February 18, 2008

MALAYSIA: Goes to the polls in March 2008


by C. S. Kuppuswamy

"The election results could project a very polarised Malaysia because the non-Malay `communities are dissatisfied. Some of them will vote against the government and that swing will be interpreted as anti-Malay sentiment towards a Malay-led government," -.Khoo Kay Peng, Sedar Institute

"Things are very optimistic, more than the last election by far, and there is a sense of purpose among the opposition to illustrate to the government the real concerns about where the country is going." - Bridget Welsh, John Hopkins University

On 13 February, 2008, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, announced in a press conference in Kuala Lumpur that the parliament as well as all the state assemblies are being dissolved from that day, paving the way for the next general elections.

The next day (14 February, 2008), the Election Commission decided to hold the elections on 08 March, 2008, for which the nominations will be filed on 24 February, 2008. The political parties will be battling for 222 parliamentary seats and 505 state seats for 12 of the 13 state legislatures. Elections in the state of Sarawak are not being held now.

Indications for an early general election have been pouring in for over two months and speculations have been set to rest with this announcement. The last general elections were held in March 2004 and the next general elections are not due till May 2009. However it has been the practice to call for early general elections, when the political climate and the state of economy are conducive for the ruling coalition to return to power.

Former Deputy Prime Minister and Opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who was in Hong Kong when the PM made the announcement, remarked “It is shameful that Prime Minister Abdullah would choose to call the elections (now). It is unprecedented that you would call elections after three-and-a-half years with more than a two-thirds majority”.

Most of the analysts have been unanimous in indicating that the main reason for holding the elections in March is to prevent the former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, from taking part in the election (as he is debarred till April 2008 because of an earlier conviction on corruption charges).

The government is also burdened due to heavy subsidies on fuel and gas costing the government over 40 billion Ringgit (US $ 12 billion) per year. The government with its last experience of mass protests in this regard (in 2006) would like to defer the raise in oil prices till the general elections are over.

Malaysia, where people do not take to streets for voicing their concerns, was witness to two major rallies in November 2007. The first one on 10 November 2007, was organized by some NGOs backed by some opposition parties, seeking for more transparent electoral reforms. The second on 25 November, 2007, by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) was to protest against the continuing “marginalization” of the ethnic Indian community and the resultant economic plight of the Indians. Though both were dealt with brutally by the police force, this change in attitude of the people resorting to rallies even when permission was not granted, has rattled the government and the PM had to take some damage control measures in view of the impending election.

There was yet another rally on 16 February, 2008 by the Hindraf which was put down by tear gas and water cannons by the Malaysian Police. The Prime Minister remarked that this was yet another attempt to dissuade the Indians from voting the ruling coalition.

According to the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research, Malaysia’s economic growth may weaken in 2008 to 5.4 percent from an estimated 6.1 percent last year.

The Government has been mired in the last two years in a series of controversies – the murder of a Mongolian model linked to some politicians of the ruling coalition, the involvement of some politicians in the appointment of judges, the destruction of Hindu temples and a few cases between Malays and non-Malays with regard to marriages, divorces and burials, where mostly the decisions went against the non-Malays.

More than the opposition, the PM had come under attack from his own predecessor and mentor Tun Mahathir Mohamad in a long drawn vitriolic campaign in highlighting his failures and indecision to the extent of indicating that perhaps he (Badawi) was not the best man to replace him.

The media reports indicate that in a recent opinion poll his (Badawi’s) popularity had plummeted by about 30%.

The contentious issues for the current elections are:

State of Economy – steep increase in cost of living – high inflation rate – slowing economy – heavy subsidies in fuels

Racial Tensions and Religious Fervour – disparity between Malays and non-Malays widening – continuance of the affirmative action policy – marginalization of the Indian community – Muslim conversions – increasing cases pertaining to religious disputes over burial, marriage and divorce.

Corruption – promises made during the last elections to take up long pending cases have not progressed – Transparency International report on corruption in Malaysia is damaging.

Law and Order – the crime rate has increased by 13% last year and 45% in the last four years.

Malaysia is being ruled by a National Front Coalition called the Barisan Nasional since Independence. This front, as of now, has 14 parties of which the major parties are race based and some are regional parties. The parties that really matter are the predominant United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) of the Malays, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) of the Chinese and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) of the Indians.

The main opposition parties are the Democratic Action Party (DAP) - predominantly Chinese with a sprinkling of other races, Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) the fundamentalist Islamic party of Malays and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) – predominantly Malays with some representation of other races. Though there is some electoral arrangement for putting up a single opposition candidate in most constituencies for avoiding division of votes, the opposition parties are not able to form a united opposition front to take on the ruling coalition in a coordinated manner.

In the last elections in 2004 the Barisan Nasional won 198 of 219 parliamentary seats and 452 out of the 505 State Seats. The opposition secured only 20 parliamentary seats. Currently one state (Kelantan) is ruled by the opposition party PAS.

Barisan Nasional will make an all out effort this time to wrest Kelantan from the opposition and the opposition will fight to retain Kelantan and also try to deprive the ruling coalition a two- thirds majority in the parliament.

News Analyses

The Barisan Nasional has won all the general elections held so far since independence. Because of its powerful machinery, limited campaigning period and strict control over the print and visual media-it has all the advantage over the opposition.

It will be an achievement if the opposition parties manage to deny the ruling coalition a two-thirds majority in this election, which seems to be their target.

The Indians have been traditionally voting for the ruling coalition but this time, with fresh impetus for their simmering discontent from the Hindraf rally, a sizeable percentage is expected to vote for the opposition. However the ruling coalition is not unduly worried as their (Indians) numbers are too small to make any major impact.

The Malaysian Indian Congress and its president Samy Vellu, the only Indian minister in the cabinet (since 1979), are under great stress. He has come under harsh criticism and has even been heckled in some recent cultural and social functions for his and the party’s poor performance and failure to improve the economic status of the Indians. It remains to be seen whether MIC can continue to win most of the seats allotted to it as it had done before.

A novel feature in this election that has come to light is that some prominent NGO activists, students, independent journalists and civil rights activists are in the fray along with the opposition to high light the core issues where justice is not being done by the politicians. This is a new political development in this nation.

For Anwar Ibrahim this election is going to be an acid test. Since he cannot contest, his ability in shoring up the opposition by cashing on the prevailing sentiments and in improving the performance of his own wife’s party (PKR) is going to be keenly watched on his much publicized political come back.

Despite all the contentious issues, falling back on the promises made during the last elections, weakening economy, endemic corruption, disgruntlement of the non-Malays demonstrated through various means, embarrassment caused to the government by the involvement of some politicians in a few civil and criminal cases, the ruling coalition will return to power. The only debatable issue is whether it will be able to retain its two-thirds majority.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

good article...