Malaysia’s Political Earthquake

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi could well lose his job after the country awoke to a radically political landscape Sunday, with the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition having suffered its biggest defeat since independence, losing five state parliaments outright and its two-thirds majority in the national parliament.

The relative drubbing in Saturday’s elections, in which the national coalition’s hold on the 220-member parliament fell from 198 seats to 127, appears likely to restore former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim to a significant role in national politics as leader of the opposition.

Mahathir Mohamad, who Abdullah Badawi succeeded in 2002, immediately demanded his ouster,saying he had "destroyed Umno, destroyed the Barisan Nasional, and he has been responsible for this."

If Abdullah Badawi is indeed ousted as prime minister and head of the United Malays National Organisation, his replacement is likely to be Najib Tun Razak, the scandal-scarred deputy prime minister, who has been UMNO’s most energetic powerbroker in recent years. And, as some critics have pointed out, it would be delivering UMNO back to the people who got the party into trouble in the first place through scandal, Malay chauvinism and corruption.

In particular, the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress, the parties representing ethnic Chinese and Indians in the ruling coalition, lost ground on growing discontent among minorities who feel that their interests are not being protected. Voter turnout ranged as high as 84 percent in some districts.

Although Abdullah Badawi kept his Kepala Batas parliamentary seat, a long string of coalition stalwarts fell. They include S. Samy Vellu, who has headed the Malaysian Indian Congress for three decades, and his deputy chairman, G Panaviel. Koh Tsu Koon, the acting president of Gerakan, the fourth party in the national coalition, lost his both parliamentary seat and the government in the state of Penang, which was taken by the opposition Democratic Action Party.

The opposition also won the states of Kedah, Perak and Selangor, which surrounds Kuala Lumpur. In addition, Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, the Islamic opposition party, strengthened its hold on the east coast state of Kelantan. The coalition also lost its two-thirds majority in several other state governments. And, as an indication of the growing power of the Internet in a country where the mainstream press is controlled by coalition political parties, Jeff Oei, one of the country’s most popular bloggers, was made a member of parliament for the DAP.

Along with Oei, there are other interesting new faces. Tony Pua, the Oxford-educated former CEO of Cyber Village Sdn Bhd, who sold his interest in the company to enter politics, won his suburban Kuala Lumpur seat and is expected to become a rising political star. Mukhriz Mahathir, the youngest of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s five children, won a Kedah seat away from a PAS contender to enter parliament from UMNO. Khairy Jamaluddin, Abdullah Badawi's son-in-law and a figure who has polarized voters against the prime minister, won in his first run for parliamaent as well.

Wan Azizah Ismail, Anwar’s wife, won her Permatang Pauh parliamentary seat, a prelude to Anwar’s all-but-certain return to parliament in April as soon as a by-election is held. The former deputy prime minister was barred from standing for a parliamentary seat as a result of his 1999 conviction on charges of corruption and sexual perversion, but that restriction will be lifted next month. Although the latter charge was reversed, Anwar served six years in prison on the corruption charge, which was widely criticized by human rights groups as trumped up. Nonetheless, his conviction meant he was disqualified from political activity for several years. Wan Azizah, or another winning candidate from Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the People’s Justice Party, is expected to step down once he is eligible to run.

Although Abdullah Badawi took office in 2002 as a reformer succeeding Mahathir, he has yet to deliver on the promise of change to the extent that voters wanted. Although the stock market is up 60 percent since he took office and to some extent cronyism has been discouraged and some of Mahathir's more grandiose projects have been put on hold, there has been widespread disgust over surging crime rates, increasingly tense race relations, spiralling inflation and a perception of corruption, particularly at the top of UMNO, due to a long series of highly public scandals.

The coalition sought to counter public anger by offering a wide range of official projects to win voters, from scholarships for rural and poor families to increased infrastructure spending to an offer to train thousand of new policemen. Nonetheless, the coalition’s ability to mobilize voters by using the levers of power didn’t work. The MCA in particular was riven with factionalism, with the party reeling over a sex scandal that drove Chua Soi Lek, one of Malaysia’s most powerful Chinese politicians, from office in January. Publication of a videotape of the episode was widely believed to have been made by rivals within the party. UMNO also suffered from infighting as Abdullah Badawi dropped several old party members from the election rolls only to have them fight back against newer, cleaner figures.

The question is where Malaysia goes from here. The government is treating its loss gingerly, warning against victory celebrations on the part of the opposition ethnic groups. That is because the last time the opposition gained anywhere close to the same number of seats, in 1969, Kuala Lumpur erupted in an ethnic bloodbath that saw hundreds of dead among both Chinese and Malays and brought about the downfall of Tunku Abdul Rahman, the architect of the country’s independence from Britain.

Abdullah Badawi himself called the result a victory for democracy and said he is under no pressure to step down. “I don’t know who is being pressured,” he told a press conference at the Barisan’s headquarters. “I’m not resigning.”

Although Najib Tun Razak, 54 and the son of one former prime minister and the nephew of another, is considered the man most likely to push Abdullah Badawi from power, he has been enmeshed in some of the country’s biggest scandals. He has never been asked to explain his role, if any, in the brutal murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a beautiful Mongolian translator who was executed by two of his bodyguards and whose body was then blown up with explosives available only to the military in September 2006.

One of Najib’s best friends, Abdul Razak Baginda, and the two bodyguards have been on trial for the murder since June 2007. The story has been relegated to the back pages of Malaysia’s newspapers as the trial drones on and the court has systematically chipped away at the physical evidence tying the three men to the murder.

However, Altantuya herself may have been peripherally involved in at least one questionable episode involving Najib himself. In court testimony, it was said that she was in Paris with Najib and Abdul Razak, with whom she was having an affair, when the purchase of three French submarines was being negotiated through a Kuala Lumpur-based company called Perimekar Sdn Bhd, which at the time was owned by yet another company called Ombak Laut, which was wholly owned by Abdul Razak Baginda.

The Malaysian Ministry of Defence, which Najib headed as defense minister, paid 1 billion euros (RM4.5 billion at that time) for the purchase of the submarines, for which Perimekar received a commission of 114 million euros, a whopping 11 percent of the ales price of the submarines.

Together with the submarine purchases, two other contracts – one for Russian Sukhoi jet fighters and a third for Malaysian navy patrol boats – appear to have produced at least US$300 million for UMNO cronies and others. All three of the contracts were approved under Najib and have been widely cited by the opposition as examples of UMNO – and Najib’s – corruption.