Malaysia Faces a Tense Election

Read also our three-story package on the Malaysia elections:

On May 9, voters in Malaysia will go to the polls in what is believed to be the closest national election since 1969, when ethnic Chinese-based opposition parties held a victory rally in Kuala Lumpur that precipitated riots in which hundreds died, most of them Chinese, and fractured the myth of racial harmony in the country for good.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, the United Malays National Organization president and leader of the Barisan Nasional, the national ruling coalition of ethnic parties, is arguably the least popular leader in modern Malaysian history although the Barisan has unlimited political funds and a smoothly running party machinery with long experience in bringing voters to the polls.

Some 222 parliamentary seats are up for grabs, with 112 needed for a simple majority. Lim Kit Siang, the venerable leader of the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, a major player in the four-party opposition coalition, on May 7 predicted the opposition would win 119 seats after one of his party generals was disqualified by the election commission.

Cliffhanger coming, analyst says

“It’s too close to call,” said a political analyst in Kuala Lumpur who asked not to be named. “The opposition have had the upside momentum since dissolution (on April 8); but the Barisan has pulled all the dirty tricks in the book. Both sides are confident of simple majority. They are both talking about 120-125 seats each.”

Another longtime observer of politics in Malaysia was more pessimistic. “With the playing field just about vertical in favor of the Barisan, it would be a real shocker if they lost,” he said. “The opposition could get 60 percent-plus of the aggregate vote and still lose.”

Others have called the election the best chance the opposition has ever had to take power. That has been manifested in the opposition Pakatan Harapan’s “ceramahs,” or political lectures that translate in fact as rallies. They have been mobbed, while enthusiasm at Barisan rallies has noticeably flagged. Anwar Ibrahim, the country’s most charismatic leader, has called for an opposition victory from the prison cell where he remains on charges that local and international human rights organizations insist are trumped up

A sounding of voters by the Merdeka Centre polling organization found that 49 percent of the electorate believe the country is headed in the wrong direction against 44 percent who believe it is going in the right direction.

Mahathir to the rescue

The 92-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has taken over the rudderless Pakatan coalition with Anwar in prison, is to speak at 10 pm the night before the election. Mahathir’s popularity appears to be soaring upward, especially after the Registrar of Societies outlawed the opposition party he formed, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, a move regarded as a transparent attempt to thwart his campaign. Anwar has pledged his loyalty to Mahathir despite the fact that Mahathir also jailed him two decades ago on equally specious sex charges.

Where in the past the Barisan has been able to play on fears of a Chinese takeover of the political reins, with Mahathir, the former leader of the country’s biggest ethnic Malay party. now heading the opposition coalition, that card is more difficult to play

Najib is enmeshed in a long series of scandals, the biggest of which, the loss of an estimated US$4.6 billion from the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd investment fund, has been called by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions the biggest kleptocracy case ever prosecuted by the US Justice Department.

More than US$1 billion in assets allegedly amassed in the United States by Najib and his family has been seized by authorities, who are hunting for more. Najib’s grasping wife, Rosmah Mansor, is regarded by a large segment of the voting populace as an Asian Lady McBeth, out to prop up her husband in power while amassing vast amounts of expensive jewelry including a US$24 million diamond ring.

Wily politician

Najib is nothing if not an adroit politician. He has managed to split the rural, fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, away from the opposition on a promise to the party’s leader, Hadi Awang, to allow the implementation of shariah law in Kelantan, the only one of Malaysia’s 13 states it controls.

Despite the scandals, which include the suspicious 2006 death of the Mongolian party girl and translator Altantuya Shaariibuu, a key figure in the US$1 billion Scorpene submarine affair, the death of AmBank founder Hussain Ahmad Najadi Hussain in 2013 and the 2015 murder of Deputy Public Prosecutor Kevin Morais, whose body was found in a cement-filled oil drum in a river, the prime minister has kept a tight grip on the party machinery through a combination of bribery of key cadres and playing on religious fears that an opposition victory could result in Chinese domination of the political process.

However, according to findings by the Merdeka Centre, at the top of voters’ concerns is the economy, with 45 percent nationally against only 20 percent putting scandals first despite the massive scandals that Najib is involved in. Only 3 percent are concerned by the 1MDB case, and only 2 percent care about the allegations against Najib’s integrity.

Najib could face jail if he loses

The possibility that Najib and other members of the family, including his wife, might go to jail if the Barisan goes down to defeat has meant the government has sought to copper its bets with a long list of actions that have disadvantaged the opposition. Among them, the government’s redelineation exercise has resulted in districts with as few as 5,000 constituents in UMNO-oriented areas against as many as 150,000 compressed into opposition districts.

In early April, the government hurriedly pushed through parliament a draconian “fake news” bill that the Communications and Multimedia Commission says it has used to investigate 1,500 news stories construed as untruthful. Civil society groups and international rights bodies including Amnesty International have called the bill an “assault on freedom of expression.” It mandates up to six years in prison and a maximum fine of RM500,000 (US$129,300).

Critical news sites including Sarawak Report, Asia Sentinel and the blog of Cambodia-based professor Din Merican have been banned in the country. The mainstream news media all are owned by political parties aligned with the government.

So Najib has left as little to chance as possible. The only variable is how outraged the voters are.