People who study Malaysian politics often lament that the political system here is authoritarian. The basis of this assessment is the simplest definition of authoritarianism that we have–the fact that the government never loses elections. Since independence, the ruling coalition has always retained well over a two-thirds majority in the lower house of Parliament, allowing it to amend the Constitution at will. The only exception to this rule is the 1969 elections, when the coalition only won a simple majority. When this happened, the government used the excuse of ethnic riots to suspend Parliament for two years and reform the country’s political institutions to ensure the ascendancy of the ruling coalition. Combine this with many of the odious anti-democratic laws that the regime could exercise if it felt like it, you get the picture that the government doesn’t win elections simply because it is so popular, but because it ensures that it wins elections. People normally term this "rule by law," in contrast to "rule of law."
What’s really interesting is that despite the fact that foreign observers classify the regime as authoritarian, all of the institutions of democracy exist. I saw this first hand at Parliament the other day. MPs make speeches and have arguments; they vote on and pass bills; and Opposition MPs criticize the dominant coalition, have caucuses, and hold press conferences. The big opposition parties here don’t mount coups or foment revolutions or sponsor terrorism, and they never have, and it seems impossible that they ever would. I knew that this was all true, but like anything, your perceptions change when you see politics working first hand. Part of me wondered before if it’s all just a show, like people often allege that it is when the regime is being particularly repressive (i.e. 1969-1971, 1987-1990, 1998-2000). I’m convinced more than ever now that it’s not always just a show.
Political scientists often wonder what to make of "competitive authoritarian" or "electoral authoritarian" or "soft authoritarian" or "pseudo-democratic" regimes. From the 1970s to the late 1990s, they were particularly common in places like Latin America (i.e. Mexico under the PRI, Brazil) and East Asia (i.e. Malaysia, Taiwan, etc). In Latin America, one scholar liked to talk about democraduras and dictablandas as inhabiting the middle ground between liberal democracy and dictatorship. There’s a whole cottage industry that tries to figure out how to classify regimes. There are more classificatory schemes than there are countries, and people have made their careers out of figuring out this particular issue in places like Mexico and Malaysia. And it’s not (always) just academic navel gazing: many argue (and their evidence is compelling) that countries like Malaysia and Mexico are systematically more able, because of their quasi-democratic procedures and institutions, to withstand pressures for real democratization than their more dictatorial counterparts. In the past 10 years, this line of inquiry has become increasingly common in the field.
At any rate, it’s fascinating stuff, and it gets more fascinating when you see it first hand.