November 25th, 2010 by Hafiz Noor Shams
There is talk of a third force in Malaysia. Lawyer and activist Haris Ibrahim has stated that the third force is a bunch of independents ready to co-operate with Pakatan Rakyat. Zaid Ibrahim wants to form a third political party. If in the end, it comes to a third competitive and national political grouping capable of affecting national elections, then I do not think it is the wisest of all moves.
A third party will adversely affect Pakatan Rakyat more than Barisan Nasional, given that members of the so-called third force seem to be those disillusioned liberals. They sided with Pakatan Rakyat in the last general election but that alliance is unraveling. They are disappointed with Pakatan Rakyat due to various reasons.
While liberals, they are liberal in superlative terms instead of being proper liberals who adopt a comprehensive liberal worldview like the classical liberals. Some may even be social liberals, however, noting how Kua Kia Soong has written that the third force has to stand on the left of Pakatan Rakyat, assuming he is part of the so-called third force. But never mind whether they are proper liberals or not. What matters is that these groups disagree with the status quo in the country.
Furthermore, Barisan Nasional, the beneficiary of the status quo, does not have too many liberals within its ranks. The liberals are closer to Pakatan Rakyat than Barisan Nasional, hence any competitive third grouping will compete more against the former rather than the latter. I would be in agreement with Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad about the effect of a third force as defined earlier in encouraging the status quo, i.e. having Barisan Nasional continue to be in power, for better or for worse.
Pakatan Rakyat, however, will not be the only side to lose because of a third force. A system of one-party dominance is bad for centrists because it provides only one choice to centrists. Instead of Sophie’s choice, one faces Hobson’s. In fact, it is worse than that. Regardless of choices, there is only one outcome: more of the same.
Another point on the adverse effect of a third force can be demonstrated through the famed Hotelling-Downs model.
The model is a location game. In a two-party (or two coalition like in Malaysia; it does not matter as long as the parties within the respective group collude) democratic system, both political parties gravitate to the center. This happens because political parties want to win elections and they win it by garnering the most votes. Meanwhile, voters will vote for the party that is closest to them. As a result, a party that sits farther from the center with respect to the other party will get fewer votes than its rival. Both sides know this, sooner or later. Eventually, there is only one solution: sitting at the center is the best winning strategy.
Now, I do not think highly of centrists. More often than not, their positions are inconsistent. It is forged out of convenience rather than conviction. Their positions are a hodgepodge of points assimilated from everywhere, regardless of contradictions. Some centrists are centrists simply because they are apathetic.
Nonetheless, centrists do provide the stability required in a political system. They are the anchor in society. Given that many views are diametrical, centrists would process these views and hold compromised ones instead, if they care at all. Since the Hotelling-Downs model suggests centrist voters — more accurately the median voters — will win, the other side of the coin suggests that a competitive two-party system has the capability of preventing extremists from assuming power.
Unfortunately, this central tendency within the model is weak. The moment the system accommodates a third competitive third party or more, the central tendency weakens, or even disappears. It has been proven under the Hotelling-Downs assumption that there is no equilibrium with three competitive parties or more.
It will always be optimal for parties to change their positions, be it at the center or somewhere else. A party can always do better than the others can until the other parties respond by changing their positions. That in turn encourages the original party in question to change its position to outdo the others. The process will continue on forever.
There is no guarantee that the center position will be taken. There is really no reason why the center position is special anymore. The political centrists cease to be the anchor. Their influence on national politics decreases with respect to extremists. Thus, it is quite possible for extremists to hold power in the end, even if for a short while.
The lack of equilibrium is not necessarily bad, of course. It is an opportunity for diverse political views to prevail. There are many other benefits to having a third competitive party, but breaking the one-party dominant system is not it.
Even so, it is hard to see these liberals switching their positions too much in order to win elections. Their views are ones based on conviction and not convenience. The same cannot be said about Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat. If the Hotelling-Downs model can be used and if the competitive third party is strong enough to affect the election outcome, then this suggests that it will be optimal for Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat to move away from the third party and away from the center.
Again, centrists will lose out.
First published in The Malaysian Insider on November 24 2010.