Politics vs Policy: How do people really vote?
Writer: Tricia Yeoh
Published: Fri, 03 Feb 2012
How do people evaluate their leaders in government, through their satisfaction with policies, or based on emotional tags linked to the personalities of politicians? When voting, do they think of the impacts felt on a daily basis, or are they reminded of the candidates’ antics as portrayed in the media?
Perhaps there was a collective sigh of relief (or horror, depending on which side one was on) after the verdict of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s sodomy case was announced. There was certainly a tension that had been built up in the preceding weeks, with members of his party making preparations for a worst-case scenario.
The decision was predicted to have coloured the political fabric for the year ahead, giving pundits some indication as to when polls may be called. Predictions vary for the elections to be held any time between June to March 2013, the latter being the full term of five years. Malaysians have been sitting on the edge of their seats for at least two years already, waiting for the big game to begin.
Politics does have the tendency to transform Malaysians into wild things who channel all energies into anticipating a single event. Press conferences, finger-pointing, scandalous revelations and the like are geared toward the likelihood (or not) of a particular party winning in the elections.
What often goes swept under the carpet is the arduous task of policy-making. This ought to be the bread and butter of governments, where positions taken by federal, state and local governments, then translated into programmes and projects, are evaluated and scrutinised by citizens. Surely the socio-economic philosophy behind a certain party should influence how people feel towards them.
However, this requires a more educated society. When I went to the United States to observe the 2008 presidential elections, I was surprised at the detail that the average American voter was expected to know when voting. There, you are not merely voting for the president, senator, congressman or local councillor; depending on the state and municipality, you are also expected to vote for specific legislation. For example, Californians were able to vote on whether to ban same-sex marriages in the state.
In such a situation, numerous civil society groups and non-governmental organisations publish information in little booklets to educate the public, conduct seminars and campaigns for or against a certain legislation being voted upon. This of course requires an educated public and an environment conducive to promoting freedom of speech and expression.
We have not gone down that route yet, where Malaysians only vote for two public representatives: their state assemblyperson and Member of Parliament. These elected individuals are then expected to represent their constituents’ views in making policy decisions. By right, these leaders should therefore be judged according to their policies and actions, since we have given over the right to decide on what’s best for us to them.
Let’s face it. Elections are a popularity contest, and numerous factors come into play, not necessarily reflecting how wise the candidate has been in executing the best safety, health or public transport policies. The media also contributes to playing up issues: the question thereby arises on whether the supply of political gossip precedes its demand, or vice versa.
That being said, Malaysians are maturing as a voting society. Take Bersih 2.0 as an example, where people root for what is essentially a policy change. In this respect, the policy of electoral reform precedes the personality of a leader. Whichever political leader who is able to demonstrate his affinity to the reform demands would be seen as favourable in the court of public opinion.
And this is surely the route to take if we want to develop an advanced democracy. Sure, Malaysia is still very much a rural polity, and sure, the national education system has not necessarily produced critically thinking individuals. But we cannot wait for that to take place. Already, heated discussions ensue on important policy issues facing the country: budget deficits, economic sustainability, national bankruptcy, urban poverty, and so on.
As we find ourselves facing an upcoming election year (whether or not the elections are actually called this year, politicians will surely act as if it will), it is important that Malaysians stay focused on what will most impact society and the country. It is often easy to be distracted by reports on sodomy, party-hopping, traitorous behaviour, and so on.
Evaluating our leaders based on their performances, how they have handled their budgets, and positions taken on everyday affairs, say, violence against women or traffic jams, should be considered important indicators of effective leadership.
This piece argues for greater consideration of policy decisions and their implementation when observing politicians. However, the reality is that how people vote will be an amalgamation of their perceptions both emotional and rational: the fine interplay between politics and policy. Research into this area would surely offer a rich understanding of voters’ behaviour, expectations and how these values influence their final mark on the ballot.