Election's Finally a Go in Malaysia

As expected, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak announced the dissolution of Parliament today, paving the way for the country's 13th general election, expected around the end of April or early May. The election must be called within 60 days of dissolution but can be in as early as 10 days.

Najib made the announcement in a 15-minute telecast on all television stations at 11.30 am, following an audience with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Malaysia's ruling sultan, early this morning. He takes a scandal-scarred but nonetheless potent and heavily funded electoral machine into action against the three-party Pakatan Rakyat coalition headed by Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim. The districts also remain gerrymandered in the government's favor.

Most political analysts expected the closest election in the 56 years of Malaysian political history, with a resurgent opposition bedeviling the ruling Barisan Nasional. While a recent University of Malaya poll gave the Barisan a lead of 42 percent support compared with 37 percent for Pakatan Rakyat, 21 percent of voters remain undecided. Only 45 percent of voters support the Barisan, according to a poll in February by the Merdeka Centre, although political scientists say polling remains an inexact art in the country.

The Kuala Lmpur Stock Exchange fell sharply on the announcement but recovered later in the day. Najib in his television address promised a peaceful transition of power, should the Barisan Nasional government fall in the election. It was an important statement. The only time in Malaysian history when the government came close to losing power was in May of 1969, when riots between ethnic Chinese and Malays resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives in racial violence. The opposition Pakatan Rakyat made a similar commitment via twitter from Lim Kit Siang, the head of the Democratic Action Party, the Chinese component of the three-party coalition.

The issues in the campaign mainly revolve around power - and the unspoken issue of race. The government has poured billions of ringgit into what critics allege is an outright bribe of the electorate through cash handouts, bonuses for government workers, raises for retired people and other public spending that has raised concerns about the national debt, which now totals 53 percent of annual gross domestic product. As much as US$2 billion has been poured into government handouts.

The opposition has been pounding the Barisan for months on the issue of corruption. As always, the barely hidden race issue is in the background, with UMNO and its surrogates such as the Malay nationalist NGO Perkasa warning that if the opposition wins, the Chinese will end up running the country to the detriment of the ethnic Malay majority, who make up 50.1 percent of the population, according to the CIA World Factbook, compared with about 25 percent of the Chinese, who continue to control most of the economy despite decades of affirmative action for the Malays.

Najib, an economist, has been given relatively high marks for his attempts to push the country out of the so-called middle-income trap by luring both domestic and foreign investment. He has nibbled around the edges of the New Economic Policy, which was installed in 1971 for Malays in the wake of the 1969 riots, but has been thwarted from a wholesale removal of its provisions by Perkasa and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who argues that 42 years of affirmative action haven't been enough to lift them out of poverty.

Anwar has vowed to remove the final provisions to allow for open bidding on contracts and a more competitive society as a whole, arguing that the policy makes it impossible to fully mobilize human resources by holding the economy back through educational and ownership quotas, and that it continues to deter foreign and domestic investment. Despite the government's claims, private investment remains weak.

Najib called on all state assemblies to be dissolved today as well, to enable state and parliamentary polls to be held simultaneously. The Election Commission now must fix the date for the election.

"I advise all state leaders to face their respective heads of state to seek permission for dissolution of state assemblies as well so that we can have simultaneous elections across the country," he said.

Najib was flanked by his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin, and made the announcement on the fourth anniversary of his tenure as prime minister. He asked Malaysia's citizens to remember the "transformation" that the government had been under way in the past four years under his leadership.

"In these four years you have witnessed the national transformation has taken place," he said, stressing that his is a "responsible" government.

Election Commission (EC) chairperson Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof said the commission will call a meeting to decide the date for nominations and polling, which requires a letter of notification from the speaker of Parliament. Asked when he expects to receive the letter, Abdul Aziz (left) said: "Maybe today or tomorrow or Friday or Saturday.

"But once we receive the notification letter, we will meet to fix a date for the polls."

The minimum campaign period is 10 days, a new requirement imposed by the EC in line with a recommendation by the parliamentary select committee on electoral reform.

In 2008, former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi led the Barisan to its worst ever electoral outing, losing five states as well as its long-time hold on a two-thirds majority in Parliament, prompting an intraparty fight that led to his ouster by forces aligned with Najib and with the backing of former Prime Minister. The common wisdom is that Najib must lead the coalition to a better result than the 2008 one, in which the Barisan ended up with 137 of the 222 parliamentary seats, 79 of them in the hands of UMNO, or he will lose his job, probably to his deputy prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin.

(With reporting from Malaysiakini, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement)