Reform Recedes in Malaysia as Voters Abandon Opposition

Malaysian voters, disregarding arguably the biggest financial scandal in the country’s history, have given the national ruling coalition conclusive victories in two closely-watched by-elections over the weekend and handed the scandal-plagued Prime Minister Najib Razak a sweeping mandate to continue in office.

The victories in parliamentary seats in Selangor and Perak, both previously held by the Barisan Nasional, as the coalition is known, were by far larger margins than in the 2013 elections. They are an indication that despite allegations that as much as US$4 billion had disappeared from the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd., voters, particularly Chinese ones, are returning to the Barisan fold after flirting with the opposition in both the 2008 and 2013 general elections.

The Malay vote in the two districts was split between three ethnic Malay camps – the Barisan’s United Malays National Organization and the moderate opposition Parti Amanah Negara, which split off from the rural Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia last year. The return of Chinese voters – many of them in strongholds more recently dominated by the Democratic Action Party – demonstrated the strength of the Barisan. It is primarily the Chinese who have served as the backbone of the opposition over the past two elections.

As much as anything, however, the vote, and a similarly decisive victory in Sarawak in May state elections, are an indication that a fragmented and frustrated opposition has blown its chance to make headway at a time when the Barisan should be floundering over the 1MDB scandal, an unexplained US$681 million deposited in 2013 in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal accounts, and when the country is caught in a broad economic slowdown as a result of falling commodity and crude oil prices.

With Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim in prison on sexual deviance charges that many human rights critics have denounced as rigged, his own Parti Keadilan Rakyat has degenerated into squabbling camps, one headed by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, and the other headed by Azmin Ali, the Selangor state chief minister. Most recently Rafizi Ramli, the party secretary general and a Wan Azizah ally, accused unnamed Selangor officials of trading favors for money and sex.

Likewise – allegedly over skillful maneuvering by Najib to split PAS into moderate and conservative factions over the issue of Islamic law for the state of Kelantan – PAS has also been divided into two parts, neither of them strong enough to take out the other, and splitting what in the 2008 and 2013 general elections had been a formidable vote-gathering machine.

Although some election analysts have said the victories were more for UMNO than for the candidates, they are an indication that Najib’s strength is deeper than among just the 192 UMNO district chiefs who refused to vote to remove him as party head during the height of the crisis late last year over 1MDB, when an almost daily drumbeat of scandal found its way into the opposition press, which survives online. The victories are a clear indication that calls for reform have crested and sentiment is receding.

Unless Najib is indicted in one of the seven international jurisdictions investigating money-laundering charges over 1MDB, and perhaps not even then, he is likely to remain at the head of the country for an indefinite period. He has nullified opposition within UMNO, neutralized two powerful media voices in The Edge Group and Malaysian Insider, and threatened a wide range of civic leaders and groups with sedition charges to shut them up.

The prime minister’s strength raises two other issues – first, whether Najib, emboldened by the victories, will call a snap election ahead of the 2018 parliamentary deadline while his opponents have been badly weakened. The other question is whether he will go ahead and allow PAS to push through a private member’s bill that would allow for the implementation of hudud, or harsh Islamic law, in the state of Kelantan, which it holds as an opposition party.

Many political analysts believed the government fast-tracked the measure at the end of the most recent parliamentary session as election bait in the two Malay-dominant districts.

PAS had also pushed hard for the hudud introduction ahead of the two by-elections and is expected to use the Kuala Kangsar result despite the UMNO win, where two-thirds of voters are Muslim, to push ahead for the measure.

United Malays National Organization candidate Mastura Mohd Yazid, the widow of Wan Mohammad Khair-il Anuar Wan Mohammad, who was killed in a May helicopter crash, drubbed opposition candidates from Parti Islam se-Malaysia and Parti Amanah Negara without campaigning in the Sungai Besar constituency in Kuala Kangsar in Perak.

In the Sungai Besar constituency in Selangor, UMNO state assemblyman Budiman Mohd Zohdi, 44, won with a 9,191-vote margin in a district that barely ended up in the Barisan camp in 2013, beating the PAS contender's 6,902 votes and Amanah's 7,609.

Some 74 percent of the voters turned out in Sungai Besar and 71 percent in Kuala Kangsar.

The winning margins were far larger than the narrow 1 and 4 percent in Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar respectively that were notched in the 2013 general election, and they also are an indication that the sway is severely diminished for former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has made it a personal campaign to drive Najib from office. At age 90 – 91 on July 10 – his followers are increasingly concerned that his decades as a powerhouse and kingmaker may be coming to a close.