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From UK to Malaysia, do our democracies suck?

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

Rashaad Ali

In truth if we are honest with ourselves, the UK election was a foregone conclusion, a realisation that quickly dawned as the first results started to trickle in. The Conservatives led by Boris Johnson look set to take an even larger majority in Parliament with preliminary reports suggesting a massive voter swing from Labour to Tory. The Liberal Democrats despite gaining a greater vote share have lost one seat, with leader Jo Swinson the casualty. This is a result that shouldn’t surprise, but one which should trouble us deeply.

Each sides’ individual campaign merits attention. The Tories took a leaf out of the new right-wing playbook, making sweeping promises and doubling down on the key issues of their voter base: Brexit, and the question of British identity. Labour by contrast suffered an impossible Brexit position: their own voters want to Remain, but the votes they need want to Leave.

The result was a confused, muddled mess led by a man that has been successfully painted as Marxist terrorist-sympathising racist. Labour clearly suffered from many ambiguities exacerbated by a strong Tory position to “get Brexit done”.

Notably, criticism against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was louder than that directed at Boris Johnson despite the many parallels. Perhaps this says something about the state of the media and the manner in which it portrays certain issues, as well as the “values” the average voter considers to be quintessentially “British”.

But again, this result should not shock us a great deal. Globally the world has been moving to the right, whether via the ballot box or in the reemergence of mainstream nationalist movements. The problems in the United States are already well documented.

Witness instead India’s recent election which saw a large mandate handed to the incumbent Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party that has taken a distinctly Hindu turn. Emboldened by his virtually unassailable position, Modi has begun to systematically disempower Muslim minorities in India, whether by removing the special status of Kashmir, or passing a controversial citizen law that discriminates against Muslims.

This week has also seen Aung San Suu Kyi, de facto leader of Myanmar and former peace icon defiant in hearings at The Hague that lay bare the atrocities committed in the state of Rakhine. It is not her silence or blindness to the genocide that is disturbing, but rather her willingness to travel to The Hague to challenge the claims. Suu Kyi is pandering to her people back home who support her in droves, believing the atrocities committed against the Rohingya to either be works of fiction or justified to prevent alleged acts of terror from happening.

In Malaysia, the sweeping change from 2018 is swiftly being undone. Umno and PAS have been successful in capitalising on the indecision of the Pakatan Harapan government, itself beset with problems, preying on the fears of the rakyat, the same precarious fears that PH sought to eliminate from the country but have so far failed to do so. If our economy fails to improve and the government continues to act indecisively, these feelings will only intensify.

Is there something wrong with our democracies, something wrong with our governments? This isn’t a question of whether a voting system works: clearly elections empower decision-making in people, allowing for some proportional representation of views. Logistically it works out fine (provided the election day is on a weekend). But rather why are large swathes of people voting for parties that do not represent their aspirations whatsoever? Do our democracies suck?

Let’s unpack this a little. Voting trends show older, rural, lower-middle and lower class voters tending to vote for right-wing parties. This is true in the UK, in the US, indeed in Malaysia as well. What is astounding is that this disenfranchised demographic, these political “outsiders” who until recently have lacked proper political representation, have ended up supporting the parties that are least likely to be even remotely interested in their livelihood. The Tories and the Republicans, have been in bed with business elite for too long to the point where business interests are the most likely views to be represented in government policies, not initiatives that will help the working-class citizen (itself now an expanded definition considering the current gulf of inequality). The business elite are reliant on continuous suppression of those beneath them in order to reap maximum profit from a limited pie, all the while continuing to peddle the lie that if we work hard enough, we too can be just as wealthy. Meanwhile, politicians tell us the reasons for our economic hardship are other people, other nationalities, those poorer than us. Unfounded populist sentiment, often driven by ethnonationalism is now normative. We vote them in power thinking they will right all our wrongs, ignorant of what the real problems are. And the cycle begins anew.

Why is it about right wing parties and their use of nationalism that has tapped into the psyche of these voters? How have they laid bare our insecurities and exploited them for their benefit, and what does this reflect?

It reflects a system that has become deeply unrepresentative of the needs of the people it claims to represent. All political parties are to blame here in their pursuit of self-interest and enrichment. Parties such as Labour or the Democrats have abandoned their working-class base in favour of supporting those that provide them with greater financial reward. In the absence of representation and as economic hardship worsens, we as an electorate are desperate to find and cling on to any semblance of meaning and identity. Conservative parties offer this, the cure to our malaise. Someone to blame, an Other to shoulder the burden of guilt. Irrational arguments are made, met with equally irrational support.

The Left scurry to make up the ground already lost to populism but struggle to abandon their self-proclaimed rational position. The result is a half-measure which will never sit well with any electorate, resulting in a loss or a switching of sides. The Left then changes tact. Goalposts shift. Everyone now moves closer to the irrational Right.

Malaysia experienced a real shock to the system in 2018, one that was necessary to jolt our political parties out of their complacency. A year and a bit on and we have yet to see whether the government under Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad will make any significant difference in our lives. We are not unreasonable; shoots of progress would be enough to satiate the electorate. But instead we have a government that continues to dither, while ethnonationalist sentiment built up for years begins to tip over, in an economy that continues to exclude the average Malaysian. If we take our cues from what’s happening around the world, any promise of progressive change that remains unrealised is vulnerable to a wave of populism. A populism that continues to perpetuate the same model, sell us the same lies and force us to live in the same illusion that everything will be alright in the end.

Breaking this cycle in an age of post-truth seems impossible. Facts become irrelevant as the problems of capitalism in its current form drive levels of inequality to new heights every day. What is our escape route if politics is represented by business that peddles a placebo in place of a cure? How long can this unsustainable system fuelled on bad credit continue to last? At what point will we awaken to realise the promises made to us were not so much a salve as it was an opiate to numb us to reality? If global politics is anything to go by, it will be some time yet. But considering our increasingly uninhabitable earth, by that point will it be too late?

This article was originally published in The Malay Mail Online.

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