UK Elections 2010 and Lessons for Malaysia?

Happy (Gregorian) New Year to all!

In commemorating the new year (1.1.11) - which many have speculated to be an election year for Malaysia - I'd like to republish my opinion-article which was first published at Klik4Malaysia many moons ago.

Nick Clegg, Leader of the Lib Dems

As widely anticipated, David Cameron, 43, has just been named as the new British Prime Minister with Nick Clegg (pic above) as the Deputy Prime Minister.

If the English Premier League is the most-watched football event in Malaysia aside from the quadrennial football World Cup, then the UK General Elections could be one of the most closely watched elections. Dubbed as one of the most exciting and hotly-contested elections, the UK elections have inspired and captured the interest of many Malaysians, including myself.

What made the 2010 contest even more interesting than previous elections was the advent of strong "third force" in the shape of Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats (also known as the Lib Dems) in British politics. The phenomenal rise and the popularity of the statesman-like Clegg have impressed many especially through the televised debate during the campaign period, though we know by now the Lib Dems' performance fell far than what many expected.

It was said that the unexpected last minute drop of support toward the Lib Dems were due to a tactical switch of Lib Dems voters to keep the Conservatives or widely known as the Tories, out. So, to some extent the "Cleggmania" has failed. But though the Tories has gained significant increase, it is still not enough for them to form a majority. Gordon Brown's Labour, despite having bad perceptions throughout his tenure - most newspapers were pro Tories in the 2010 British elections, while traditional pro Labour newspaper, The Guardian backed the Lib Dems - still managed to command strong support, especially in his native Scotland, where the Labour won bulk of the seats with the Tories winning only one.

Nevertheless, the emergence of the Lib Dems has given the British voters a third option aside from the two old parties of Labour and Tories. And to Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems' leader, it gave him the unprecedented position as the kingmaker of the new British Government. This brings to the question of how does one explain the democratic nature of the British political system, when at the end of the day the decision to form a government lies with one man, Nick Clegg; or rather one party, the Lib Dems, to decide? I cannot imagine the kind of unmitigated disaster should the same situation were to happen in Malaysia today.

To some Americans who are used to their two-party system, the outcome of the UK elections which yielded a hung parliament for the first time in Britain since 1974 - as a result of no single party wins a majority - is something that is perplexing. One even remarked that he "had thought the rules of cricket were complicated", in reference to the possibility of the contesting political parties forming a coalition government.

It is worth to note that forming a coalition government after an election is not something unusual in European countries. As a matter of fact, it is a norm in most Western European countries such as Germany, Finland, Italy, Ireland and Sweden, though the same cannot be said in the case of Asian democracies.

From the system and conduct of the UK elections, what are the lessons that Malaysia can learn? I wish to highlight several matters of interest here; i) the democratic system, ii) the role of the monarch and iii) the media.

It is important to note that one of the important factors that set both countries apart is the level of democratic maturity. It is well known that for democracy to flourish and sustain fully, political awareness and political education must be given due emphasis. How is this to be made possible? Of course, the process takes time. As of now Malaysia is still a developing country whereas the UK is a developed country. The socio-political background, level of education and income varies clearly between the two countries. Therefore, the approaches are not and cannot be the same.

In view of the fact that our democratic constitutional monarchy system has its roots in the British Westminster system, it is interesting to compare how our system has fared throughout the years and what are the positive aspects that we can learn from the UK's democratic and electoral system.

The British hung parliament situation has some resemblance to the Perak Constitutional crisis last year where the monarch, Sultan Azlan Shah had to step in to solve the political impasse, which resulted from three state assemblypersons defecting from their respective parties. Therein lies the biggest mistake as the Sultan could have been avoided into making political decisions. Whatever the circumstances may be, a monarch must remain above politics.

In the British's case, though all parties were fully aware that the Queen may have the last say, their principles were clear that the Queen shall not be drawn into making a political decision.
"The prime minister is the prime minister until he resigns. It is his duty not to put the Queen into a position where she might be appearing to take political decisions. If and when he does come to resign, it is his responsibility to recommend to the Queen whom she should send for as her new prime minister." - The Guardian, May 7.
So, in a democratic sense, I believed Gordon Brown's resignation is commendable indeed - at least if you bring it into the present Malaysian political context. Imagine if a similar scenario were to happen in Malaysia say in the next General Elections; would our political leaders be civil and gracious enough to accept defeat? That would be the test for our democratic maturity.

Next is the role of the British media. It goes without saying that newspapers in the UK are much freer and open. If ever there exist some sort of control or censorship over the media, they were largely through the intervention or direction by the media owner or its shareholders.

The practice of media freedom in the UK not only means freedom to oppose or criticise, but also freedom to support whichever party or whoever they deem fit to be the Government. It is a well accepted tradition that there are pro Labour and pro Tories newspapers. Daily Mirror and The Guardian were known to be pro Labour; while The Times and Daily Telegraph were pro Tories. However, interestingly The Guardian which is traditionally pro Labour, has decided to back the Lib Dems, leaving the Mirror as the only pro Labour British newspaper in run-up towards the 2010 elections. Perhaps, to some extent this partly explains the election win by the Tories, albeit without a majority.

For Malaysia to achieve the same level of democratic and political maturity as the British, it might take few years to come. But I believe any form of change must come from the people and the civil societies. Unlike the old democratic model of the 60s and 70s, the new century is more about the democratic participation from the people.

Politics in the new century is no longer about a top down political approach, but rather a bottom up system where people are more involved in decision making, where the people have greater say over the future of the Government and the country.