Malaysian Election Deadlock Seen Possible

Malaysia's national elections, tentatively to be held sometime in late March or early April, are shaping up as a free-for-all that could end with neither the government's Barisan Nasional nor the Pakatan Rakyat opposition winning enough votes to take power, resulting in what is called a hung parliament, political observers in Kuala Lumpur say.

Actually however, the situation is fluid and, with polling a relatively inexact science in Malaysia, there is no clear idea which side will gather the most votes. The Merdeka Poll taken last month says 45 percent of the people think the country is going in the right direction, but that doesn't mean 55 percent think it isn't. The remainder are split into different camps and some academics have questioned the Mereka Poll's polling methods.

Past predictions of close elections have been proven wrong as the Barisan has cruised home with majorities - although in 2008 that majority shrank dramatically. The apparent closeness of the race, however, has the business community on the edge. The lack of a clear mandate for one side or the other has raised fears of unrest.

One Malay businessman told Asia Sentinel recently that he plans to vote as early as possible on election day, which hasn't yet been announced, and then get on an airplane immediately to get out of the country until he sees which way the wind blows. Several of his friends have made the same decision, he said.

That shouldn't be overblown. Malaysia's racial situation has been poisonous for decades, since race riots on July 13, 1969 took an estimated 400 to 600 lives in the wake of national elections in which the opposition gained 50.7 percent of the votes although the Barisan managed nonetheless to hold onto the parliament with 66 percent of total seats. Voter participation is likely to go well above 80 percent, according to academic Wong Chin Huat of the Penang Institute, as both sides pour on the resources in what is shaping up as a bitter contest.

As many as 80 percent of the country's Chinese voters are expected to opt for the opposition, headed by Anwar Ibrahim, although the Indian community has shown signs of swinging back to the Barisan despite the disastrous condition of the ethnic Malaysian Indian Congress, which is riven with factionalism and infighting. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has made a special effort to woo the Indian community, turning up at Indian festivals and other events. Indians make up about 7 percent of the country's citizens.

With the government's two lesser ethnic components - the Malaysian Chinese Association and the MIC - a shambles, the biggest political party, the United Malays National Organization, has largely turned to the ethnic Malay community, which makes up 60. 3 percent of the country.

In doing so, the government has allowed Malay supremacist Ibrahim Ali and his Perkasa NGO to run largely wild in an effort to paint the Chinese as squatters in a Malay country. That, and a series of scandals and MCA party infighting, has driven the Chinese into the embrace of the opposition Democratic Action Party. It does raise hopes, however, that the racial situation is being manipulated artificially for electoral purposes and that once one side or the other wins, Ibrahim will shut up.

The question is how much of the Malay vote the other two component parties can pull away from UMNO. Parti Islam se-Malaysia has sought to soften its rural, fundamentalist Islamic stance to take moderate Malays away from the larger party. PAS has traditionally been the best organized of the three opposition parties. Whether painting itself as moderate turns off its traditional rural base remains to be seen. The party has banned the wearing of form-fitting cheong-sam dresses by Chinese entertainers in Kedah, then backed away from it, and barred women from cutting men's hair in Kelantan.

One of the big questions revolves around the three million new voters registered since the last election, either young voters, who in most countries are predisposed to be more liberal and open to change, as well as people who have never voted before but who have become disgusted enough by one side or the other to sign up.

Najib has made a concerted effort to woo them, turning up at rock concerts, forsaking his suit for sports dress and giving away thousands of coasters with his twitter address on them.

Another million-odd voters remain overseas. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, are planning to come back to their home country to mark their ballots. Until January, only full-time students, government servants and members of the armed forces and their respective spouses living overseas - most of whom are oriented towards voting for the government - have been allowed to register as absent voters and thus be entitled to vote by post. Previously, only Malaysian students, civil servants and members of the armed forces were allowed to vote overseas.

While the election commission has mandated that overseas citizens who had registered to vote and had returned home at least once in the five years before an election would be allowed to cast absentee ballots, the arrangements aren't clear and voters aren't taking chances.

There are roughly 300,000 Malaysian voters living in Singapore across the Causeway - almost all of them Chinese. Thousands are expected to come back across the border. Some, from as far away as Australia and the United Kingdom, have also indicated they would return. However, Wong said, it's unlikely that their numbers would be enough to have an impact, except by the fact that the ones who do come back are motivated voters likely to push their families into going to the polls as well.

One scenario has the two sides deadlocked, with neither able to form a majority, and turning to a national unity government headed by a senior statesman like Tunku Razaleigh Hamzah, the onetime finance minister who in the late 1980s staged a revolt against then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. This is one time it's best to fall back on the ancient journalistic ending line that only time will tell.