More than just a piece of paper
The election manifesto is not only a published verbal declaration of the intentions, motives or views of the issuer but also a moral contract between the party and voters.
HOW many of us read manifestos launched before any election in full? I don’t think any survey has been initiated to find this out locally but one political party in the United Kingdom did one a few years ago. It showed that about 27% of the voters do so there.
Here in Malaysia I believe not many read them in full, with social media playing a much bigger role in how people vote. And those who read may be selective and tend to read in full only issues that interest them. But can these non-scientific deductions be reason enough for the winners to ignore the promises they made to influence the minds of the voters in the form of a manifesto? Looking back, most of the parties launched the document with much fanfare, trying to impress the gullible voters. Surely the voters would want you to keep most of the key promises made, if not all.
Now after winning the elections, former International Trade and Industry Minister Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, who is an open supporter of Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and the ruling Pakatan Harapan, raised eyebrows when she publicly lambasted leaders for sticking to what I consider a key element of the Pakatan Harapan manifesto.
“Why? Why? Why? Your stupid manifesto stopped you, is it?” she said during the “New Malaysia: Forging ahead together” panel at the “Malaysia: A new dawn” conference in Kuala Lumpur last Tuesday. Rafidah, once dubbed as the Iron Lady, was referring to the coalition’s partners’ opposition to Dr Mahathir’s decision to appoint himself as the Education Minister at the same time. She claims her former boss had so many plans for education in the country.
Besides the widespread protests from netizens, the coalition partners are said to have reminded the Prime Minister of their promise to the electorate in the manifesto that the head honcho will not hold any other portfolio. Dr Mahathir relented, giving the impression that he listens and his decisions are being challenged by other leaders in the coalition.
Elections are a sort of commitment games, where voters opt for the candidates and parties whose policies and promises are most appealing. But how can we be sure they will follow through all the pre-election pledges? It’s tough because all we have is their word.
The manifesto is a form of contract that cannot be enforced as it is made to millions of voters. It is merely a published verbal declaration of the intentions, motives or views of the issuer. While it may not constitute a legal agreement, I am sure Rafidah is fully aware that it is a moral contract. But then again, morality and politics do not really co-exist among most politicians, anyway.
It will be good to remind ourselves at this juncture of what Dr Mahathir wrote in his foreword in the PH manifesto. He said these in an impassioned plea to the voters:
“On behalf of everyone in Pakatan Harapan, with humility and in full submission to Allah SWT, I offer ourselves to shoulder the heavy responsibility of saving the country. We appeal to the people to give us a chance to showcase our abilities and to help the country. With the publication of this book, we also humbly pledge that we are willing to be judged by the people on how far we fulfil our promises when we are in government. If we fail or if we break our promises, by all means reject us in the next general election.”
Don’t remember reading this, do you? I bet most of you are missed this because the focus then was PH’s plethora of promises among which were the removal of the GST, tolls, draconian laws and the easing of PTPTN loans.
Rafidah’s outburst could be construed, rightly or wrongly, as allowing winning parties to reduce the manifesto to a mere piece of paper. This has apparently not gone down well with many netizens. In this context, maybe she should have questioned the quality of the choice of the education minister instead of using such a strong superlative on the document that actually influenced many minds.
We must understand that the manifesto is the keystone of an election campaign. You like it or not, it brings about a legitimate expectation from the electorate. If you look at Dr Mahathir’s forward, it sets up a legitimate expectation that these promises be fulfilled. If some promises could not be met by the 100-day period, it’s fine to give the new government some time. We all know the financial mess left behind by the previous government needs much time to clear.
But to ignore the non-financial pledges made with regards to appointing Cabinet Ministers, GLC heads or key university positions and not repealing or tweaking certain laws does not auger well for the integrity of the parties concerned. Many are now asking whether PH is any different from Barisan which practised rewarding party stalwarts or their relatives by appointing them to key positions.
If I am not mistaken, among the thrusts of the PH manifesto was to dilute the absolute powers vested in the Prime Minister or his ministers and to strip completely political influences in GLCs and institutions of higher learning. Is this not an important enough promise to be kept in what we are trumpeting as a New Malaysia?
However, some argue that the emphasis on such promises has created a misleading impression of the proper role of politicians and parliament. They argue that it is the responsibility of governments to govern in what they consider to be in the best interests of the country, rather than fulfil the promises and pledges of their party manifestos.
This argument may make sense in the larger interest of the nation but this could be tantamount to misleading the voters. And PH will stand accused of using dishonest means to justify its end, turning most the pledges to empty promises.
Most Malaysians voted in PH with the hope that it will raise benchmarks for all decisions and policies of the government as the previous regime had lowered them to destructive levels. However, certain decisions of late have raised some legitimate concerns about ethical practices.
The subject-matter, nature and context of a promise of this kind place it in the realm of politics, not of the courts. This has been tested in the courts of a couple of advanced democracies and they lost. Since political promises of the kind each party makes in its manifesto are not legally enforceable, you’ll have to use the ballot box like what Dr Mahathir said in his GE14 manifesto.
The current argument on manifestos reminds me of the honest quote by Otto von Bismarck, the first German Chancellor in 1871. He said: “People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election.”
What it’s worth: If the PH government ‘Banksy-s’ voters by not keeping the political promises made in its election manifesto, voters will just use the ballot box to show how they feel in GE15.