This Malaysian Election May Not be a Lock

Malaysia’s bedraggled political opposition, riding an apparent wave of citizen discontent, may be gaining some unaccustomed momentum ahead of voting at Malaysia’s general election, scheduled for March 8.

The opposition, beset by a lack of access not only to the levers of power but access as well to almost any of the elements that would contribute to a level playing field, including to the press or properly apportioned districts, has a nearly unbroken record of losses except for a handful of seats in the Dewan Rakyat, or national parliament, and in local legislatures.

Nonetheless, political analysts say the prospects for the loose-knit opposition coalition, made up of the multi-race Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or Justice Party, the Islamic Parti Islam se-Malaysia, and the Democratic Action Party, which is dominated by Malaysian Chinese, have perhaps the best chance in decades of denying the government its two-thirds monopoly on power.

Almost nobody gives the opposition coalition much more chance than just breaking the national coalition’s two-thirds majority. But a convergence of issues has improved the opposition’s chances. Although the economy is rolling along at a healthy 7.3 percent clip, led by domestic demand and bolstered by rising commodity prices and investment spending, inflation is a nagging issue, as is street crime, particularly in Kuala Lumpur, a city that has always seemed preternaturally safe. The National Crime Index has spiked up by 45 percent over a single year.

In addition, there is rising apprehension among both the Indian and Chinese populations over increasingly strident assertions of racial superiority by ethnic Malays. Whatever the debate, the fact remains that the worst race riots in Malaysian history – in May 1969, 39 years ago, have haunted and shaped Malaysian politics ever since. The race card has been used by all factions in Malaysia’s political scene, be it by the ruling coalition or by the opposition, largely causing the effect of maintaining the status quo.

A long string of corruption charges, many of them backed with considerable proof, have been laid at the door of top UMNO officials. Those charges of corruption have been exacerbated by the fact that Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi followed former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad into office with both a mandate to clean out the stables and a promise to do it, then backed away.

Thus heartened, the main opposition parties have agreed to cooperate with each other, fielding single candidacies in most constituencies to avoid splitting their votes and giving the Barisan a clear path to return to power. The Barisan in 2004 won 91 percent of the seats in the parliament and expects to lose at least some. Badawi himself has sought to dampen expectations, telling supporters and reporters to expect losses. Some analysts have suggested the opposition could take as many as 50 seats in the 219-member body. But as many as 30 would be optimistic.

Part of the opposition’s problem is that the electoral districts are blatantly gerrymandered. In the 2004 elections, although the Barisan won only about 64 percent of the popular vote, it ended up with 198 of the 219 seats. The MCA won 15.5 percent of the popular vote and 31 seats while the opposition DAP won about 10 percent of the vote but only 12 seats.

There are some wild cards. In a country where internet use is increasingly popular, independent websites like Malaysia Today and Malaysiakini are publicizing institutional corruption and other issues, particularly in the judiciary, which is facing its biggest scandal since the country came into existence.

“This election has the power of the Internet that is greatly influencing voters' opinion. Blogs and popular websites are quick and effective disseminators of information, where readers form opinions based on the information received,” Tricia Yeoh, a senior analyst for Malaysia’s Center for Public Policy Studies, told Asia Sentinel. “Secondly, the BN has had numerous issues to contend within the recent year, casting a shadow of gloom over its leadership, as opposed to the ‘positive feel’ it achieved in the 2004 elections.

“Such issues are - dissatisfaction over the demolition of temples and overall marginalisation of the Indians, judicial corruption brought to light, the inability to handle controversial cases on religion, the economy and rising prices, amongst others. Third, the groundswell of civil society in numerous forms: monitoring, advocacy, candidacy, voter education, again making use of the Web - is a significant factor compared to the previous elections,” Yeoh said.

But, Yeoh added, she expects the opposition to win no more than 15 new seats, giving it a total of 34 or so. It now holds 19.

