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Political Accountability: An Islamic Viewpoint

Dr Maszlee Malik, Advisor, Muslim Professionals Forum (MPF)
Dato’ Dr Musa Mohd Nordin, Director, MPF

Accountability of the ruler is often used synonymously with  concepts such as answerability, enforcement, responsibility, blameworthiness, liability and other terms associated with the expectation of account-giving. The concept of accountability is a condicio, crux of the ideals and the hallmark of good governance. The concept originated from the ethics discourse which had several meanings but its application and expansion has distanced it from its original meaning. In the modern usage, the term accountability is synonymous with ‘responsibility’ and ‘answerability’. Upon electing the executive into office with the mandate to rule, tax, spend, legislate and enforce policies and laws; the citizens demand of them accountability. It is thus a double edge sword to keep in check the political executive from abusing their power and to ensure the effectiveness and efficiency of government operations.

Types of accountability
Accordingly, accountability functions as ‘the mechanism to control power, domesticating it and preventing its abuse under certain procedure by the governed upon the government which governs them’. The literature outlines eight types of accountability, namely: political accountability, administrative or bureaucratic accountability, judicial accountability, market accountability, managerial accountability, constituency accountability and professional accountability. Our focus is on political accountability, considering its relevance to our current political situation.

Political Accountability
Political accountability has been crucial in defining the rights of the citizen towards preventing injustice and tyranny by those in power. Its realisation will enshrine the very idea of good governance. It combines two major elements: enforcement and answerability. These two elements are often described as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ accountability respectively.

Enforcement ensures free and fair elections which are institutional prerequisites for democracy. The “freeness” is manifested in the freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom to participate for every citizen; voter and party.

Free elections alone are not sufficient to guarantee the effective role of the accountability process. They must also be fair, whereby the rules and procedures are equally fair and protected from fraud and manipulation by those in power. For example, the elections should be held at regular intervals so that those currently in office cannot delay them indefinitely according to their political benefit.

Likewise, election as an agent of accountability empowers the voters to assess the policies and performances of their political leaders. Elected political leaders acquire their legitimacy through the voter’s voice. The result of elections might be understood simply as a declaration of who most deserve the honour of political authority.

Answerability can be considered as the core function of accountability. Enforcement which is the foundation of parliamentary democracies, aims partly to make all parties involved to be answerable of their actions and deliverables before the people. To safeguard the answerability process, there must be ‘openness’ and ‘transparency’ in the governance process. These can only be achieved when two other major elements in an authentic ambience of accountability are present: a free mass media and  legislative scrutiny of the executive.

Freedom of the press is crucial  in any democratic country. It closely monitors the performance of the judicial, legislative and executive bodies. Thus, any abuse of office, corruption, malfunction of the system and its apparatus are reported to inform the public. An informed public would utilise its voting power to punish or reward politicians for their handling of the nation’s affair. A free press also creates an open space for the public and citizen groups to communicate with each other. Such communication undoubtedly plays a major role in a healthy democratic practice. It helps to raise political consciousness, enhances the free expression of ideas, stimulate proposals for reform, expose flawed thinking, reveal problems before they reach crisis point, mitigate errors, and articulate multiple facets of pressing national issues.

However, freedom of the media alone is inadequate without a proper mechanism to make the members of the executive answerable to the public. Answerability requires a legislative institution, which has the power to force the executive to explain its acts of omissions or commissions.  This requires the legislative to be constituted on the basis of three principles. First, the recognition of the legitimate right and role of the opposition in  all legislative matters. Second, the unrestricted parliamentary scrutiny of all policy matters, its formation, evolution and implementation. Third, the supportive role of parliamentary committees and government agencies. The active role of Anti Corruption Agency (ACA), Ombudsman or the Public Complaints Bureau in certain countries, Auditor General Office (AG), Public Accounts Committee, and other institutions must be allowed to undertake their task without any interference from the executive. Any regulation, act or law that restricts the freedom of these agencies is undemocratic and would jeopardise the accountability process.

In summary, accountability is the hallmark of good governance which embraces the enforcement of free and fair elections and answerability of the executive to the public in a political space of openness and transparency. The malfunction of any of these critical operating systems will retard national development and progress. However, the accountability system can only be highly efficient with the existence and support of other related concepts of governance such as rule of law, people participation and a higher degree of civil liberty. If political accountability is unheeded, neglected or dysfunctional, the citizen may inevitably resort to civil disobedience, street protests, rebellions or violent revolutions.

Islam and Political Accountability
Accountability in Islam derives from the concept of Amanah. Amanah as a political concept suggests that God has given the trust to human beings to deliver and promote His guidance through justice and fairness in their lives. Everyone becomes a recipient of such a trust and consequently has to stand in awe-filled reverence before his people towards whom and for whose sake he will be called upon to exercise his duty.  This concept is enshrined  in the Qur’an:
Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: They are the ones to attain felicity.” (Qur’an, 3:104).

This verse and the similar illustrates that Islam promotes active citizenship through participation in governance. The spirit of al-amr bi al-ma’ruf wa nahy ‘an al-munkar (enjoinment of good and forbidding of evil) must be expanded from the exclusivity of spiritual-ritual dimension towards a broader and holistic horizon of moral, ethical, social and political responsibilities.

