In these politically polarised times, what the world can learn from the majlises

Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan meeting citizens in Ghayathi, 1976 
National Archives images supplied by the Ministry of Presidential Affairs to mark the 50th anniverary of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan becaming the Ruler of Abu Dhabi. *** Local Caption ***  36.jpg

Politics has always been about winning or influencing power but once gained, that power should be used inclusively

Across most of the world the political battle lines have been drawn, and in some countries violent hostilities have erupted. There can be no reaching across the aisle in the United States when Democrats have begun efforts to impeach a Republican president. It is no longer a surprise to hear of death threats made against members of parliament in deeply fractured Britain. Evo Morales' disputed presidential victory in Bolivia has been resolved not by another election but by a military coup. Shots have again been fired amid the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.

The middle ground appears bereft; and this applies not just in terms of political parties but between generations as former US president Barack Obama found when earlier this month at a summit in Chicago he attacked the judgmental nature of youthful left-wingers.

“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re politically woke, and all that stuff – you should get over that quickly,” he said. “If all you're doing is casting stones, you are probably not going to get that far.” He was instantly criticised by the young and “woke” as a member of the baby-boomer generation whose views are now to be ignored and shut down – or “cancelled” – by the response “ok boomer”. This apparently signifies the end of the discussion.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - OCTOBER 29: Former U.S. President Barack Obama and actress Yara Shahidi speak to guests at the Obama Foundation Summit on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology on October 29, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. The Summit is an annual event hosted by the Obama Foundation.   Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP

Politics has always been about winning or influencing power but the notion that once gained it should be used inclusively – that good governance entails ruling for and representing all people – seems to have slipped away. This trend is about the victors imposing their values on everyone else with no attempt to forge consensus. This applies to younger generations' intolerance of their elders' inability – or unwillingness – to embrace every new iteration of progressiveness as fast as they can, as well as to leaders such as Hungary's Viktor Orban who have narrowed the space for dissenters to be heard.

It is true that some electoral systems have always encouraged division, thus making this tendency more possible, while others require bridge-building. First-past-the-post works best as a binary arrangement because it favours two big players – the Republicans and Democrats in America, the Conservatives and Labour in Britain – and all but excludes small parties. In the US significant votes in the past for the Green Party, the Libertarians and third party candidates like Ross Perot have essentially counted for nothing. That is a flaw in any system that is supposed to represent all the people. Under proportional representation on the other hand, one single party is unlikely to win a majority, so coalitions that necessitate some consensus-seeking are the norm.

The majlis and shura council tradition of the Arabian Gulf is by nature and intention consultative and inclusive, and has strong historical roots

But bipartisanship also used to be a feature of American politics. Former vice president Joe Biden, however, is now decried for calling for it to be revived. It is not just a matter of having given up hope that cross-party consensus is something that could be built again; any act of compromise is deemed morally suspicious.

If this brand of self-enforcingly divisive politics appeared to be unstoppable, that would indeed be depressing. But there are other models and there are other countries where consensus remains both prized and reasonably healthy. The majlis and shura council tradition of the Arabian Gulf, for instance, is by nature and intention consultative and inclusive, and has strong historical roots. Much could be learned from it beyond the region.

In Malaysia, whatever the merits or otherwise of the current and previous ruling coalitions, an important consensus prevails that they must both be representative of the country’s multi-ethnic population – which is why in a by-election this week the Malay-dominated opposition is putting up a Chinese candidate, while the government has said that its Malay candidate will be assisted by a Chinese deputy minister if he wins.

In May’s European Parliament elections, hardline, exclusionary far-right parties did less well than expected, with Sweden’s former prime minister Carl Bildt declaring: “The Greens and the Liberals were the winners of the day” – thus strengthening the centrist orientation of the assembly. In Budapest, Warsaw and Istanbul, mayors standing on more inclusive platforms have been elected in defiance of the nationalist governments of Hungary, Poland and Turkey. While the results of Canada’s recent elections have been described as “a veritable death knell” for the country's far-right People's Party.

Other countries have tried to build inclusion into their system of governance. The Lebanese model, whereby the convention has been that the prime minister be a Sunni Muslim, the president a Maronite Christian and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim, may have failed by entrenching sectarianism; but it was nevertheless an attempt to ensure fair representation in a multi-confessional state. Imposed power-sharing on sectarian lines is also one of the causes of the protests currently roiling Iraq. Meant to ensure inclusivity, many Iraqis feel it has instead undermined national identity and the possibility of corruption-free, meritocratic government.

In the Philippines, the president and vice president are elected separately, leaving the possibility open for different factions to gain the two posts. That is exactly what happened in 2016, when Rodrigo Duterte won the presidency and Leni Robredo the vice presidency. In practice Mr Duterte may have been able to sideline Ms Robredo, an opponent, but that is a weakness in the constitutional powers vested in her office, not in the principle of separate elections that allow for fuller political representation.

So all may not be lost. There are signs of hope. And there are examples that show there are other ways of doing politics that promote inclusion and according to which “consensus” is not a dirty word. But that necessitates recognising that neither is the word compromise. It means respecting the rule of law, avoiding violence and remembering that the person you disagree with may be your opponent but should not necessarily be your enemy.

This is a lesson for both the cynical right and the self-righteous left. But it requires reasonable men and women to stand firm and not give up. The battle is only lost if they lack the conviction to do so, and instead fold in the face of those whom the poet WB Yeats described as the “worst” who “are full of passionate intensity”.

Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National