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How to become a Third Force

How to become a Third Force
November 27, 2010

NOV 27 — If you’re reading this, then you must already be aware of all this talk of a civil society-led Third Force that wants to emerge in Malaysian politics. It’s been all over the news; the mainstream press has lapped up the idea of a fracture between the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition and one of its key support bases while the “alternative” (I’m not sure this term qualifies anymore but that’s a story for another column) media’s interest is piqued by the emergence of a new challenger to political hegemony in the country.

Lawyer-cum-activist Haris Ibrahim, one of its spokespersons, has been quick to point out that such a group would still cast its lot with PR by offering it the first right of refusal to field what it asserts are “defection-proof” candidates under one of the tripartite banners — if, as I asume, PR is not (allowed to be) registered in time for what appears to be an impending snap elections. Failing which, they will run as independents.

Just to summarise, their raison d’etre is two-fold. One, as mentioned, is to ensure that no defections occur if PR storm into government. It is a valid concern given the fall of its Perak administration last year and a further six MPs — five from PKR and another from PAS, Datuk Ibrahim Ali, who now infamously leads the right-wing Malay nationalist NGO Perkasa that continues to accuse PR of being unconstitutional in its stand on Malay and Muslim issues.

Two, it has been chafing at what it claims is a sluggish rate of reform by PR state governments. In a confrontation with Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in London recently, maverick blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, nothing short of a hero for the Third Force, threatened to withdraw the Third Force’s support for PR in upcoming by-elections (and beyond) if it continued to show little progress in fulfilling a manifesto called the People’s Declaration that was endorsed by the opposition pact ahead of the 12th general election.

One would assume that the former will allow it to enter the arena as elected representatives who can then formally push for the latter. The question of course is can they achieve the former.

There is no doubt that PR, especially PKR, could do with a bit of quality in its list of candidates. In fact, for the purposes of this article, we might as well speak specifically about PKR since it is the party with the least entrenched grassroots support and whose main electoral base remains the urbania of the Klang Valley where civil society holds sway.

As Raja Petra (or RPK as everyone calls him) quipped at the same event in London, “My wife said she wouldn’t trust some of them to walk her dog, let alone be in office.” If PKR agrees to cede certain seats to the Third Force (just how many and where, one can imagine, will be the subject of intense negotiations) then all is well and good.

But post-March 2008, many in the party now realise that there is a realistic chance of being elected and have been jockeying to make the candidate list. Its currently concluding party elections were pretty much an informal primary to see who has the tacit approval of party grassroots to run in the next general elections.

Ceding seats, especially in prime Klang Valley locations where, no doubt, the Third Force calls its home, will not go down well with ambitious party members. How successful will the Third Force then be outside this stronghold? Further, PR defectors for the most part did not come from such seats, the exception being Wee Choo Keong (Wangsa Maju).

If the Third Force truly wants to form a buffer against defections — and we are assuming here that its candidates are in fact less “pliable” than those that PKR might have gathered. Now that running for the opposition has become more viable, PKR will have a better crop to pick from — it should target non-urban seats.

We can couple this question together with the scenario where PKR tells the Third Force to remain as it is, a lobby group that campaigns for reform and ostensibly, for PKR since this party has been built on the whole “reformasi” spiel. Basically, it boils down to whether the Third Force candidates win seats on their own strength. They will need to if they have to contest seats that PKR is unsure of winning and also if they run as independents.

The answer is no. As much as it claims credit for the landmark 2008 general elections, this was more due to the structures of the first-past-the-post system (FPTP). General discontent with the Tun Abdullah Badawi administration was a good place to build from, Hindraf added a good number of voters, and so did the Third Force, tipping many swing seats towards PR. Everyone then claimed to be kingmakers and it’s true, but they did it together. Separately, however, they remain pawns.

The reason I began this column the way I did is to remind members of the Third Force that the publicity they are getting and have been getting does not automatically translate to electoral support. The same applies for Perkasa et al. The media is a long way from being proven as deterministic. Its efficacy as a product is one thing — it provides information of interest — but its effect on behaviour is still in question.

Further, if they do create three-way battles in urban seats, this will only divide the “anything but Barisan Nasional (BN)” voter base. Where PR might have won with slim majorities, BN will run away with a plurality (less than 50 per cent of votes but more than other candidates).

Away from urban areas, the Third Force’s influence ebbs and they stand even less of a chance of challenging BN than PKR candidates do. Observers are not talking about whether it can win seats in these situations but whether they will lose their deposits.

Ironically, RPK trumpeted the success of the Liberal Democrats in the UK who now form a coalition government with the Conservatives and will gain a referendum on introducing electoral reforms as an example of how a Third Force could bring change to politics. However, the Libs actually lost seats in the recent UK elections and fell short of expectations. Expectations that were set up by the media who praised its leader Nick Clegg’s performances and through polls that found his approval rating skyrocketing above that of his counterparts in the Tories and Labour.

Eventually, people had to decide how to vote tactically. Lib supporters had to be realistic about the fact that even if they stood a good chance of entering a coalition government, the question was with who? The majority dislike the Tories but wanted to punish Labour’s below-par government. Many voted for Labour or Tory in swing seats and studies show that had an alternative vote (AV)ª system been used, the Lib numbers in Parliament would swell from 57 to 79.

Even further, a single-transferable vote (STV)º system would’ve nearly tripled their ranks to 162 MPs against the Tories 246 and Labour’s 207.

By no stretch of the imagination can the Third Force believe it can be a national force by the time the next GE rolls around under the FPTP system without the consent of PR parties. Instead it should wield its influence by offering its support to whoever promises electoral reform to AV or STV (ostensibly, PR). While it waits for such reforms which would allow it to win seats in its own capacity, it is far more likely to achieve the rest of its aims by backing an established player who covets their support in marginal seats, as slow as the pace might be.

However, on their part, if the three parties can somehow find a way to shunt in Third Force candidates, they should as this would secure a significant voter base in important swing seats and gels with their reform rhetoric. Whether or not this is possible, PR should realise the benefits of a more formal partnership with the Third Force by agreeing to an agenda of electoral reform.

But for now, the Third Force is a misnomer. As a joke making its rounds goes, “There are two forces. Najib and Muhyiddin. PR is trying to be the Third Force.”

The Prime Minister and his deputy would be more than happy if civil society fails to realise the truth behind the humour.

ª AV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of first-preference votes, the second choices of those who supported the weakest candidate are redistributed repeatedly until one gets an absolute majority. It avoids situations where MPs only have a plurality.

º In STV, votes are cast for candidates in multi-member constituencies, by order of preference. If the voter’s first choice does not need the ballot, either because s/he can be elected without it or because s/he has too few votes to get in with it, the ballot is transferred to the voter’s second choice, and so on. It’s complicated but in most cases, ensures that when there are three or more parties vying for power, absolute majorities in government are very difficult to achieve, thus enforcing consensus-building and partnerships.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.


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