Modern democracy works fundamentally on the premise that the parties need the voters and therefore have to represent their interests.
Similarly, ethnic politics in democracies and electoral authoritarianism depends on the premise that ethnic communities and ethnic parties need each other.
If ethnic parties do not need their ethnic bases — to be precise, as much as they do other constituencies (either other ethnic group or non-ethnic groupings) — to win the elections, then they need not to represent their ethnic interests. And if the parties don’t, their ethnic base do not have incentives to continue supporting the parties – to be precise, more than other parties.
In other words, if there is no positive feedback loop between an ethnic party and its ethnic base, the ethnic party should soon cease to exist or function as an ethnic party. This may mean the end of ethnic politics or the emergence of some other ethnic parties to replace the dysfunctioning one.
This simple logic seems to make a lot of sense in Malaysian politics. UMNO will always articulate ‘Malay interests’ (whether they truly exist or what they are is another issue) to woo the Malay voters because they need the Malay support. Similarly, MCA needs to show the Chinese that it can deliver its promises in safeguarding ‘Chinese interests’ (again whether they truly exist or what they are is another issue) because it needs the Chinese support. And when the Malays and the Chinese think UMNO and MCA fail to do their jobs well, these voters swing to support the opposition parties, as the Malays did in 1999 and the Chinese in 1986 and 1990.
What about Indian politics? I am no expert in Malaysian Indian politics but looking at the data I have, I can’t help but wonder one question in the aftermath of the November 25 Rally.
Does MIC need Indians, and are therefore electorally bound to serve the Indians’ interest (which need not be understood in a communal sense)?
In 2004, MIC contested in nine parliamentary constituencies and won all nine of them. They won very handsomely that MIC candidates enjoyed a margin (what popularly known as “majority”, namely the difference between the votes won by the winner and first runner-up) of more than 20% except in Kota Raja and Kapar. With the sole exception of Kota Raja, these margins were higher than the percentage of Indian and “other” voters in the constituency.
Assuming the percentage of voters casting valid votes in every ethnic community is the same, then MIC could have won all the eight seats even if they did not win a single Indian vote. Crudely speaking, MIC only needed Indians for Kota Raja (where the blue line fell below the pink one in the chart below).
In 1999, MIC could secure four of its seven seats even if they have been abandoned by all Indian voters. MIC however needed Indians in Sungai Siput, Subang and Kapar, although they might well need other voters even more.
In 1995, when BN was at its height of electoral support, MIC still carried even its weakest seat, Sungai Siput with a margin larger than 30%. It was crystal clear that MIC did not need any Indian votes in the elections so long it could maintain the support from other votes.
In 1990, when the Chinese heavily supported the Opposition and the Malays were divided between Mahathir and Kuli, Indians were pivotal for MIC victory in Sungai Siput and Segamat, and assuring for that in Tapah and Kapar.
In 1986, when BN enjoyed higher Malay support, MIC could win five of its six seats without a single Indian vote. Like in the following elections, Sungai Siput was the only seat MIC needed at least some Indian votes to fend off challenger.
In 1982, when the then new Prime Minister Mahathir was enjoying his honeymoon with Malaysian voters, MIC again could win without Indian support.
Did MIC need Indian support? The answer was an “Absolute No” in 1982 and 1995 and a “largely No” in 1986 and 2004. Only in the turbulent years of 1990 and 1999, did MIC, and by extension BN, need some Indian support.
Given the electoral insignificance of Indian votes in MIC seats, why must MIC pursue “Indian interests” as interpreted by its ethnic base?
The wise men and women amongst you, would you enlighten me?