New roles of minor parties in Malaysia: A comparison with the rest of the world

Malaysia has had a long history of minor parties. Various parties that are now established in BN and PR had relatively long histories as minor parties.  In fact, 1 of the parties that form Pakatan Rakyat was a minor party before the 12th General Election; PKR, never exceeded 4 seats in Parliament.

However since March 2008, a two-party system has been established and this has brought in new dynamics to the future role that minor parties will play in Malaysian politics. New minor parties cannot simply play the main opposition role that previous minor parties played.

Which type of minor parties will enter the scene?

What roles will they play? This article attempts to answer these questions by providing examples from around the world.

We shall first begin by examining the most common types of effective minor parties around the world, as well as their benefits.

Types of effective minor parties 

Minor parties are parties that do not have substantial support to ruling and main opposition parties. As a result, they have little representation in legislative institutions such as Parliament or Congress.

Commonly, such parties are those birthed because of specific causes, beliefs and often tailored to their rhetorics. For example, UK, US and Australia all have established political parties mainly focused on championing for a better environment.

Another type of minor party is to represent specific ethnic groups and their interests. There are many such parties in Malaysia. UPKO, a party which represents a few main ethnic groups in Sabah is a classic example of a Malaysian ethnic-based, minor party.

The third and fourth type of minor parties are those that come complete with a set of comprehensive policies or possess different ideologies than that of major parties. For the former, the recent emerging party known as Japan Restoration Party in Japan is a good case in point. For the latter, the Libertarian Party that also contested in the recently concluded US Presidential Elections can be taken as an illustration.

These types of parties are by no means mutually exclusive. At times, their roles overlap. The Libertarian Party of the US is an example that promotes new ideologies while complementing them with a range of policies.



Benefits of minor parties

Minor parties play crucial roles in a democracy. Based on the types of parties highlighted above, I shall point out each main role and the benefits to the country.

To begin, the first cause of minor parties mentioned earlier focuses on pressing issues into public conscience that major parties fail to bring up or emphasise on. The example given earlier was Green parties and these parties have succeeded in bringing environmental policy up into the public spotlight.

Ethinic-based parties focus on bringing a specific community’s needs up in the political arena. Minority communities that are marginalized due to the fact that they are ‘too small to matter’ often resort to forming parties in order to gain political representation in Parliament and publicity in the media to voice out their concerns and needs.

The third type of minor party represents a ‘third alternative’ when voters are disillusioned by old ideas that they perceive as ineffective, or simply because major parties have disappointed them.

Japan over the last few years has struggled immensely as a country. After 6 Prime Ministers in the last 6 years with neither major party providing changes needed to quell the people’s uncertainty and worries, a third alternative had since risen up. The Japan Restoration Party led by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto has quickly gained traction among the people, doing extremely well in recent opinion polls.

Meanwhile,t the fourth type of minor parties often injects new political ideas and ideologies into political systems.  In the recently concluded US Presidential Elections,  the Libertarian Party fielded  candidate Gary Johnson whom campaign policies pushed the libertarian ideology of limited government and free markets.

Challenges minor parties face in Malaysia

One big problem stems from the structure of Malaysia’s electoral system. Malaysia uses a First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system in which the whole country is divided into constituencies. In current context, minor parties tend to have support from all around the country.

Therein lies the problem, the support is from ‘all around the country’ whereas  Parliamentary/State seats are only limited to one geographical constituency. Thus, representation in Parliament is not reflective of their true total support on the ground.

An example would be the green party in Australia, The Greens; holding 14 seats in the Australian Senate which uses a voting system called proportional voting. It is more accurate in terms of matching voting support on the ground to the number of seats won.

However, in the House Of Representatives which uses preferential voting; a system possessing the same main problems as the FPTP system, they only managed 5 seats. You can read a comparison I did between the Proportional system and the FPTP voting system here.

Another major concern for minor parties should be how willing the Elections Commission are in terms of welcoming new parties. In the light of recent controversies such as the EC being slow to clean up the electoral roll, slow to prosecute those caught registering illegal voters as well as both the top leaders of the EC being former members of UMNO, their integrity and independence has been called into question.

If such allegations are true, then minor parties whose support may diminish that of the current ruling BN may be curtailed. Such minor parties might also join Pakatan Rakyat, bringing the support they possess into the folds of the opposition. Situations like these might be deemed unacceptable by BN.

Types of minor parties we will see in the near future in Malaysia   

Moving forward, what types of minor parties would we see attempt to break out and establish themselves?

Cause/Belief parties would be the most likely  to start out. Already we see situations in which certain people are left unrepresented because political parties reject their way of life for fear of losing support.

Environmental issues have been on the rise in Malaysia. Lynas and illegal logging issues are probably the most well-known ones. We have also seen major abuses of resources by governments from both sides of the divide; particularly in Kelantan and Sabah and Sarawak. This may very well lead to a green party in Malaysia.

Race-based minor parties might also begin to appear particularly as Malaysia’s society begins to understand their freedom of speech and fight for their welfare.

A recent example involves the Penans who have been fighting the construction of the Murum dam. If the opposition does not take heed and champion their cause, we may very well see a Penan party in the future. This would be a bad development as it will polarize the nation even further.

The other two types of parties are unlikely to feature very soon. This being because Malaysia has not progressed to debating ideologies and the major demands of the people for good governance is already being championed by the main opposition party and they have so far.

In conclusion, Malaysia is moving towards a new era in which her politics will certainly be different from the past. Minor parties will certainly bring positive changes to a democracy. However, they will face severe challenges and such challenges need to be overcame.  We, as citizens, can do our part in understanding the benefits they bring into our society and by helping to finance parties in our strive for good causes.


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