.
Should we forget their promises, then? Of course, no.
We should hold this government—and all others to follow—accountable by reminding them and putting pressure on them to fulfil their lofty promises within the stipulated period of five years. If they can’t do it, that is what elections are for. As the earlier cases in India, Turkey and Thailand have shown, people are paying attention.
Syaza Shukri, PhD is an assistant professor of political science at International Islamic University Malaysia.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sinar Daily.