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Political gap narrows in Malaysia

Asia Times - May 7, 2013

Anil Netto, Penang Malaysia's general elections returned the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition to power with a weak mandate and the potential for political instability in the weeks ahead. The opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim has questioned the integrity of Sunday's result and has refused to concede defeat until investigations are conducted into numerous reported irregularities.

On polling day, social media was abuzz with alerts, photographs and videos that showed the indelible ink used to prevent voters from casting more than one ballot was easily washed away. Other reports indicated that busloads of people believed to be nationals of other countries had cast votes. There were also widespread allegations of vote-buying.

Bersih, a civil society coalition campaigning for electoral reforms, withheld its recognition of the polls and has not yet indicated whether it would protest the result. The activist coalition has held three mass rallies, including a demonstration in April that drew by some estimates 200,000 people, against an electoral system it believes is rigged in BN's and its main component United Malay Nasional Organization (UMNO) party's favor. Anwar on Tuesday urged opposition supporters to protest the result.

There could be significant grass roots support for a follow-up rally. A petition on the website change.org appealing to the United Nations to investigate electoral fraud allegations had gone viral online with more than 200,000 signatures as of Tuesday. So far Anwar has called on PR supporters to remain calm while investigations are ongoing.

On Monday, Najib Razak called for the opposition to accept the result while being sworn in as prime minister. According to official results, the BN won 133 of parliament's 222 seats, down from the 140 it notched at the 2008 polls and below its coveted two-thirds majority. PR increased its parliamentary representation from 82 to 89, according to the results.

In a significant turn, PR won over half of the popular vote, with the BN lagging about three to four percentage points behind. According to the official results, PR polled 5.6 million votes to the BN's 5.2 million. The discrepancy between the share of popular votes and actual parliamentary seats won PR won only 40% of parliament's seats owes to periodic gerrymandering orchestrated by the BN to favor its candidates in rural areas.

Notwithstanding possible rallies against the result, Najib's political future now hangs in the balance. He was appointed prime minister in 2009 following former premier Abdullah Badawi's relatively poor electoral showing at the 2008 elections. The danger for Najib is that, like Abdullah, he could be removed from UMNO's presidency which traditionally brings with it the premiership after an even worse electoral performance.

UMNO party elections are due to be held later this year. For its part, UMNO won 88 of the 119 seats it contested for a win-rate of 74%. However, all five of Najib's personal aides who contested a seat lost. During his victory speech on Sunday night, Najib and BN aides around him were visibly glum despite their win in what was a grueling electoral battle.

UMNO now holds two-thirds of BN's 133 seats, further consolidating its domination over the ruling coalition. Affiliated parties from the North Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak are now the largest junior partners. Other ethnic-based parties such as the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), once major players in the BN's forerunner, the Alliance, have become bit players, reflecting the shrinking demographics of their traditional supporters. Many MCA and MIC supporters defected to PR ahead of the polls.

There is political irony in the fact that it was Najib's father, former prime minister Abdul Razak, who broadened the diversity of the former Alliance from an UMNO-MCA-MIC coalition to a wider BN coalition that included other smaller parties following a poor electoral showing in 1969. It remains to be seen if Najib will now try similarly to enlarge the BN by luring PR-affiliated parties, whether directly or through a pact, into its fold.

Within PR, the multi-ethnic but largely Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) recorded the biggest gains in parliament, raising its tally from 28 seats in 2008 to 38 this time. Anwar's People's Justice Party (PKR) largely held its ground with 30, while the Islamic party PAS slipped slightly to 21 seats. Najib, typical of his party's race-based perspective, labeled the opposition's gains as a "Chinese-tsunami".

More than race

That ethnic portrayal, however, is not entirely accurate. The seats DAP contested were mostly in urban areas, where people irrespective of ethnicity were fed up with official corruption and the rising cost of living and readier for a political change. PKR and PAS also won in a string of urban seats they contested.

