Letter from Kampar: winning the election, losing Malaysia – Foreign Affairs

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http://www.foreignaffairs.com/features/letters-from/winning-the-election-losing-malaysia (published on Foreign Affairs on May 18)

BN candidate Daniel Wa campaigning in Kampar the day before voting (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

BN candidate Daniel Wa campaigning in Kampar the day before voting (Simon Roughneen)

KAMPAR — He wouldn’t give his full name or his age — except to say that he had vivid childhood memories of Japan’s World War II occupation of Malaysia — but Lee, a Chinese-Malaysian shopkeeper in Kampar, a onetime tin-mining hub in the northwestern Malaysian state of Perak, didn’t hold back. “Politics in this country is about this: money politics,” he said, using the local shorthand for corruption. “The BN” — Barisan Nasional, or National Front — “is clever at it, and that means it is difficult for the opposition to win in this country,” he added.

Sure enough, the parliamentary election held May 5 resulted in the BN coalition maintaining its nearly six-decade hold on power, which dates all the way back to Malaysia’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1957. The BN fended off a strong showing by Pakatan Rakyat (PKR, or People’s Alliance), the opposition coalition, which ran a campaign focusing on alleged government graft — the “money politics” — and the BN’s perceived ethnic favoritism toward the country’s 60 percent Malay majority.

Although the BN, which is made up of 13 parties and led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, of the dominant United National Malays Organization (UMNO), will continue to helm the government, the PKR can count its showing as something of a victory. After all, the opposition coalition won 89 seats to the BN’s 133 — far from a hung parliament, to be sure, but nonetheless the closest race in Malaysian history. And that only builds on the unprecedented inroads that the opposition made five years ago, when, for the first time, it denied the BN a two-thirds majority in parliament, which allows lawmakers to amend the country’s constitution.

Given the Malaysian economy’s good performance (it has grown by about five percent in each of the last few years), the BN hoped — even expected — to regain its two-thirds majority this year. So why did it lose ground again? For one, most of the 25 per cent of Malaysians who are of Chinese descent, such as Lee, were seemingly alienated by the BN’s pro-Malay sentiments. The coalition also ceded ground in urban areas: the PKR’s reformist rhetoric and catchy campaign slogans — “Ubah” (change) and “Ini kali lah” (now is the time) — caught the imagination of younger urban middle-class Malaysians of all ethnicities who are left cold by what they see as the BN’s old-school cronyism.

In 2011 and 2012, these very voters had rallied in Kuala Lumpur for electoral reforms, claiming that Malaysia’s current electoral system is weighted in the BN’s favor. The protests ended with the police firing tear gas and water cannons into the crowd, injuring hundreds, including opposition leaders. In the wake of growing unhappiness, Najib had enacted some changes. Starting in mid-2011, he relaxed media restrictions and diluted some old colonial security statutes, such as the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allowed for indefinite detention without trial, sometimes for vague security reasons. But the opposition found these liberalizations insufficient, and UMNO hard-liners saw the measures as unnecessary concessions to the opposition.

For its part, the PKR believed that it had the momentum going into the elections, galvanized by the leadership of the outspoken and controversial Anwar Ibrahim, who was prohibited from running in 2008 and had spent six years in prison on sodomy charges that he says were politically motivated fabrications. By taking to the streets and the airwaves this year, he served as a unifying figure for the otherwise disparate PKR coalition.

Both sides, in other words, were optimistic before polling day. But in the aftermath of the loss, the PKR’s sense of grievance had only been sharpened by the fact that it won the popular vote, a 51-47 split that nonetheless resulted in a 40-60 seat allocation in favor of the BN. Inherent flaws in Malaysia’s first-past-the-post voting system were exacerbated by enough cheating, here and there, to skew the outcome in the BN’s favor, the losing coalition says.

