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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Is deciding on a candidate for PM important?

Rafizi Ramli made an interesting statement yesterday, stating that the opposition should not bicker over their candidate for prime minister.
Before reflecting on whether or not such a statement is wise, we can objectively make at least one conclusion: this statement clearly indicates that there is currently no candidate for prime minister that has the unanimous support of all opposition players.
Simply put, if there were, the opposition would have no qualms whatsoever advertising their choice. Doing so has many advantages, and no major disadvantages.
This is supported by the fact that back in the Pakatan Rakyat days, no one publicly supported any candidate for prime minister than Anwar Ibrahim. This unanimous support was perhaps one of the most compelling appeals of the Pakatan Rakyat formula.
Yes, bickering is bad
Rafizi’s statement was made after he was asked to comment on Zaid Ibrahim’s suggestion that Muhyiddin Yassin be named candidate for prime minister, with Azmin Ali as his deputy.
I can imagine Rafizi nearly choking blood at the very suggestion. This is of course sadly ironic, given that it was the Kajang Move that has propelled Azmin on his way to an increasingly unassailable position as the most powerful leader in PKR by far.
In any case, Rafizi is right in a few ways. Nobody enjoys watching the opposition bicker; and yes, the rakyat would much prefer if politicians spent their time focusing on ways to solve important day to day problems.
The question is of course, how can the opposition (especially the federal opposition) achieve that?
Representatives of opposition run states of course have all sorts of things that they can and should do to improve quality of life.
For states in which the opposition has no power whatsoever, what is the best way to help?
I do agree that in the long run, in the areas that matter the most, aspirants to political power should be focusing on finding ways to sustainably help their communities.
This is the best way to work towards gaining the trust of the electorate, especially if work is done year round, not only during election season. That said, in this aspect, the opposition is up against the entire wealth and machinery of the Malaysian government.
Overly concentrated power
Strategies for gaining rural footholds being a separate topic, let us return to whether or not it is important for the opposition to agree on a candidate for prime minister.
In asking this, it is important to consider the centrality of the role of the chief executive within our existing system.
Put more simply, we must remember that the prime minister of Malaysia currently wields a ridiculous amount of power.
Invested solely (if I’m not mistaken) in the Prime MInister’s Office is the power to appoint not only the entire cabinet, but numerous key government positions which do not require parliamentary oversight - such as the Chief Justice, attorney-general, inspector-general of police, and so on.
Malaysia does not have a robust system of checks and balances, and as we have seen in the last decades, there seems precious little to prevent a prime minister for having his own personal way in most key aspects of governance.
Thus, there is no possible way to overstate the huge differences involved, whether the prime minister was Muhyiddin Yassin, Azmin Ali or Rafizi Ramli.
In the urban areas at least, and likely in much of the rural ones as well, I think knowing which individual is going to be elected as prime minister would make a huge difference regarding who someone will vote for.
What actually motivates our vote
This accounts for the fact that in recent elections, it was Najib Abdul Razak’s face that was plastered everywhere, more so than the face of the local candidate or even the BN logo.
The candidate for prime minister is also important given that Malaysian political parties are not in practice centred firmly around some sort of political ideology or clear policy.
PAS is associated with Islam, Umno with Malay rights, DAP with non-Malays, and so on; but there is no clear indication regarding what voting for one party or another will really result in.
Ideally of course, we want to live in a world of elevated political discourse, where we debate policy, and make our decisions based on who we think has the best ideas on how to run the country.
The reality is that we are still a long way from such ‘complicated’ politics.
For now, it is not only the rural or working classes who make their decisions based on simpler instincts of trustworthiness and personal assessment; urbanites and intellectuals in Malaysia likely use that very same criteria.
The importance of an honest PM
Simply put, ours is a top-heavy system and structure of governance.
In reality, even having an honest man or woman of integrity with the best of intentions in the highest office of the land may not be sufficient to solve all the problems Malaysia is facing.
I’m fairly confident however, that not having such a prime minister will make solving those problems all but impossible.
So yes, we understand that bickering among the opposition is an undesirable thing.
That said, we are not talking here about bickering over small or petty things. This is not a debate about whether Beyonce is too sexy to perform in Malaysia; this is a debate about which individual occupies the most powerful office in Malaysia.
Due to the unfortunate concentration of power in that office, the conversation about who the opposition’s candidate for prime minister lies at the very heart of defining what a vote for the opposition means.

2014 in Selangor showed us what happens when the opposition cannot agree on a chief executive. Replicating that crisis on a federal level would be nothing short of disastrous.
Is it truly fair for the opposition to ask for our votes without telling us who will sit as prime minister if they win? Can they truly guarantee that we will not see a long-drawn-out crisis following a potential opposition victory, just like the one in Selangor in 2014?
It may be inconvenient for the opposition to decide on a candidate for prime minister; but this is not a problem one can reasonably expect to sweep under the carpet in the hopes it will conveniently disappear some time. This is a problem that needs to be addressed head on, the sooner the better.

NATHANIEL TAN wishes everyone a Merry Christmas, may Santa bring us all water.- Mkini

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