Malaysia: Shifting balances in a complex multiparty system

Wan-Fen Su

Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak will choose the timing of Malaysia’s next elections with care in the light of the ever changing political and economic realities at home, in the region and around the world

South-east Asia has of late been buzzing with political activity, and developments in Singapore and Thailand have stirred much speculation about the possibility of an early election in Malaysia. In May, Malaysia’s southern neighbour, Singapore, held elections which the incumbent People’s Action Party won by a narrower margin than at any time since the country’s independence in 1965. And to the north, Thailand has been preparing to go to the polls in July in what is sure to be a difficult test of its bitter political divisions.

Regional political sentiment is often contagious. The Singaporean and Thai elections were brought forward by eight months and six months respectively, in part because their governments have been anticipating a global economic softening in the second half of 2011.

Some observers believe that Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Abdul Razak, could call the general election as early as the second half of this year to win a personal mandate allowing him to quickly push through some of his more unpopular economic reforms, including a goods and services tax and a further reduction in the fuel subsidy. The fact that the country’s current economic outlook is still relatively buoyant might well be an infl uence on his timing.

A victory for Najib would be a personal endorsement for the man who replaced Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, following the latter’s resignation from the top job in April 2009. Najib’s appointment as prime minister came as a surprise after the incumbent coalition National Front (Barisan Nasional – known as BN) had suffered such significant losses in the elections of March 2008. Since taking office, however, Najib, the son of the country’s second prime minister, Abdul Razak, has been busy affirming his political credentials.

Malaysia’s next general elections may not be constitutionally necessary until March 2013, but early political posturing by both Najib and the BN does seem to hint at an early election, whether this year or next. The BN has never before waited out a full five-year term – past governments have generally served around four years before seeking a new mandate, notes political scientist Wong Chin Huat.

Going to the polls in early 2012 might give the BN enough time to strengthen its position after state elections held in Sarawak in April 2011, which saw the nascent opposition grouping, the People’s Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat – PR), gaining ground in the ruling coalition’s traditional stronghold.

However, the PR may not be as solid as the Sarawak result suggests, largely because of disarray within the centrist People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat – PKR). In alliance with the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the right-wing religious Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia – PAS), the PKR can be seen as the glue that holds the PR together, but it is also the opposition coalition’s weakest link.

Former deputy prime minister and de facto coalition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, has been struggling to keep the PKR from falling apart following bruising internal elections in 2010. Meanwhile, the government has resumed its legal vendetta against Anwar, following new allegations of sodomy, which he strongly denies.

A further electoral calculation is provided by the currently strong palm oil prices, which have allowed many of Malaysia’s small-scale palm oil growers under the government’s rural Federal Land Development (Felda) schemes to weather rising infl ation. Felda settlers have traditionally seen the BN – particularly the dominant party, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) – as their patron, and they are expected to continue to vote solidly for the right-of-centre ethno-nationalist party. Palm oil prices are widely predicted to average a record MYR3,300 ($1,095) per tonne this year.

But the opposition’s clean sweep of 15 seats in the Sarawak state elections did seem to throw a spanner into the works. The interior of Sarawak is considered a BN stronghold and yet, despite the PR’s limited funds, logistics and media presence, there was a drop in popular support for the incumbent government from 63 percent to just 55 percent.

“With the opposition having more than doubled their seats in Sarawak, the view that Sarawak is a fi xed deposit for the [National] Front is no longer true. This is something that will limit Najib’s space to hold urgent general elections, because if it can happen here [in Sarawak], it can happen anywhere,” said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia specialist at Singapore Management University.

Sarawak and the neighbouring state of Sabah contribute a quarter of Malaysia’s parliamentary seats and they were key to keeping the BN in power at the federal level after the PR made big gains in the last general election of 2008. Looking beneath the ethnic layers that characterise Malaysia’s electorate, political analyst Ong Kian Ming says the BN suffered an almost 20 percent drop in support among the Chinese ethnic group and a smaller, but nonetheless substantial, 7 percent swing among the non Muslim bumiputeras (‘sons of the soil’) of Sarawak to the opposition.

Holding elections in 2012 might well allow socio-economic benefits from Najib’s recently unveiled Economic Transformation Programme more time to filter down to the masses and boost support for the incumbent government. Political analysts also suggest that the prime minister needs time to woo back minority votes.

The former prime minister and ex-leader of UMNO and BN, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, said recently: “The government still has time and I think we [the BN] can go on until 2012. If the situation is so good and you are confident you can win, then you can have an early election. For me, it should be 2016… but the law doesn’t allow it.” He suggested that the BN government take as long as it can before having an election, but that it should not wait until the very end of its term.

Najib has worked hard to project an image of a progressive and responsive government that is eager to reverse Malaysia’s decade of faltering economic growth. By unveiling a plethora of plans, programmes and initiatives aimed at stemming the brain drain, addressing social inequality and increasing national income levels – issues that cut across racial lines – Najib has managed to maintain his personal popularity at remarkably high levels.

And yet the prime minister has been cautious on completely removing ethnicallybased affirmative action, which favours Malaysia’s majority Malay-Muslim ethnic group. Firmly entrenched since the 1970s, the policy is unpopular with the country’s mostly Chinese and Indian minorities – and increasingly among those Malays who view the policies as leading factors in stunting foreign investment and encouraging corruption. A sign of the times has been the number of Malaysians choosing to reside abroad, which has quadrupled in the last 30 years to an estimated 1 million people in 2010, according to a World Bank report issued in April. The government’s promise that Malaysia can achieve high-income status by 2020 is being undermined by the country’s continuing loss of highly qualified manpower.

The significant gains made by the opposition parties in the last general election in 2008 seemed to lay the foundations of a de facto two-party system at both state and federal levels. This means that when Najib goes to the polls for the first time as prime minister and as leader of the BN coalition, he will want to be sure of both his timing and his policies as he tries to secure a full term in office in his own right.

About the author:

Wan-Fen Su is a freelance writer and analyst.


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