By Darren Ong
I got to participate in an election campaign for the first time in the recent by-election in Semenyih. I was handing out fliers in a night market where Parti Sosialis Malaysia candidate Nik Aziz was making the rounds. There had been a whole lot of energy and enthusiasm among our volunteers.
PSM has had a long record of advocating for the poor and disadvantaged in Semenyih. Our candidate was young, articulate, impressive. We had been receiving praise from the media for how organised our campaign had been. Surely we could at least improve on the 2.76% vote share we garnered in the last election!
Alas, it was not to be. We ended up doing slightly worse, and nowhere close to winning enough votes to retain our deposit.
The first-past-the-post voting system that we use in Malaysia makes it difficult for third parties to make any progress. For example, even if a Semenyih voter prefers our candidate to Harapan’s, she might feel compelled to vote for Harapan instead. This is due to a fear that a vote for PSM will be wasted, and that by voting this way she might inadvertently contribute to a BN victory. This “spoiler affect” hinders third parties in almost every country that uses the first-past-the-post system. The few exceptions consist mostly of ethnic/religious nationalist third parties that appeal to a regional demographic, for example the Scottish National Party in Scotland, and PAS in Kelantan and Terengganu.
Nevertheless, I feel strongly that the efforts of my friends and comrades were not in vain, whether in Semenyih or in other failed election campaigns. In this recent by-election, we were able to bring important issues to the forefront. For example, our spotlight on the poor health facilities and the burden of toll roads in Semenyih forced federal ministers to respond, and hopefully the commitments they made will be followed through for the benefit of the rakyat in Semenyih. The media, to their credit recognized the importance of these issues too, and were thus willing to convey our message despite our party’s small size. I think this demonstrates the wisdom of doing politics the “right” way, focusing on issues rather than personal attacks and fear-mongering. We were able to have an influence on the national conversation and on policy despite our lack of electoral success.
It might be instructive to look at what the UK Independence Party has accomplished in Britain. They almost always suffered crushing defeats in elections, but they were able to force the Conservative Party to the right, by persistently advocating their message and cleaving off a small butsignificant portion of the Conservative Party voter base. In the end, they were able to achieve their main political objective (forcing a referendum on leaving the European Union) despite having a negligible presence in parliament.
Perhaps in this new political landscape PSM could do something similar. Our presence in politics pressures Harapan to fulfil their promises to progressive voters, and pressures them to move to the left. In our absence, they would only have to worry about losing votes to UMNO and PAS, and this would incentives them to prioritise favouring Malay-Muslim ethnic issues over structural reforms to our economy and government.
Of course, in order to have this sort of impact on the national landscape PSM simply has to do better than 3% of the votes. If we continue to do poorly in elections, the media will eventually lose interest in what we have to say, and Harapan will have no reason to fear losing progressive voters to us. But I hope that PSM members and volunteers take heart, that even a small increase in our vote share will give us an influence, and enable us to change our country for the better.
And lest we forget, politics can change quickly and suddenly. Fifteen years ago Keadilan has a single seat, and today they are the most powerful party in parliament. Perhaps PSM’s time will come sooner than we expect.