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A Mature Democracy? The Malaysian General Election

08 May 2018
By Lewis Mikulic

The General Election in Malaysia has the opportunity to shift government for the first time in 61 years. Who are the competitors? And what are the challenges for the vote?

Malaysia’s General Election 14 (GE14) has the potential to be one of the most significant in the country’s history. Since 1957, the United Malays Nationalist Organisation (UMNO)—the leader of various coalitions—has held power as the ruling party of the Federation of Malaysia. GE14 has the potential to end that 61 year winning streak, and it seems Prime Minister Najib Razak is doing everything he can to hold on.

The previous election in 2013 was a harrowingly close result for the UMNO-led coalition Barisan Nasional (BN). Despite normally winning a supermajority in parliament, BN lost the popular vote for the first time in Malaysian history. It was only through electoral seats—amidst accusations of gerrymandering—that BN held onto power by a slim majority. Since then, the situation has not improved for BN. UMNO’s leader Najib Razak has been under heightened national and international scrutiny as a result of corruption accusations surrounding the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad controversy (1MDB). It is not just Najib, but the party itself that is coming under scrutiny. Recent unpopular laws regarding goods and services tax and fake news have caused a nosedive in popularity. To make matter worse, Najib’s charismatic predecessor, Dr Mahatihir, has re-entered politics as the opposition party’s candidate for prime minister.

Two coalitions are opposing UMNO in this election. The more successful of the two is Pakatan Harapan: a coalition of left and centre-left parties led by Anwar Ibrahim of the People’s Justice Party (PKR). The coalition is comprised of PKR, the multi-racial Democratic Action Party (DAP), the progressive Islamic National Trust Party (AMANAH), and the racially exclusive Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM). Harapan was formed after the 2013 elections, due to the dissolution of the super-coalition Pakatan Rakyat over the proposed implementation of Hudud in Malaysia.

Perhaps the biggest surprise trump card for Harapan is the return to politics of Dr Mahathir, the prime minister of Malaysia from 1981-2003. Mahathir, who resigned from office in 2003, never completely left politics. Since his resignation, he has been a vocal critic of both his chosen successor Abdullah Badawi, and current Prime Minister Najib Razak. Not content to only commentate from the sidelines, Mahathir officially rejoined politics in 2016 at the age of 90 with the founding of PPBM, which joined the Harapan coalition of his former political rival Anwar Ibrahim. This new party is in line with his previous political ideology of Malay nationalism and racially discriminating policy in favour of Malays. Despite the clear contradiction of ideologies between the progressive left-leaning majority of Harapan, the introduction of Mahathir and his party allows the opposition to claim the valuable votes of Malay nationalists.

The third major coalition is the Islamic Gagasan Sejahtera (GS). It was, like Harapan, formed following the dissolution of Pakatan Rakyat. The main party of GS is the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and is the only party within the coalition to currently hold any seats. As expected given their origins, GS has strong views on the role of Muslim Malays in the country. Their leader, Abdul Awang, has claimed that the Muslim Malays are the “dominant race” and should hold all leadership positions within the country, lest those positions “fall into the hands of non-dominant races”.

GS have split their support base even further by calling Malaysia to reject “ignorant, independent thinking Muslims” in the upcoming election. Despite their relatively smaller number of seats won in the previous election (only 21 of 222), their seats are concentrated in Kelantan and Terengganu and there they hold significant political clout. Yet, even in those power states political commentators are predicting losses due to the alienation of anti-establishment Malays and the allure of Harapan. The potential impact of PAS on an upcoming parliament will remain, but many commentators have ruled them out as a serious opposition candidate.

This leaves the race between the incumbent UMNO-led BN and Harapan. The question that has been on the minds of many commentators has been one of fairness. The current administration has been implicated in corruption and Mahathir previously underwent international scrutiny for alleged abuses of power to remove political rivals.

The Malaysian civil activist group Bersih, which draws tens of thousands with their rallies, would argue that the current election, and even the previous election, are neither fair nor free. Bersih have been maintaining an electoral “hall of shame”, wherein they have inducted 10 currently running politicians for electoral dishonesty. Chief amongst those awarded this dubious honour is the current Electoral Commission (EC) Chairman Mohd Hashim Abdullah. With the exception of Abdullah, all those in the “hall of shame” have been reported to have engaged in vote-buying or illegal use of government funds for their campaigns. Abdullah on the other hand is being accused of manipulating the electoral roll to the advantage of BN through the deliberate removal of voters from the electoral roll without their consent. Of the alleged violators one belongs to PKR, one to PAS and the remaining seven to BN.

 Concerns over fairness do not end with money-politics and corruption. In the lead-up to and following the 2013 elections, accusations of gerrymandering were raised against UMNO in relation to the 2013 delineations. BN won the previous election by 19 seats. The EC, controlled by BN, had created 11 new seats in the BN safe space of Sarawak. In that same delineation larger constituencies (some eight times larger), which were held by opposition parties, remained unchanged. Despite complaints raised by the opposition, Bersih and formal complaints through the court of appeal similar delineation has occurred in the lead-up to GE14. Taking effect from 28 March 2018, re-drawn electoral boundaries are once again set to favour BN. The new boundaries have increased the number of ethnic Malays (the voter base of UMNO) in constituencies where the government had previously lost. Experts believe that this will result in BN victories in up to ten additional seats.

 Corruption and delineation demonstrate that BN is desperate to win this election. The 9 May result will be extremely telling of the state of politics in Malaysia. Even if BN loses government, there’s no guarantee that they will let it go. In the light of powerful anti-fake news laws, government control of the EC, and nearly limitless security laws, Najib has plenty of tools to handle an unsatisfactory result. Given Mahathir’s record, a Harapan victory is no indication of a cleaner, better government.

As the 9 May polling day draws closer, it is worth remembering Prime Minister Najib Razak’s 2013 victory speech:

“We have to show to the world that we are a mature democracy. Whatever happens, the decision of the people, the will of the people must be respected.”

Lewis Mikulic is an Honours Research Student at University of New South Wales at ADFA. He graduated from UNSW Canberra in 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in International Political Studies and Indonesian studies.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.