Malaysia prepares for an unusually issue-driven general election

Developing Just Leadership

Abdar Rahman Koya

Safar 23, 1429 2008-03-01

South-East Asia

by Abdar Rahman Koya (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 1, Safar, 1429)

As Crescent goes to press, intense campaigning is under way in Malaysia for the general election on March 8. The election was called by prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi after almost a year of speculation that turned out to be correct: that it would be held before April this year. One reason why it is held a year in advance is for the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)-led coalition government to renew its mandate before economic problems become more apparent in the coming months.

Anwar (right) campaigning for his daughter Nurul Izzah in a key constituency in Kuala Lumpur

Another reason for the early general election is to deny Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister who has become an opposition leader, a chance to stand, because his legal ban on holding a political position expires in April. But the first reason appears to be more pressing: rising prices and the government's reversal of subsidies to control the oil-price are some key issues on the minds of voters. Anwar, on the other hand, can always ask a winning candidate from his party to resign his seat and contest a bye-election to return to parliament.

While many will remember the general election in 1999 as Malaysia's most intensely fought, this time is no less intense; in fact it is being described as crucial for many people. It is the first time Abdullah's own performance will be evaluated by the electorate since his coalition's resounding victory in 2004. That election, however, is said to have been based on expectations. This time, it is being based on performance.

For Anwar, who now heads the fledgling People's Justice Party (PKR), formerly headed by his wife, the election is a make-or-break time, despite the fact that he is not allowed to contest any seat himself. Time is running out for him: chronologically he is fast leaving the political age-bracket of the ‘youth' – the group who pushed him to the heights of political power a decade ago; politically his prime ministerial aura is fading in people's memories. This is serious because Anwar has burnt his bridges with UMNO, despite the truth of the adage that there are no permanent enemies or friends in politics. Even an improvement of his party's performance in this election could energise him for the next general election.

This is also the first general election for Anwar since his dismissal. As a would-be prime minister, he was last seen campaigning intensely in 1995 against the Islamic Party (PAS) and other opposition parties. That year the coalition won its biggest electoral victory. By contrast, the next election (in 1999) was its worst performance.

“You can see me enjoying myself very much. Yes, I was campaigning for UMNO previously, but there were a lot of limits - it was not open and frank,” he recently said of his past. Anwar is finding himself where his former opponents have been: at the receiving end of UMNO's media-propaganda, heavy publicity machinery and hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of instant development and campaigning. Such a David-and-Goliath scenario has been usual for general elections in Malaysia.

Fighting alongside Anwar as separate ‘coalitions' are strange bedfellows: the Islamic Party (PAS) on one side and the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP), whose leaders' allergy to Islam covers everything from Islamic state and Shari‘ah laws to the use of the Arabic-Malay Jawi script on road-signs. This is where Anwar's role as middle man and negotiator came into play during negotiations for seats among opposition members, resulting in opposition parties agreeing not to challenge each other for all seats.

Anwar's ban from participation – because of the five-year ban imposed on him after his false conviction – is also good for the opposition, as it means he can campaign all over the country, and not just where he would have stood. But for him to get a landslide victory for any of his party's candidates is a Herculean task. If he is to contest a bye-election once a winning candidate has stepped down for him, attaining a comfortable margin is crucial for his route back to Parliament to face his former lower-rank colleagues, and ultimately for his political future.

Some of the biggest electoral battles are being fought in the east-coast state of Kelantan, the only state controlled by PAS and considered its stronghold since its formation half a century ago. Many political analysts have said that PAS's victory the last time, when it managed to hold on by wafer-thin majorities against UMNO, must be its last one. A lack of younger leaders to succeed PAS's ageing leaders, as well as UMNO's strong resolve to recapture the state by pouring billions of dollars into the promise of ‘development', makes this likely. Any failure inKelantan will push PAS back to the political fringes, a position it had been relegated to in the eighties, only to be revived by internal crises in UMNO.