With the opposition throughout its history having failed in any real terms to present any form of shadow government or balance of power to the ruling coalition, as usual the electoral battle is within the Barisan itself. Although Abdullah Badawi sought to consolidate his UMNO power base by attempting to put his own acolytes in place, dropping some old bulls from the battle, other attempts to drop state warlords have backfired.

In the northern state of Perlis, supporters of the incumbent chief minister resigned en masse, locking up operations rooms and refusing to campaign for the party. Meanwhile, observers say that the MCA president Ong Ka Ting dropped his key rivals, including former health minister Chua Jui Meng, who challenged Ong for the presidency in 2005.

The Barisan itself is riven with a variety of different struggles. Although UMNO previously dominated the cabinet and policy decisions, the MCA, MIC and Gerakan, another Chinese-dominated party, have been unable to have much impact in the wake of adverse court decisions concerning the rights of non-Malays.

Another wild card this time around is Mahathir Mohamad, 82, who for the first time is conspicuously not campaigning for the ruling coalition. Many younger generations have never known another prime minister and the older generation still have a good deal of respect for him. Ever since his venomous attacks started in 2006, in which he lashed out that Abdullah Badawi was not his first choice as successor and that the ill-starred Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, himself under fire for corruption, was better qualified, the prime minister has lost headway.

Mahathir has charged that his successor was mismanaging the economy and railed against the influence of Abdullah’s family members, in particular his son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin. The former premier’s attacks appear to be cutting into the prime minister’s support.

Grumblings also stem from the perception especially among the Chinese business community that the Malaysian economy is stagnant despite the strong official figures.

On the ground, although campaigning is in full swing, it appears that some urban voters may have already made up their minds to teach the Barisan a lesson. The general feeling extends across middle-class professionals be they Malay, Chinese or Indian, that Abdullah Badawi has failed in keeping his 2004 electoral manifesto and ideals.

More so, Mahathir again dealt a heavy blow when he said it was impossible for UMNO and the Barisan Nasional to reform itself and that it was up to the electorate to do the job.

Abdullah Badawi may be counting on traditional party loyalists and support from rural folk who are enjoying better wages thanks to the boom in commodities, especially palm oil. Malaysia is a major exporter with production standing at 15.8 million tonnes for 2007.

Signs in the kampungs, or rural villages, appear mixed although Barisan politicians say they are confident of success. While many villagers contend that there aren’t many localized grievances, many are concerned over the apparent lack of control that Abdullah Badawi has over the levers of power. Taking their cue from Mahathir, villagers seem unconcerned with national issues such as demonstration by ethnic Indian Malaysians, large pockets of whom seem to have rallied behind the Hindu Rights Action Force. HINDRAF alleges economic discrimination against Malaysian Indians by majority Muslim-Malays. This scenario may be supported by the fact that more than ever before, voters are scrutinizing the resumes of candidates and their suitability.

The time where a candidate could win just by the strength of the party symbol still holds in many safe constituencies. But many others formerly thought to be safe are now demanding to see candidates’ credentials. Furthermore, unlike in the 1999 elections, when Chinese and Indian voters stepped in to shore up the Barisan, non-Malay support does not seem forthcoming.

S. Samy Vellu, the president of the MIC, has come under intense fire with calls for his resignation for his alleged failure to advance the Indian community. The Chinese community may also take the opportunity to vent their anger with MCA over what is the party’s failure to stand up to what were deemed as racist acts when UMNO youth leaders in the widely-televised 2005 UMNO General Assembly, particularly Hishammuddin Hussein Onn, son of Malaysia’s third prime minister and UMNO youth chief, waved a Malay dagger or Keris during his speech and threatened to bathe it in Chinese blood. Malaysian Chinese took offence to that act. The MCA is also weakened as it wallows in internal strife with various factions fighting for influence and positions.

The combination of these factors and more have heartened the opposition. Although the Barisan Nasional will in the end continue its reign, if ever there was a threat to its power, by Malaysian standards anyway now is that time.