by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in the Malay Mail 25 October 2013

There was once an old political party that began life as a party of freedom, championing justice and liberty for people who were previously disenfranchised. For years, the party offered leaders of honour and integrity: not just in its top echelons but throughout its ranks. Of course, they criticised the opposition, but usually in a civilised manner and with good humour.

The voters understood the general intention of the party: to govern the country according to the precepts of the founding fathers, free from destructive influences whether foreign or domestic, preferring democracy and market economics over communism and cronyism. The party was regularly triumphant, and on occasion the opposition would only win one state in nationwide elections. The old party was often seen as the natural party of government.

Over time, however, complacency set in. Some leaders in the party who could not entertain the thought of being dislodged found ways to consolidate their hold on power, at least with certain interest groups. They were able to create and maintain a dependable base in order to perpetuate their grasp on power. This was accompanied by a tendency for high political office to become a road to increased financial riches, access to lucrative contracts (a system that gave an impetus for ever-increasing government intervention and centralisation in the economy), better prospects for family members (including, as a form of self-justification, increased educational opportunities for children) and the ability to distribute patronage.

Of course, such tactics were employed on the other side too, and also by internal rivals as the potential rewards proved all too tempting. From this point, it became normal for accusations of this kind of corruption to be everyday exchanged on every media platform available, with much of the media itself being seen as agents of certain party leaders. They were complicit in presenting and transmitting the idea that noble and visionary policies were being designed and implemented for the benefit or protection of the people, even though in reality they were designed to consolidate politicians’ hold on power by pandering to and expanding the pre-determined interest groups, that by now included the country’s most powerful corporations. Exaggerations, deliberate distortions or outright lies were also used to discredit the other side.

But the most successful operators were those who were able to subvert national institutions to favour themselves, whether to eradicate internal or external opposition. Gerrymandering was one manifestation of this, creating safe seats in which it was sufficient only to pander to a particular base. The consequence of this was that the voice of the moderates – especially those who voted at national but not in party elections – was weakened. It became more important for candidates to survive at the party level than win in state or federal elections. If they crossed that first hurdle, a safe seat was relatively easy to obtain.

The power of this small base became so powerful that leaders seeking the highest office – who by contrast did have appeal to voters nationally – attacked them at the risk of being removed from within the party. Sometimes, though, it was felt that decisions went too far in alienating the country at large that a damage control mode was activated. Thus, pronouncements could schizophrenically seesaw in an attempt to keep everyone happy. Luckily, there were consistently maverick leaders within the party who could be counted upon to say the right thing at the right time, and the compliant media platforms would pump up their volume accordingly.

The problem with this was that, after some time, a majority of voters saw through this, and perhaps more importantly, even the party activists demanded a resolution. This contributed to internal factionalism, and at times it seemed there was no clear leader: rather, just heads of different wings within the party.

The senior leaders knew that pandering to the small base at the next election would result in electoral disaster, leaving at best a rump party of hardcore activists that might then resort to violent means to hold on to power.

So they teamed up with moderates on the other side to urgently fix the national institutions, beginning with those who set the electoral boundaries so that the practice of having to pander to the fringes of the party could begin to end.

This, at least, is the hope of a Republican currently in despair about the state of his party. It seems that California – where I am now – is leading the way with a Redistricting Commission formed in 2010 that comprises five Republicans, five Democrats and four independents. The long-term effects will have to be seen but academic evaluation so far suggests that seats have become much fairer and much more competitive.

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Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS

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