Malaysia Finally Readies for National Polls

It is beginning to appear that the national elections that have been expected in Malaysia for the past two years will finally come off, sometime after the Lunar New Year, which begins on Feb. 10.

The election must be held before mid-April. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak is expected to request the dissolution of Parliament somewhere between the middle of February and the middle of March.

Because of the long and delayed electoral gestation period, during which both the Barisan Nasional, or ruling national coalition, and the three-party Pakatan Rakyat opposition have campaigned feverishly across the country, the Barisan has had the opportunity to deliver two complete election budgets replete with goodies for the voters who make up the base in the Malay heartland.

There have been no reliable tallies taken on the possible outcome. Bank Islam Bhd, a commercial bank, apparently fired its chief economist, Azrul Azwar Ahmad Tajudin, for presenting a probability-weighted base-case scenario of an opposition victory, although Azrul had apparently also produced several scenarios including a best-case scenario of a narrow win for the Barisan Nasional.

In any case, in a bid to attract the electorate, on Feb. 1, the government will deliver RM500 (US$166) to every family making less than RM3000 per year, which is very much targeted at rural Malay and Indian voters. In addition, the government has delivered raises to the military and government workers, who also are largely comprised of ethnic Malays. It has declined to mess with the 30 percent gap between subsidized and real fuel prices and it has sought to put money into the pockets of the hundreds of thousands of workers in the Federal Land Development Authority, the world's largest plantation operator.

The opposition, headed by Anwar Ibrahim, has campaigned largely on allegations of endemic corruption on the part of the United Malays National Organization, the country's largest ethnic political party, of which there is plenty to go around. Transparency International in a recent report, said Malaysia ranked worst among 30 countries in the 2012 Bribe Payers Survey. Common sense would indicate that Malaysia, while it isn't clean by any means, ranks well above both Indonesia and the Philippines in corruption pervasiveness.

Most recently, a carpet-seller named Deepak Jaikishan delivered sensational charges, complete with receipts, that he interceded at the request of the prime minister's wife Rosmah Mansor, and other members of Najib's family to shut up Perumal Balasubramaniam, a Kuala Lumpur-based private detective who alleged in a sworn declaration in 2008 that Najib had had a sexual relationship with Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian national at the center of a massive corruption scandal involving bribes paid to UMNO in the purchase of two submarines. Altantuya was murdered in 2006 by two of Najib's bodyguards. The two are currently appealing death sentences in a process that mysteriously has been delayed for months. Neither Najib, his wife or his family has responded to Deepak's charges, which have been largely ignored by everybody but the opposition.

The scandal has been largely discounted by the electorate, partly because it has been percolating for more than six years. New revelations, including those emanating from prosecutors in France, have pretty much been disregarded and attributed to the opposition.

Polling by the Merdeka Center, probably the country's most respected polling organization, finds a mixed bag. The prime minister's popularity remains enviable, with 63 percent of the electorate either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied by his performance, although falling slightly from last February when it topped out at 69 percent. However, only a small majority, 52 percent of voters felt that the country is headed in the right direction, while 34 percent felt it is on the wrong track. Some 1,018 voters were interviewed between Dec. 15 and Dec. 28, with a sampling error of plus or minus 3.07 percent.

Source: Merdeka Center

In a race expected to be conducted very clearly along communal lines, the breakout by ethnic groups presents a disturbing picture. Some 67 percent of Malays reported being satisfied with the government against 26 percent who were not. However, 65 percent of Chinese are dissatisfied, against only 6 percent who said they were satisfied. Among Indians, 35 percent said they were happy against 29 percent saying they weren't, with the rest undecided.

Source: Merdeka Center

The government has a relatively strong economy behind it in contrast to the global economic picture, with annual GDP growth expected at just below 5 percent for 2013, supported by robust domestic demand. Unemployment is low at 3 percent. Core inflation is tame at a forecast 1.3 percent, despite widespread perceptions that prices, like crime, are out of control.

While the prime minister has vowed to recover the two-thirds majority lost in 2008, when the opposition coalition shocked the Barisan by reducing its margin in the 222-seat parliament to 137 and taking four of the country's most important states, most observers doubt he will be able to pull off the feat.

Nonetheless, besides the relatively strong figures, the government has a considerable advantage in any race. It largely controls the election machinery and has the funds and the ability to provide the buses, lunches and small bequests – a polycarbonate roof for a hut here, help for a family there – that is largely beyond the opposition's means.

Anwar's supporters say he has considerably improved his own electoral machinery and has become an effective campaigner through ceramahs, or public "study meetings," since public rallies are rather ineffectively outlawed. In the Barisan's favor is the fact that the country has historically been effectively gerrymandered to the government's advantage. In the 2008 tidal wave, for instance, the Barisan pulled only 50.14 percent of the popular vote to the opposition's 46.41. However, when the dust settled, 63.1 percent of the seats in the parliament were still held by the Barisan to 36.9 percent for the opposition.

The final question revolves around race, as Malaysian elections mostly do. Ethnic Malays make up 50.4 percent of the population and the Chinese make up 23.7 percent, with the rest either Indians or indigenous peoples, most of them in the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. That issue dominates virtually every aspect of Malaysia's public and governmental life. It has been said, not without justification, that this is a country made up of one race that believes eating pork means condemnation to hell, and another one whose favorite food is pork.

Anwar has sought to bridge the ethnic gap through establishment of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the People's Justice Party, whose appeal is largely to urban, liberal Malays. Parti Islam seMalaysia, the rural-based Islamic party, has gambled by seeking to change its stripes and recast itself as a party that no longer insists that shariah law be implemented on a national level. It remains questionable whether the party has been able to do that without losing its longtime rural Malay backing while at the same time gaining the trust of urbanites who don't want anything to do with the strict tenets of fundamental Islam. A source within UMNO expressed confidence that PAS has lost its mandate, although there have been no in-depth examinations to see if that is true. Anwar's PKR is regarded as having severe organizational problems and most observers are unsure how much of the urban ethnic Malay vote he can command.

Although Najib pays lip service to racial equality, UMNO has sought to move into that space through the embrace of so-called ketuanan Melayu, Malay language for Malay supremacy or Malay dominance, which emphasizes Malay political and cultural pre-eminence. Under ketuanan Melayu, the minority races are considered to be beholden for the grant of citizenship. It has alienated most of the Chinese population, who have very much fled the traditional Barisan Malaysian Chinese Association for the opposition Democratic Action Party, which is accused of playing its own racial agenda.

What that has meant is that the Barisan has effectively ceded control of the cities to the DAP. A neutral observer and businessman says the race is extremely tight and depends on whether the urban Malay vote will act as a fulcrum for Anwar's victory. The odds, political analysts say, are against him.