A new ruling by Malaysia’s Registrar of Societies on the Democratic Action Party‘s Central Executive Committee illustrates how electoral authoritarian regimes use the law as a tool of regime maintenance.
Malaysia’s political regime is commonly understood by political scientists as an electoral authoritarian (PDF) or competitive authoritarian regime. What distinguishes such regimes is that elections are regularly held and vigorously contested, but the incumbent regime has such wide latitude to manipulate the electoral process as to render the elections non-competitive. Individual politicians from the ruling party may lose in their own races, but party (or in this case, the coalition) itself never loses power. In these kinds of elections, the real competition—such that it exists—is within the ruling party or coalition.
In this sense, one might describe city politics in Chicago or state politics in Texas as a form of subnational electoral authoritarianism.
In such regimes, the law is an instrument for regime maintenance. In the Malaysian case, a lot of thought goes into the regulation of collective behavior. That is why Malaysia has something called the Registrar of Societies: although these are actually quite common in Commonwealth countries, in Malaysia the Registrar can determine what types of people can assemble on what types of circumstances, with clear political implications. The Registrar of Societies is under the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is what I like to call a “power portfolio” in the Malaysian cabinet; the current Minister is Hishammuddin Hussein.
Under Malaysian law, specifically the Societies Act of 1966 (PDF), political parties may only exist if they register, and a condition of registration is fulfilling a series of legal requirements regulating the internal affairs of the society. For example, a political party must follow certain rules in internal elections. If the society is deemed to be not complying with these requirements, it can be “de-registered.” This means, among other things, that a party cannot participate in elections. While the current news is that the DAP will not be de-registered, that is the implicit threat that the DAP faces right now.
Seem far-fetched? It’s really not. Back in the late 1980s, Mahathir Mohamad dealt with an insurgent faction within UMNO by (allegedly) rigging internal elections for the party’s top spots. When confronted, he argued—successfully—that if UMNO leadership elections were rigged, then UMNO is an illegal society under Malaysian law. Thus UMNO was disbanded, allowing Mahathir to create a new party called UMNO Baru (“New UMNO”) which only admitted his allies. The UMNO Baru affair sets a clear precedent for the challenges facing the DAP today.
Indeed, the Societies Act gives the Registrar of Societies even wider latitude to regulate collective behavior. According to section 5(1),
It shall be lawful for the Minister in his absolute discretion by order to declare unlawful any society or branch or class or description of any societies which in his opinion, is or is being used for purposes prejudicial to or incompatible with the interest of the security of Malaysia or any part thereof, public order or morality.
In practice, these wide discretionary powers are not used that often. They can be, and that is what makes them important. But the recent ruling about the DAP’s Central Executive Committee by the Registrar of Societies should be understood as the everyday politics of regime maintenance under authoritarian rule.