Why Boycotting Malaysia’s Election Makes Sense

The opposition to the campaign to spoil votes at the polls misses the point.

Originally published by The Diplomat (February 07, 2018)

If I was Malaysian, I would also be gloomy about the upcoming general election. On the one hand is a prime minister, Najib Razak, who might have pilfered a billion dollars from the state and his ruling coalition that has nothing better to offer than the status quo. On the other hand is an opposition coalition that appears to have pawned its principles on the gamble that a 92-year-old former prime minister, Mahathir Mohammad, (who now presents himself as the face of change) might actually win them an election for the first time in history. This, of course, is an oversimplification, but not an overly unfair one.

Small wonder, then, that some voters have rallied behind the #UndiRosak social media campaign, a movement to boycott or deliberately spoil votes at the upcoming election. According to its supporters, it is a way to show their discontent.

If you actually read online comments by #UndiRosak advocates, it’s clear that most people are not simply disinterested in politics or too lazy to pick a runner, as they have been derided by some quarters. Instead of political apathy, many show themselves to be deeply interested in politics and have a coherent opinion of what they want from their representatives, but they are not happy with what is on offer. “There are voters now who believe they are stuck with a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, without knowing they can just stand on dry land and not follow the lemmings,” one supporter wrote in a letter to Malaysiakini, an online news portal.

In few countries does the political opposition take on as literal a meaning as in Malaysia. It is not just a coalition of parties outside of government, its entire raison d’etre seems determined on removing the United Malay National Organization-led (UMNO) coalition from power after decades in power. At times, it seems as though toppling UMNO and the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) is the opposition’s end game, and not just a means of achieving power. Now we find an even more vengeful tone from Mahathir, whose only apparent goal is to oust Najib.

The problem is that Pakatan Harapan, the opposition coalition, might have taken its opportunism one step too far this time. Its predecessor, Pakatan Raykat, was often said to be made up of unlikely bedfellows or something to the same effect, largely because of the inclusion of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) stood in stark contrast the multi-racial, liberal coalition partners: the People’s Justice Party (PKR), and Democratic Action Party (DAP).  It was the PAS’s push for hudud, Islamic jurisprudence, to be introduced in the northern state of Kelantan, that led to the Rakyat coalition’s demise.

But PAS was more of a junior partner then, with the DAP and PKR taking a guiding role on policy. Mahathir’s Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM), another pro-Malay Muslim party that was considered as being of the same ilk as UMNO, not just joined the coalition but become the party which will compete in the most seats in peninsula Malaysia. It has made Mahathir the coalition’s prime ministerial candidate, too. As a result, the DAP and PKR’s once progressive impulses have been tempered. If one looks at the opposition’s policy comments of late, compared to the previous manifesto going into the 2013 general election, it’s clear that policy now takes a bit part to personality, chiefly Mahathir’s brand of personality-based politics.

If you listen closely to the ongoing conversation among the Malaysian opposition, this becomes clear quite quickly. To take just one example, though Pakatan Harapan Deputy President Lim Guan Eng’s call last month for young voters to create a “wish list” of policies that the coalition can include in its manifesto might sound democratic, it also just showed how little thought actually went into the coalition’s policies. The proposed “wish list” came after young supporters complained policy pledges weren’t progressive enough.

Little surprise, then, that we are seeing this discontent manifest itself in various forms, of which the #UndiRosak campaign is one. Consider comments made by Maryam Lee, a social activist who has spoked out on this. Her remarks deserve to be quoted at length:

As to why do supporters of #UndiRosak hold Pakatan especially responsible in this election?

It is because Pakatan says they are different. They say they are not the same. Their entire campaign strategy so far seems to be “vote for us because we are not BN”.

This political complacency is why #UndiRosak deserves to be applauded for finally waking Pakatan up to face reality, people are not going to vote for you just because they are angry at someone else.

But, so far, some prominent opposition politicians and activists have responded to the #UndiRosak campaign in undemocratic and unfair ways. #UndiRosak supporters have been trolled online, while Harapan politicians have alleged the campaign’s instigators are mere UMNO supporters, a rather unfair statement. “Shallow-minded” was how Mahathir described potential ballot spoilers, before going on to say that “we need a change in this country.” Change, indeed, but a good many #UndiRosak supporters think Mahathir is the antithesis to change, and with good reason.

Ambiga Sreenevasan, the former Chairperson of Bersih, went on Twitter to share her thoughts on the matter. “Let me be clear. Boycotting an election may send a message where the elections are clean and fair,” she wrote. “Where the elections are NOT clean and fair (as in our country), boycotting only helps those in power and works AGAINST the people who are trying to change the rotten system.”

Maybe Ambiga thinks there is a clever, nuanced distinction between her two examples. There isn’t. At best, one assumes, she means that those who oppose the “corrupt” UMNO-led government should automatically vote for the opposition. But while it is only natural to mistake the victory of opposition politicians for the advance of democratic ideals – as so many now do in Southeast Asia (just look at Myanmar, for instance) – it does a disservice to any democratic hopes.

Indeed, one must ask: would the effort to improve democracy really be helped by deriding those who want to employ their democratic right to abstain? I believe the answer is no. Of course, it’s not fair on voters who think the opposition will clean up the electoral system and run a progressive government, but this is the very kind of unfairness that people in democratic nations have to accept. People tend to think differently, often to one’s own detriment. “By guilt-tripping us to vote, you are downgrading our democracy into one where we HAVE to vote for a lesser evil (which one that is I don’t know anymore) instead of voting based on good grounded policies,” a Twitter user replied to Ambiga’s comment.

Furthermore, it ought to be remembered that a spoiled ballot is not a form of absenteeism, nor is it a “wasted” vote in any meaningful sense of the word. Rather, it is a form of protest, a means of showing the political classes that one is not happy with what’s on offer. The opposition, one would think, should take this to heart more than UMNO, yet it seems set on only deriding #UndiRosak supporters, not listening to them. In the end, low voter turnout is always a sign of unhealthy politics, though not turning up to vote isn’t the same as showing up at the polling station and spoiling one’s ballot. The former is passive; the latter is active.

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