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Malaysia’s Upcoming National Polls Suddenly Look Competitive
Inflation, joblessness, corruption, bad schools make once-invincible Barisan look vulnerable
Although there are no reliable polls, there are increasing signs of a seismic shift on the part of voters in Malaysia’s upcoming 15th general election, to be held on November 19, with the possibility that no single coalition will hold a majority, presaging a scramble to offer splinter parties perks to form alliances big enough to rule.
The election has been the Barisan Nasional’s to lose against a disorganized and quarreling Pakatan Harapan. But perceptions of inflation, growing joblessness and frustration over the country’s floundering education system, which is stacked against ethnic minorities, and the endemic corruption of Barisan leaders have combined to reduce the ruling coalition’s hopes to dominate in the polls.
Inflation has been a worldwide problem since the end of the Covid-19 pandemic released widespread consumer demand combined with supply chain problems that cut the stream of consumer goods. But it has affected governments locally and Malaysia, with annual inflation running over 4.5 percent, is no different, with all-important food prices rising by 6.8 percent in September after a 7.2 percent gain in August, the steepest pace on record.
For the first time in recent history, said one longtime observer with close connections to Barisan leaders, race and religion, which have traditionally dominated elections, are less of a factor.
”The ground has shifted,” he said. “No one single party is going to have a majority.” The likelihood is that smaller parties including Parti Bersatu headed by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin will play a dominant role as the major coalitions reach out to horse trade for power, with a long-shot possibility that Muhyiddin could edge out the leaders of the major coalitions and end up as premier again. As in the past, the unsettled situation is likely to result in an expanded—and already swollen—cabinet and lucrative appointments to positions with government-linked companies.
In addition to endemic problems of joblessness and inflation, one source said the dominant United Malays National Organization is “in the shithouse for lack of money.” That is because “’UMNO’s CEO’ is sitting in Kajang Prison.” That is the disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak, the party’s wealthy kingmaker, who amassed hundreds of millions of dollars through graft and corruption, partly via theft from the now-defunct 1Malaysia Development Bhd, and partly through decades of kickbacks from military acquisitions when he was defense minister.
Diplomats in Kuala Lumpur’s tightly-knit embassy community are said to fear the Barisan’s return, suggesting a continuation of pay-as-you-go politics, rentier appointments, and a continuing slide toward communitarian disintegration. But Najib, who helped to fund several by-elections that aided the Barisan’s return to power after its 2018 federal election debacle that ended 60 years of unbroken power, has so far refused to help this time around with a week to go before the polls.
In addition, the business community, unsure of which way the wind is blowing, has largely refused to come through with contributions.
Added to that is the internecine warfare between UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the prime minister, who took advantage of a power vacuum created when both Najib and Zahid were charged with corruption. Although Zahid was acquitted of one charge in October, he remains in the dock for a second, more serious one of looting a charity he started. Most observers believe he has a scant chance of avoiding conviction. While he has fought against that charge, Sabri has consolidated his position.
Zahid didn’t do himself any good with an extraordinarily bald statement at an event hosted last month by the Malaysian Indian Congress, in which he warned that not only he and Najib could be prosecuted if the Barisan doesn’t return to power, so would his deputy president Mohamad Hasan, UMNO minister Hishammuddin Hussein, MIC president S.A. Vigneswaran and deputy president M. Saravanan, as well as Malaysian Chinese Association president Wee Ka Siong.
Zahid is said to have dragooned Sabri into holding the election this month in the middle of the monsoon season in the hope that heavy rains would suppress voter enthusiasm enough to allow UMNO’s superior organizational power to pull off a desperate victory. That, and Zahid’s decision to remove some of the party’s older warlords in favor of younger candidates, has generated enough anger that some UMNO forces are said to be surreptitiously working against Zahid in his Bagan Datoh parliamentary seat in Perak.
Thus, with the Barisan’s money supply crippled, its leaders in or facing prison and with factions squabbling for power, the opportunity ought to be there for Pakatan Harapan, led by the 75-year-old opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to return to power and rededicate itself to the reform agenda it outlined in 2018.
While one well-informed source said Pakatan Harapan has patched up relations between Anwar and Parti Keadilan Rakyat deputy president Rafizi Ramli enough to present a united front to pull off the election, others say Ramli is impatient and brusque and has thoroughly alienated other coalition parties, particularly the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party.
“The DAP guys literally hate Rafizi,” a longtime source told Asia Sentinel in October. “He’s smart, but a disrupter. He keeps telling these senior guys ‘it’s my way or the highway and they won’t put up with it.”
Another source said Anwar, a fiery speaker who has spent decades angling for power only to be jailed repeatedly on often-trumped-up charges, “seems to have no coordinated strategy with the DAP, Amanah, etc. There seems no fire, no enthusiasm, or driving motivation in Harapan. He is miffed over the fact that Rafizi commands the PKR. He is not the boss in his own shop. But Rafizi can’t rally the coalition without him.”
The Malaysian United Democratic Alliance, formed in September 2020 as a multi-racial and youth-centric party formed by Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, has attracted a growing number of young adherents and hopes to win four or five seats in the coming election. With social media now in widespread use revealing Barisan corruption to a youthful electorate, they represent an electoral wild card.
“The opposition has less money, but they’re ok, if UMNO spends 10 ringgit, the opposition spends 2,” a source said in a telephone interview. “But they have workers volunteering, so it’s not a big problem, especially in this election where Najib has closed his billfold.”
Nonetheless, despite a long list of obvious problems, the Barisan, with its formidable campaign machinery, its continuing grip on the government reins, with the ability to call the election at a time of its own choosing and at the opposition’s disadvantage, can’t be counted out to at least finish the race with a split parliament and a strategy to lure the splinter parties into its fold.