Their evidence: throughout election day, social media buzzed with allegations about foreigners having somehow acquired citizenship so that they could vote for the BN. Local online media also reported that the BN had bought votes in rural areas. Malaysian Instagram and Facebook users proudly posted photographs after voting, their index fingers extended to show a dab of blue ink on the tip — but word was that the supposedly indelible stain was too-easy washed off.

As polls were closing on election night, Anwar told media in Kuala Lumpur that he had ample proof of cheating and that he would not recognize the results until an official investigation into the vote fraud claims was undertaken. Since the result was announced, the opposition has drawn tens of thousands of black-clad supporters (the garb is meant as a protest against the election outcome) to rallies in several locations around the country. It is what Anwar has described as “a fierce movement to clean this country from election malpractices and fraud.”

The BN has, of course, dismissed Anwar’s cheating claims, saying that the election was aboveboard and that the electoral system is valid and transparent. (During the campaign, the coalition took every opportunity to claim that the untested and fractious opposition could never be trusted to manage Malaysia’s hoped-for transition to “developed” economy status by 2020.)

The BN has also been quick to remind Malaysians that the PKR comprises three very different parties. One is a personal vehicle for the Anwar Ibrahim; another, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), mostly represents the interests of the Chinese minority; and the third is an Islamist party, known by its Malay acronym, PAS, that campaigns for increased use of Islamic law in Malaysia. During the campaign, Najib had talked up the need for good communal relations, and his supporters papered the country with blue “1 Malaysia” flags, meant as an overture to the 40 percent of the country that is not Malay. (Malaysia’s population is 60 percent Malay-Muslim, 25 percent Chinese-Malaysian, and seven percent Indian-Malaysian. The remainder is comprised of various minorities.) Those were pointed digs at the DAP, which Najib accuses of being run by and for Chinese-Malaysians, and the PAS, which is locked in an intra-opposition row with the DAP over whether Malaysia’s Islamic laws, which apply to Muslims only, should be expanded. (In the opposition’s mind, it is UMNO and its pro-Malay policies that stoke racial discord.)

Those tactics might have won over some Malay voters, but they certainly alienated some non-Malays in the process. The election saw Chinese-Malaysians voting en masse for the opposition. In years past, the Chinese vote was keenly contested between the DAP and the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the BN’s in-house Chinese party. As a grim-faced Najib acknowledged just after his coalition had passed the 112-seat threshold needed to form a government, he “expected” the lack of Chinese support for the BN, but not “to this extent. None of us expected this extent.” After the result, communal-partisan tensions increased, with BN-backed press publishing inflammatory anti-Chinese headlines as senior UMNO and DAP figures accused each other of racism.

Najib’s new 57-member cabinet, which he announced May 15, contains two Chinese-Malaysian figures, including the former head of the country’s Transparency International chapter. It did not include anyone from the Chinese parties that contested the election. There is, however, a space left vacant in case the MCA reverses a decision not to join the government, which it says was related to its poor election showing.

Whether the deciding factor in the election was the PKR’s relative inexperience, BN’s steady economic hand, racial fears, or old-fashioned cheating, the irony now is that, despite his win, Najib could lose his seat as UMNO leader (and, consequently, as Prime Minister) at a party conference later this year. Mahathir Mohamed, the near-nonagenarian éminence grise of Malaysian politics who was prime minister for over two of the nearly six decades of BN rule, said as much before this year’s election, warning of a need to “change horses” should the BN not win decisively.

Mahathir had previously spoken out against some of Najib’s pre-election concessions to the opposition, making Najib’s balancing act all the trickier. Najib, for his part, would likely defend his moves, arguing that, without the reforms, the BN could have lost the May 5 election. He can also point to opinion polls that put his own personal popularity well above that of his party. Conservatives in his own ranks would likely scoff, claiming that his reforms failed to bring over any skeptics — at least not enough to reverse the PKR’s gains since 2008 — and that the changes, therefore, were pointless concessions. It all means that, despite the seeming alienation of the country’s Chinese minority, and notwithstanding street and possible legal challenge to the election outcome, Najib’s toughest fight could come from within his own ranks.

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