Malaysia Goes to the Polls

Malaysia goes to the polls Saturday after an abbreviated election campaign in which the opposition coalition is seeking to capitalize on surging crime rates, a breakdown in race relations, spiralling inflation and other issues to end the ruling national coalition’s unbroken 45-year hold on government.

The odds appear as usual to be in favor of the Barisan Nasional, the coalition of ethnic parties that includes the United Malays National Organisation, the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress. Nonetheless, the opposition, which is headed by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, is hoping to at least break the two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament, that has historically allowed the Barisan to pass any legislation it wants.

The government is offering a wide range of official projects to win voters, including more scholarships for rural and poor families, increased infrastructure spending in the kampungs, or rural villages and 60,000 new policemen by 2011 to seek to combat rising crime rates. It is pushing forward five so-called “corridor” projects, including a double-tracked north-south railway and an oil pipeline across the country and promising to create two million new jobs over the next five years.

Other election sweets include funding for Chinese vernacular schools, sizeable budgets to improve the lot of ethnic Indians and increased subsidies for rural Muslim-Malays. For disaffected Indians, it is promising to set aside additional land for the construction of temples. The destruction of several Hindu temples in 2007 led to widespread protests.

The government has also stood firm on the protection of controversial special privileges for Malays in the face of vocal dissent by non-Malays. The special treatment, enshrined in the New Economic Policy or NEP, was put in place in the wake of 1969 race riots that took the lives of hundreds of people when anger was vented at the wealthy ethnic Chinese minority. Opponents, including many urban, middle-class Malays, argue that the policy has long outlived its usefulness.

Nonetheless, according to many analysts the voters are in a disgruntled mood. Ibrahim Suffian, Director of the Merdeka Center, an opinion research firm, told Asia Sentinel that “There are many hot spots in this general election, the states of Kelantan, Terengganu, Penang, the Klang Valley and many southern states that have larger Indian populations and are intensely contested.”

Bersih, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, is charging that it is now easier for so-called phantom voters to affect the outcome of the election. This reaction was among a flurry of accusations by opposition parties against the Election Commission for its 11th hour about-face preventing the use of indelible ink to safeguard the integrity of the elections.

Bersih organized a series of highly publicised and strongly attended street demonstrations over electoral rules late last year that culminated in the delivery of a protest note to the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, stating, “Bersih has no confidence that the upcoming general election will be clean, free and fair.” There is a deep-seated perception among opposition sympathizers that the move on the indelible ink, which is placed on a voter’s finger after casting a ballot and is a standard practice in many of the region’s democracies, was to protect the Barisan Nasional ahead of tomorrow’s polls..

“Certainly sentiment on the issue (the use of indelible ink) is high,” said Ibrahim Suffian. “There is a great deal of public scepticism and the Election Commission’s explanation is generally not accepted (by the voters)”.

While the election is very much a test of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s hold on power, it is also a test whether Anwar, now 61 and once Malaysia’s most promising politician, can engineer a comeback from the political wilderness he was cast into in 1998 after he was arrested and charged with corruption and sexual perversion after breaking with his onetime mentor, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. He was then jailed for six years. The charges were widely regarded as trumped up and the sexual perversion conviction was later reversed, although the corruption charge stands. Anwar himself cannot stand for a parliamentary seat until April because of laws barring convicted felons from holding office for a certain period of time.

The opposition coalition is composed of Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which is seeking the urban Malay and other ethnic votes; the Democratic Action Party (DAP), comprised mostly of Chinese voters discontented with UMNO; and Parti-Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), the Islamist opposition party.

The Barisan’s tight hold on power makes any substantial inroads difficult. The major local newspapers are controlled by the ethnic political parties, meaning that election stories are uniformly critical of the opposition. Television gives scant coverage to the opposition and districts are gerrymandered so that although the Barisan won only about 64 percent of the popular vote, it ended up with 198 of the 219 seats in the 2004 election.

Of late, accusations and allegations against Anwar’s credibility and political track record have been aired that seem to indicate that he be having a degree of success in stirring voter sentiment – and consequently worrying UMNO. Thousands of supporters appeared at an opposition rally in the state of Perak to hear Anwar denounce the Barisan Nasional. Opposition gatherings in urban districts, as well as DAP functions in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Petaling Jaya have also seen throngs of people.

For the first time also, modern western-style political advertising has appeared, with an election watch website, malaysiavotes.com, estimating that the ruling coalition spent more than 1 million ringgit (US$230,000) in the first three days after campaigning began on February 25.

Voting promises to be heavy. A University Sains Malaysia survey found that as many as 70 percent of voters have already made up their minds, with about half backing the government and the other half leaning towards the opposition. That leaves as many as 30 percent still undecided.

“These fence-sitters have the tendency to vote against the ruling party as a sign of protest while some of them are still in a dilemma whether to vote the ruling party or otherwise,” said a political scientist at USM.

The ruling coalition has sought to minimize the damage by fielding a great number of young candidates. About 30 percent of MCA candidates are new, about the same number in the Indian Congress. UMNO has also fielded new candidates and dropped many incumbents who were either deadwood, of questionable moral disposition or unpopular.

The notable new personalities on the ballot include Khairy Jamaluddin, Abdullah Badawi’s son-in-law, as well as Mukhriz Mahathir, the fifth child of the former prime minister. The inclusion of younger, cleaner and better qualified candidates has had the side-effect of causing infighting among UMNO members throughout the country. While it is difficult to asses the extent of sabotaging of UMNO candidates by party members and incumbents, the problem is one that could give an advantage to the opposition.

“Infighting within the BN will definitely have an effect on voter outcome,” Ibrahim Suffian predicts. Nonetheless, he says, “The Barisan will still retain its two thirds majority but the opposition will gain more seats than it did in 2004.”