What democracies can learn from Malaysia

REFILE - CORRECTING DATE    Mahathir Mohamad, former Malaysian prime minister and opposition candidate for Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) reacts during a news conference after general election, in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin - RC1932AA9080
Editor's note:

Shadi Hamid writes that Malaysia offers a reminder that there is no substitute for this most essential of democratic functions: the chance, even if often theoretical, that political outcomes are not permanent. Mistakes need not be intertwined with the state’s own identity. They can be undone. And in Malaysia, at the ballot box, one of those outcomes was. This piece originally appeared in The Atlantic.

What is democracy for? This might seem like an obvious question. Yet disagreements over democracy’s ends are multiplying in the West, including in the oldest, most advanced democracies. Those disagreements include the question of whether democracy is an end unto itself or a means to something greater.

Is it possible that the United States and Europe might learn something from Malaysia, a country long seen as a flawed semi-democracy?

In this month’s elections, the ruling United Malays National Organization, as part of the National Front coalition, lost its hold on power for the first time since Malaysia won independence from the British in 1957—Mahatir Mohammed has replaced the long-serving Najib Razak as prime minister. In an unusual twist, though, the de facto leader of the opposition Alliance of Hope, Anwar Ibrahim, had been serving a five-year prison sentence on politically-motivated sodomy charges. This week, he walked out a free man after receiving a full pardon. He may eventually become the country’s prime minister. These events were a reminder of a different kind of democratic euphoria, offering a stark contrast to the pessimism that citizens of Western countries have by now grown accustomed to. Elections do, in fact, have consequences.

In Western democracies, there’s often an unspoken assumption that democracy is supposed to produce better policy outcomes—well-paying jobs, better schools, or improved living standards, for example. Democracy’s legitimacy is tied to, and even depends on, its performance, something that’s also referred to as “performance legitimacy.” Our leaders also told us—as well as those living under dictatorship abroad—that democracy would make consensus, agreement, and a shared national vision more likely. But democracy isn’t fundamentally about these things, and Western politicians have erred in insisting that it is. This has raised expectations to levels that can’t be met. (Young democracies often show higher levels of polarization since the foundations of the state—and questions around identity, ethnicity, and religion—remain unresolved.) The gap between expectation and reality can grow precariously if promises of a better life and a great society are left unchecked.

Because there have been so few democratic successes in recent years, coupled with the demoralizing failures of the Arab Spring, it is easy to miss the more fundamental promise of even a flawed democratic process: that citizens—no matter how bad things get and how corrupt their leaders become—theoretically have recourse. They are not powerless. They can organize. They can constrain executive action. They can oppose.

Recourse is the last, and most important, refuge before a flawed democracy devolves into electoral authoritarianism. In regimes like Venezuela in Hugo Chavez’s last years, elections may still be competitive and even meaningful, but the opposition has no realistic chance of winning due to rampant gerrymandering, lack of access to media, and voter intimidation. Before these more recent election results in Malaysia, there was a fear that it would soon follow a similar course, especially after creative feats of gerrymandering rendered some constituencies more than four times as large as others. It was the classic move: Larger, urban areas that tended to vote for the opposition would have significantly less representation than the rural, traditionally pro-government parts of the country.

Prime Minister Najib Razak had become yet another example of the seemingly universal trend toward strongman politics. (Donald Trump once called him “my favorite prime minister.”) In addition to politicizing the courts and muzzling critical media, Najib was embroiled in a lurid corruption scandal in which hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s investment fund allegedly appeared in his personal account, triggering a U.S Department of Justice investigation.

This could have been, in other words, a “last chance” election; instead it may very well mark the start of a new, deeper democratization process. Elections, even a single election, can have consequences as far-reaching as this. There is something remarkable, for instance, about the very notion—now taken for granted but once considered radical—that one party in power might voluntarily step down to be replaced by another. For much of human history, this idea was so ludicrous as to be beyond the imagination.

None of this, though, means that democracy itself is some panacea. Democracy is a long-term solution to the problem of how to manage conflict peacefully. It’s about giving citizens at least the option (one they may choose not to take) of replacing their representatives and experimenting with different candidates, parties, and even ideologies. It’s also about that feeling that you, as a citizen, can actually alter the course of your own country, and that your nation, at least in theory, believes that you matter enough to have that power. There is a joy in knowing this. As the Malaysian novelist Tash Aw described the scene outside his polling station: “The camaraderie was palpable. Volunteers handed out free food and water; strangers helped the old and weak to find seats in the shade during the long wait. Someone offered my mother a wheelchair (she politely declined). People lining up to cast their ballot joked about the heat, and about next seeing one another again in five years.”

These sentiments are important, perhaps the most important, but they do not necessarily translate into higher levels of economic growth. It is altogether possible—some might even say likely—that a more authoritarian government might perform better in a strictly technocratic sense, at least in the short term. The Chinese “model” provides strong evidence for this. As the scholars Dingxin Zhao and Hongxing Yang write, “the Chinese economy has developed quickly under an authoritarian regime with a strong capacity in manipulating economic activities.” Turning the notion of democratic responsiveness on its head, the political scientist Wenfang Tang argues that “leaders in authoritarian China do not have the luxury of electoral cycles.”

But there is little about the Chinese model, with its unique history of a developed bureaucracy and strong “stateness,” that seems replicable elsewhere. For every China there are five more disasters (including in China’s own tragic past). Zhao and Yang note that “history has presented ample examples that when an authoritarian regime possesses great autonomy, it is more likely to use the autonomy in detrimental ways.” Good authoritarians are sometimes great (particularly if you’re not a pro-democracy activist). The problem is that there is no way to guarantee “good” authoritarian outcomes. If, as is more likely, autocrats damage the economy and by extension your own livelihood, then there is relatively little you can do about it.

Malaysia offers a reminder that there is no substitute for this most essential of democratic functions: the chance, even if it often resides on a theoretical plane, that political outcomes are not permanent. There is that natural push and pull of democratic competition, with all the messiness that entails. But that messiness and uncertainty can be a good thing. A 92-year-old former premier, one who was known for a budding authoritarian sensibility, can switch sides and lead the opposition, joining forces with the very man he imprisoned. Mistakes need not be intertwined with the state’s own identity. They can be undone. And in Malaysia, at the ballot box, one of those outcomes was.