In harmony with the Quranic spirit, the Prophet was reported as saying:
Whoever amongst you sees anything objectionable, let him change it with his hand, if he is not able, then with his tongue, and if he is not even able to do so, then with his heart, and the latter is the weakest form of faith” (Narrated by Muslim).

Similarly, there are other analogous records which denote the Prophet’s position on the political life of the believers, amongst others his praise and recognition of anyone who stood against tyranny with the words of justice:
The master of the martyrs is Hamza, and whoever is killed speaking truth in the court of a tyrant ruler” (Narrated by al-Hakim).

Equally, on another occasion he justifies an act of accountability performed by an individual by associating it with Jihad:
The best Jihad is the word of truth to an unjust ruler” (Narrated by al-Tarmidhi, Abu Daud, and Ibn Majah).

These evidences from the authentic texts demonstrate  that ‘accountability’ is pivotal in articulating the purity of the spirit of amanah in political life. The high sense of accountability  empowers individuals, hence crystallising the true meaning of equality and allowing individuals to act as a benchmark for the community of believers. These inter-dependent and inter-relating concepts reveal a clear picture of how amanah works within a tawhidic worldview based society. Furthermore, in preserving and instilling the concept of accountability, the Prophet allowed himself to be accountable and criticised by his companions on many occasions. The Prophet was criticised by the companions on his decision regarding the positioning of the army during the battle of Badr. He was also urged to accept the companions’ proposal to fight the Makkan army outside Madinah when the Makkan troops were approaching Madinah during the battle of Uhud.

The practice of accountability in early Islamic political life could also be found during the period of Abu Bakr. He stressed the importance of accountability and the nature of individuals with authority in the community in his very first speech to the Muslim community after being elected as the Caliph by saying:
Cooperate with me when I am right, but correct me when I commit error; obey me so long as I follow the commandments of Allah and His Prophet; but turn away from me when I deviate” (Narrated by al-Hindi).

In fact, other companions often held him to account for his decisions and state administration. Furthermore, this was also the position of Omar when he was elected as the successor of Abu Bakr: in his very first speech after being appointed as caliph, he stressed the need for accountability in his administration, and the rights of every empowered citizen.

Omar’s policy on accountability did not end with the primitive style of verbal complaints and condemnations from the public. He established a specific office to deal with the public administrators’ accountability. The office was designed for the investigation of complaints that reached the Caliph against the officers of the State.

Another example of accountability practiced during the period of the rightly-guided Caliphs can be found in the famous letter written by the fourth Caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib to his governor of Egypt, Malik al-Ashtar. In his advice to the governor, he asserts that:
Out of your hours of work, fix a time for the complainants and for those who want to approach you with their grievances. During this time, you should do no other work but hear them and pay attention to their complaints and grievances. For this purpose you must arrange public audience for them; during this audience, for the sake of Allah, treat them with kindness, courtesy and respect. Do not let your army and police be in the audience hall at such times so that those who have grievances against your regime may speak to you freely, unreservedly and without fear”.

The virtually total breakdown of  accountability in the the Malaysian political process is now evidently glaring for all too see. Officially formed in November 2006, the Coalition for Clean & Fair Elections (Gabungan Pilihanraya Bersih dan Adil) or BERSIH (meaning CLEAN in the national language, Malay), a coalition of NGOs, sought to reform the current electoral system in Malaysia to ensure free clean and fair elections. Her first public rally in the vicinity of the historic Dataran Merdeka in November 2007 was often credited for the shift in the political landscape in the 2008 general elections which denied the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) its two thirds palriamentary majority since 1969.

The most recent 2015 BERSIH 4 rally from 2pm, August 29th until midnight, August 30th attracted  massive peaceful public demonstrations in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Kuching, Kota Kinabalu and concurrent Global BERSIH rallies in many capital cities. The demands were for free and fair elections, a transparent government, the right to demonstrate, strengthening the parliamentary democracy system, as well as saving the national economy. The fifth “economic demand” was in response to the alleged deposit of  RM 2.6 billion in the Prime Minister’s personal bank accounts, which his supporters claim is not corruption but a “political donation”.

And following on the BERSIH initiative, yesterday, 10 September 2015, a civil society document endorsed by 69 NGOs, outlined specifically the reforms needed for political funding to promote transparency and accountability. It was titled “Declaration on transparent and accountable political funding as the underlying framework to eliminate corruption and promote clean governance”

These responses by civil society are  authentic grass roots initiatives articulating accountability as a manifestation of amanah, to put in place operating systems that  prioritises the enforcement of free and fair election, ensure answerability of the executive within  a political sphere of openness and transparency, empower people participation in the political process, protect jealously civil liberties and safeguard the rule of law. Thus, no party, government or the opposition, would be spared from being answerable for their ex-ante and ex-post responsibilities. An effectual macro accountability system would only prevail within the tangible and real division of powers in any state. Without a real separation of power, as can be seen  absent in many countries, Malaysia included, a culture of accountability could never prevail. In the absence of a palpable atmosphere of accountability, ideal governance will unlikely be achieved.