By Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

So the leader of the Opposition has apologised for the poor selection of candidates for the last general election. “It’s my fault that certain candidates that I had chosen for the general elections in 2008 were not strong,” he was reported as saying a few days ago. A strong argument could be made that all party leaders should be apologising for some poor selections of candidates, because the other parties are just as centralised in the way they select candidates.

But even more revealing than the apology itself was what he went on to say: “From now on, I will make sure that for someone to qualify as a candidate, that person must first be tested, and confirmed fit and capable.” Apparently, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim feels that the problem can be resolved through some mechanism at party headquarters.

I doubt it. None of the major political parties are remotely democratic in the way they select their candidates, and this is the primary cause of inferior MPs. It is in the interests of party leaders to reinforce their power of patronage, and it is in the interests of incompetent MPs to ensure that they are not accountable to the people.

The result is that there are many MPs who have no link to their constituency. They have never lived or worked there. Instead, there are parachute candidates – men and women who have curried favour with party bosses – who act as placeholders for prospective ministerial positions. As a result of such machinations there are even mentris besar who owe first allegiance to Putrajaya instead of the state whose government they head.

I have argued repeatedly in these pages that the failure to democratise candidate selection was a major contributing factor to the Perak fiasco. The centralisation of candidate selection produced representatives who are less accountable to the grassroots and more prone to party hopping. Similarly, no amount of testing at the central level will produce an MP who is truly representative of the local population. The only genuine test is a selection at the grassroots level by people who live there. For that we need primaries or caucuses, and we are still waiting for party leaders with the courage to relinquish their power of patronage in favour of trusting local communities to decide who should run as their party’s candidate in a constituency.

It may well be the case that such a system would produce mavericks likely to disagree with the central party leadership. But at least they would have more democratic legitimacy in doing so than under the current system, where being represented by an independent-minded MP is a matter of chance.

The Barisan Nasional Backbenchers’ Club was reported to be studying a proposal to abolish the quorum and voting by division requirements in Parliament. That such a scheme could be considered by backbenchers shows how they see their own role. This ill-conceived attempt to perpetuate their own laziness would also condemn Parliament to further irrelevance by removing the few incentives that MPs have to attend sittings. The already limited level of accountability to the rakyat would be expunged. At best, the Dewan Rakyat might as well be renamed Dewan Parti. At worst, we will slide into elected dictatorship. Arguably, it would make little difference, because even when they do attend Parliament, the invincibility of the whips renders any coordinated rebellions from backbenchers futile.

At the heart of this rationale is the idea that Parliament exists to pass the government’s proposed legislation: it does not. It exists to represent the people, and while MPs may be members of political parties and broadly subscribe to certain principles, the impact of every legislation on local communities should be their first concern. The first step must be to democratise the process of candidate selection.

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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is President of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS).

This article first appeared in The Sun on Friday 19 February 2010

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