Overcoming limits of democracy in new M’sia

Opinion  |  Phar Kim Beng
Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | Much as Malaysians are fawning over the triumph of democracy after the May 9 polls, it is vital to understand that some of the best minds still cannot agree if elections alone can lead to a generally more egalitarian society.

Joshua Kurtlanzick, Larry Diamond and the late Samuel Huntington have all warned of democratic retreat or recession.

Juan Linz and Guillermo O’Donnell once warned of bureaucratic authoritarianism, where after the transition of each election, powerful bureaucratic interests can hijack the agenda of the democratic regime at the expense of democratically elected politicians.

The late Robert Dahl went so far as to argue that democracy alone is not enough, even if it is the "only game in town."

Rather, the value of each vote (i.e., one person, one vote) should be equal, allowing various voters to participate in an informed and thoughtful manner in the whole process.

More importantly, voters should also be given the right to set the agenda of the country. Such a standard is even higher than that defined earlier, as it goes beyond warning of the risks posed by bureaucrats and politicians to returning power to the people.

Only when democracy satisfies these necessary characteristics, Dahl argued, can it become a self-sufficient system of government, which he described as ‘polyarchy’ – a regime where the interest of all is clear, succinct and not overly domineering.

Neither are there any vested interests to overwhelm those of the people – right down to the last man and woman.

With or without 100-day reforms, or even a five-year term, it goes without saying that Malaysia has a long way to go before it can transition from a democracy to a much fairer polyarchy.

Thus, the democratic achievement of May 9, while no doubt a cause to rejoice, should be understood and reflected upon deeply – beyond addressing issues like gerrymandering or bringing back local elections. This is because democratic consolidation requires eternal vigilance...

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