Twin Coalition Politics in Malaysia since 2008: A Path Dependent Framing and Analysis

By SaraVanamuttu, Johan | Contemporary Southeast Asia, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Twin Coalition Politics in Malaysia since 2008: A Path Dependent Framing and Analysis


SaraVanamuttu, Johan, Contemporary Southeast Asia


The General Election of 8 March 2008 significantly altered the political parameters of electoral politics and constituted or at least contributed to a reconfiguration of the political landscape in Malaysia. (2) In terms of electoral politics, it may be suggested that March 8 created a de facto and perhaps a de jure two-party (or two-coalition) system if one considers both the parliamentary and state levels of governance.

The election resulted in the ruling National Front (Barisan Nasional or BN) government losing its two-thirds share of seats in the Parliament which it had held since independence in 1957. The opposition parties, later formalized as the People's Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat or Pakatan for short), won a total of 82 out of the 222 contested seats. The BN barely won 50 per cent of the 7.9 million ballots cast, demonstrating that the electorate was virtually split down the middle. Furthermore, five state governments fell to the opposition, an unprecedented event in Malaysian politics. There is thus a case to be made that the BN had lost is "first-mover advantage" (3) in establishing and capitalizing on consociational institutional arrangements which has served it well in the past. Moreover, the "increasing returns" (4) yielded from these arrangements in electoral terms tended to taper off by the time of the 2008 general election for a variety of reasons which this essay will explore.

Using path dependence as a framework, this paper argues that the political moment of 8 March which created an incipient two-party system in Malaysia was reinforced by an unprecedented number of subsequent by-elections. The results of these by-elections indicate that the momentum, and the factors that explain the electoral outcome, continue to animate Malaysian electoral politics. Factors driving Malaysia's new politics are both a function of political transformations which arguably began in the 1980s and certainly after former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim's dismissal and incarceration in 1998. While ethnicity remains a crucial variable in Malaysian politics, cross-ethnic voting represents the driver of Malaysia's new politics. Citizens across the board are now more informed of universal issues such as corruption and minority rights and the opposition alliance has been able to capitalize on these new sensibilities and awareness by offering an alternative political institutional format of politics to that of the ruling coalition. Going beyond the older consociational arrangements of ethnic power sharing, the Pakatan has introduced political mobilization processes and institutions which aim to provide good governance, economic welfare and human rights in the tradition of delivering "political goods". (5)

Several important points should be made about considering March 2008 as an historical rupture and the beginnings of a new trajectory of path dependence in Malaysian politics. It is important to note that the event may not be of the order of a "critical juncture" of the kind alluded to by Collier and Collier, (6) namely one that produces a distinctly new legacy by ending an old one, such as demolishing an ancien regime. Indeed there are important continuities in Malaysian politics after the 2008 general election. Moreover, the critical junctures identified by the Colliers in Latin America spanned periods of nine to twenty-three years, (7) while March 2008 was but a decade after the antecedent event of Reformasi in 1998, which was followed by the 1999 general election. My argument is that the new path dependent development which was created in Malaysian electoral politics has valourized electoral democracy, rather than changing the political system of the country. Malaysian politics may have changed, perhaps not as radically, but much depends on further developments in the years following 2008.

An important theoretical point was raised by O'Shannassy in 2009 in this journal. He sought to answer the question of whether 8 March represented a "truly progressive moment", that would be "long-term and structural" or instead was nothing more than "a short-term, regressive, 'restorative' moment".

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