Awaiting local, federal elections
Writer: Fahmi Fadzil
Published: Fri, 29 Mar 2013
THE Malaysian political scene feels like it fits right in with the work of absurdist playwright Beckett’s play entitled ‘Waiting for Godot’, where two characters – Vladimir and Estragon – wait patiently for the arrival of Godot, who never arrives.
At least at the time of writing, rumours of impending dissolution of Parliament have been spreading at least twice in the past two weeks – once when a local Malay daily tweeted a picture of the Prime Minister at the Istana Negara, and once more when again he visited the official residence of the Agong.
Both times proved to be non-starters.
While we wait seemingly endlessly for the 13th General Election, I’d like to touch briefly on an aspect of democratic life which I feel needs to be resuscitated: local elections.
There are very strong arguments both for (eg increasing transparency and accountability among local government servants; “no taxation without representation”principle) and against (cost of running may see only certain groups being able to participate; voter fatigue) the bringing back of these local polls, which undoubtedly deserves its own article.
Even so, I proceed with the assumption that a significant number of people would wish to see the return of local elections in a post 13-GE Malaysia.
To that end, I would like to highlight certain areas or aspects – some say hurdles – that need to be overcome to ensure the third vote is returned to the people.
The first is legislative reform; as we’ve seen in states like Penang which has tried to conduct local elections by passing its own Local Government Elections Enactment 2012, existing laws like the Local Government Act 1976 – specifically Section 15 – do not allow polls to be conducted at the municipal level (this is currently being challenged by the Penang State Government at the Federal Court level).
As such, said Act needs to be amended, which can only take place should there be political change in Putrajaya.
This segues nicely into the second area I’d like to discuss: political will.
Some observers have critiqued Pakatan Rakyat’s election manifesto, saying that PR has not stated clearly its commitment to local polls.
Such criticisms are not unwarranted, as the the matter has not been fully accepted by all component parties due to current political realities.
Even so, discussions are ongoing and bearing in mind Pakatan’s three-pronged Common Policy Framework, Buku Jingga, and progressive-reformist democratic spirit, one can be certain that with the takeover of Putrajaya the coalition is committed to laying the foundations for a return of the third vote.
The final area which requires some attention is cultural: a change in the mindset of the people towards the role of local government in relation to the state and federal governments.
It is high time we acknowledge the different roles and responsibilities held by elected or appointed representatives, and maintain healthy expectations of what can and should be done by such representatives.
This means we need to start seeing state assemblypersons and members of Parliament as legislators, whose primary function is to draft laws based on the experiences and responses received from their constituents; and we must recognize that local/municipal councillors are the go-to persons when it comes to local concerns such as rubbish, roads, and rodents.
Equally important is the awareness that democracy must be returned to the grassroots level, meaning that we need to keep the people interested in the democratic process of elections.
There is little point in being able to elect one’s mayor, but so very few actually turn out to vote.
Lastly, a reality check: perhaps we may not be able to accomplish all on our wishlist for local elections.
What is critical is seeing that change is coming, slowly and gradually, and we must work equally hard to ensure that the coming change is positive, sustainable, and lasting.