Those results highlighted a more pronounced urban-rural divide in voting behaviors. Urban voters appeared more willing to set aside racial and religious barriers to focus on the "new politics" of democratic reforms and good governance the PR had promised if voted into power. Rural voters, many cut off from more critical online new sources, continue to rely on the pro-BN mainstream media and voted along those lines.

Political scientist Johan Saravanamuttu suggested that many of these rural Malays have always seen the BN, or more accurately UMNO, as the provider of their basic needs. "They have become so ingrained into choosing the (BN) for years," he told Asia Times Online. In the early post-independence years, the Alliance-BN practiced the "politics of developmentalism" in providing for their basic infrastructural needs. When many of those needs were met, Najib took it one step further by reinforcing the perception of the BN as provider through direct cash handouts through his richly funded "1Malaysia" initiatives.

BN's blatant attempts at vote-buying, seen in free dinners and entertainment performances for voters, put off many urban voters. That was seen by the even stronger majorities PR won in the economically developed states of Selangor and Penang. But the cash handouts appear to have had an impact in poorer rural areas, especially in the north Borneo swing states of Sarawak and Sabah.

PR won 17 of the 22 parliamentary seats in Selangor, but could only raise slightly its tally of the 56 seats available in Sabah and Sarawak, raising the meager two seats it won in 2008 to nine at Sunday's polls. PR's inability to make stronger inroads into rural areas in North Borneo and peninsular Johor likely cost the coalition federal power. PR parties are still relatively evenly balanced at the state level, with the DAP helming Penang, a PKR chief minister leading Selangor and PAS in control of Kelantan.

For those hoping Sunday's election would usher in a 'new politics', characterized by a focus on democratic reforms and accountable government and a shift away from narrow ethnic and religious issues BN's win will likely reinforce the political status quo. Ahead of the polls, a Ubah! (Change!) slogan had spread like wildfire along the urban-oriented west coast of the peninsula, leading many to believe that PR had a fighting chance of forming the next government. But widespread electoral irregularities and politicized gerrymandering left many Malaysians with a palpable sense that the PR has been unfairly denied federal power, especially given that it won the popular vote.

Overt race-based politicking, however, fared poorly at the polls. Ibrahim Ali and Zulkifli Noordin, president and vice-president of the ethno-nationalist, pro-Malay Perkasa group, were both defeated in the seats they contested. Similarly, independent candidates from the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), which once captured the imagination of Indian Malaysians with its zealous championing of their interests but later aligned with BN, likewise failed at the polls.

Other stalwarts of BN's old race-based politics, including former premier Mahathir Mohamad, appear to have made gains. BN recaptured Mahathir's mostly rural home state of Kedah from PR component party PAS, which bungled its governance of the state through infighting and unpopular housing policies. Mahathir's son, Mukhriz Mahathir, won a state seat and seems poised to take over as Kedah's chief minister. He may also rise within UMNO's hierarchy should Najib be voted down as party leader.

That sets up the tantalizing prospect of the long-running Mahathir-Anwar duel, first ignited in the wake of the 1997-98 financial crisis, continuing into the next generation. In his political climb, Mukhriz, deputy minister of international trade and industry in the previous government, could soon bump up against a rising star within the PR, Nurul Izzah, Anwar's eloquent daughter who is seen as a future leader in her own right. In one of the highlights of the campaign, Nurul once again sensationally knocked out a Cabinet minister from UMNO in a closely contested urban seat in the capital of Kuala Lumpur.

The BN may have been returned to power but the ruling coalition now finds its traditional rural support base shrinking with rural-to-urban migration and shifting perceptions of its rule through growing access to Internet-based independent news. Not only did BN lose the popular vote but the creative energy and youthful dynamism of the country's urban areas have decidedly shifted towards PR. While an unreformed electoral system allowed BN to carry the day in the controversial polls, the number of voters in search of a new Malaysia where old ethnic and religious barriers no longer matter is clearly on the ascent.

[Anil Netto is a Penang-based writer.]

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