One thing is certain: that the election will be fought with all the vote-rigging, media-propaganda and electoral abuses found in most Muslim ‘democracies'. As such, the former strongmanMahathir Mohamad's absence is not missed; the ‘democratic' system he built during two decades of rule is, after all, not meant for him only, but also for his successors.

But unlike the general election in 1999, when issues of corruption as well as injustice and anger over Anwar's mistreatment dominated, and the elections of 2004, in which the opposition was robbed of its most prized asset by the departure of Mahathir, this time a number of issues have managed to come out into the open, thanks largely to the internet, making the mainstream media redundant in many urban areas. But the truth is that different communities are going to polls for different reasons. In 1999 a large number of Malay-Muslims went to the polls to punish the government for its injustices and un-Islamic acts that were successfully exploited by opposition parties, namely PAS; this time, however, the opposition's agenda is being hijacked by some anti-Islamic politicians who are bent on “de-Islamising” Malaysia and bringing about further secularisation of the country, especially in the legal and educational fields.

The Chinese have always based their voting decisions on the economy. But economic factors have always been overplayed, with UMNO leaders attributing Malaysia's economic success wholly to their prudent economic policies, and opposition leaders blaming government mishandling in the event of recession. But Malaysia's economy fits the old Indian wisdom: if there is rain, even a monkey can rule. The truth is that the role of politics in mature economies is minimal, and will continue to decrease further.

The tiny Indian minority, until recently the government's most loyal supporters, are expected to vote against the government because of perceived discrimination against them, but only a complete swing will inflict meaningful damage to the ruling parties. Whether or not the Malays will take revenge for what the Chinese did in 1999 – when the non-Malays were almost united in shunning the calls for reform – remains to be seen.

With non-Muslim politicians now pressing for more “non-Muslim rights” (a phrase which has recently become their favourite battle-cry), the ruling coalition will find the Malays their best friends this time. So much emphasis was given to this that the reaction was an umbrella-group of Islamic organisations (including ABIM, the largest non-political Islamic organisation in the country) issuing a “Muslim elections demand” to all political parties. Among others, it calls for the further empowerment of the Shari‘ah system, defence of Muslim employees' rights, respect for Islam as the official religion and rejection of “religious pluralism”, a phrase which in the local context means de-Islamising the country's institutions and a brake on official “Islamisation” drives, even if it is “perceived” or “ceremonial”. This is an irony in a country where Muslims are dominant politically and socially, especially when seen against a backdrop where championing Islam (or being perceived to be doing so) is a strong political weapon.

Even PAS has found that openly opposing the secularists' demands will be disastrous, in expectation of a swing of non-Muslim votes against the government, resulting in “Islamic state” not being mentioned in its campaign at all this time. Perhaps encouraged by the Turkish Islamists' successful use of welfare in their slogans, PAS leaders have offered voters a “welfare state”. In any case, Malaysia's multi-religious and multi-lingual society is very different from any other Muslim country. The truth is that non-Muslims will continue to shun PAS even if they are angry with the government, and will only vote for their own kind. The openness displayed by Muslims both in the ruling and the opposition parties, such as when allocating parliamentary seats even to a marginal community such as the Indians, is clearly lacking among most non-Muslim opposition politicians.

With a combination of dirty tactics, media propaganda and heavy government expenditure, the UMNO-led National Front have been returned to power comfortably for the last fifty years. This was aptly demonstrated in 1999, following rare anti-government feelings among Malays who took to the streets in tens of thousands. Then, some had argued that should elections be held during such a tumultuous period, UMNO would lose. Ever since, people have become cynical when gauging the opposition's strength at the polls, never mind the fact that the ruling coalition have always gained little more than half of the votes cast, which is irrelevant in Malaysia's electoral system, which is styled after Westminster.

So if it takes a tumultuous event within UMNO to affect the election results in Malaysia, the opposition parties, namely the Malay-led parties such as PAS and PKR, had better be prepared for a major disappointment as usual.

Will such a defeat result in a rethink among opposition parties, particularly PAS, about their future role in a quasi-democratic Muslim country such as Malaysia, with its primitive political environment? Even such a loaded question begs an answer. By the time this article is printed and read, a provisional answer should be on its way.

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