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.

The Star Malaysia - - Focus - parkarank@gmail.com K. Parkaran K. Parkaran was a deputy ed­i­tor at The Star. He is now a pro­ducer at Al Jazeera TV.

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.”

— Cour­tesy of FAHMI REZA

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.

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