Note: This article first appeared in Spectrum.
By Luke Hunt
AsiaWATCH — Malaysia’s latest attempt at staging a clean and fair election again fell widely short of expectations but this time around the polls have laid bare the nation’s odious racial divisions and left an increasingly agitated electorate with little but political chaos to look forward to.
Bitterly disappointed was Prime Minister Najib Razak. He did win the contest and ensured the 56-year unbeaten run by the Barison Nasional (BN) coalition as the nation’s leaders would continue.
However, Chinese voters deserted the coalition in droves, reduced the ruling party’s majority and left Najib’s One Malaysia campaign – designed to show-off the country’s racial harmony — in tatters.
Najib said he had been hit by a “Chinese tsunami”. As such his stewardship can no longer be guaranteed and a leadership challenge, most likely from his upstart deputy Muhyiddin Yassin, seems inevitable.
Equally opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim struggled. Promises of a sweep into power and ridding the country of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – the party of native Malays, Najib and the rulers of BN since independence in 1957 – failed to materialize.
His standing and that of his Pakatan Rakyat (PR) did improve, just, with the party picking up a morale-boosting majority of the overall vote but he has again proved incapable of mustering a broad-based political support network capable of handing him a substantial mandate to govern.
“Barisan Nasional has achieved victory without a popular mandate, the Pakatan Rakyat defeat was without moral loss. Both now seek explanations for their failures,” said Gavin Greenwood, a regional risk analyst with Hong Kong-based Allan & Associates.
“Malaysia now faces the prospect of a period, at best, characterized by mutually hostile political confrontation,” he said.
That hostile reaction has already taken to the streets with 50,000 people clad in black ignoring police and government warnings by rallying at the Kelana Jaya sports stadium in Selangor against gerrymandering that favors Malays in rural areas, election irregularities and allegations of cheating.
These included allegations of people voting more than once, vote buying, citizenships granted in return for votes, electoral roles loaded with the names of dead people, and the transporting voters around the country to ensure their ballots were cast.
Complaints while voting were common. While standing at one polling station an elderly woman held out her finger. She had just voted and the finger was only partially covered in the indelible ink designed to limit fraud and stop people from voting more than once. The ink is supposed to last a week.
“Look,” she said while rubbing her fingers. “It washes off in the rain.”
On social media sites Malaysians have taken to blacking out there profile pictures while counting continues with BN’s overall vote falling to 46.53 percent from just over half recorded at the 2008 poll when the UMNO-led BN lost its cherished two-thirds majority in Parliament.
That majority had enabled a generation of prime ministers to pass laws which favored bumiputeras – native Malay Muslims predominantly from West Malaysia — over Chinese, Indians and other ethnic and indigenous groups who belong largely to the Buddhist, Hindu and Christian communities.
They were enforced after the 1969 race riots when Malay mobs went on a rampage, killing hundreds, after election results did not go their way.
Importantly, the loss of that two-thirds mandate prompted Najib to move, in April 2009, ousting his predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi amid promises to win back the lost ground.
It soon became apparent this would not be possible and one UMNO insider later quipped that “Najib will simply have to improve on BN’s standing at the next election” to hold down his job.
BN won 133 seats in the 222-seat Parliament down from 140 seats in 2008. Of the major coalition partners UMNO won 88 seats compared with 79 in 2008 thanks in part to gerrymandering, while the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) was trounced picking up just seven seats, compared with 15 previously.
In short, BN lost seven seats picked up by Anwar’s Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition for a total of 89 seats. Within PR the Democratic Action Party (DAP) picked-up the lion’s share of the Chinese vote adding 10 seats to the total while Anwar’s own party the Parti Keadilan Rakya (PKR) lost one seat and the Islamic firebrands at the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) dropped two seats.
PR won 53.47 percent of the total vote.
“UMNO and Malay nationalists were quick to blame the Chinese, openly accusing them of ingratitude and seeking to dominate the country,” Greenwood said.
He added this was perhaps an ominous charge given it came less than a week ahead of the 44th anniversary of the 13 May 1969 race riots that resulted in the deaths of many hundreds of Chinese in Kuala Lumpur at the hands of well organised Malay mobs and the military.
As Chinese voters gathered at the stadium they were no doubt mindful of this and another rally held in Kuala Lumpur almost two years ago calling for electoral reform, when police tear-gassed protestors who had found some respite on the grounds outside the Chinese maternity hospital.
The gas was overwhelming, leaking into wards and a neighboring hospital as well. Police and the government denied the incident despite ample evidence from an international press corps and thousands of witnesses armed with cell phone cameras. Relations between the government and the Chinese community have never been quite the same.
Anwar is refusing to concede defeat and is challenging the results of 30 seats but his days do appear to be numbered after he said during the lead-up to last weekend’s elections that he would stand down if he fails to win the top job.
“If we don’t get the mandate, then we should give space for the second-liners in leadership,” he said during an online forum broadcast on YouTube.
Anwar, 65, served as UMNO’s deputy prime minister until 1998 when he had a falling out with the then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and was imprisoned for corruption and sodomy. He was released from jail in 2004, however, after the sodomy conviction was overturned and he quickly returned to Parliament.
Despite retiring in 2003 after 22 years-in-power, Mahathir has remained Anwar’s nemesis. This rivalry is partly fueled by Mahathir’s son, Murhkriz, entering politics. He was a cabinet minister in the previous government and in this poll moved to state politics.
Mahathir is widely believed to be steering his son towards the prime minister’s job and he could pose a threat to Muhyiddin’s ambitions. Mahathir said BN would now have to decide Najib’s fate after he presided over the coalition’s worst ever electoral performance.
“I had hoped that this time BN would get more seats than in 2008 … I’m quite disappointed and shocked to find out that in the end BN got less than in 2008,” Mahathir told reporters while arguing that ungrateful Chinese and greedy Malays were behind the poor result.
BN strategists have limited political prospects. Muhyiddin is strong on Malay nationalism which is unlikely to win him any friends among the Chinese while Khairy Jamaluddin, the President of the UMNO youth wing is also possibility. However Mahathir’s persistent interference long after he retired remains an issue and insiders say he has alienated voters, in particular traditional UMNO supporters keen on change and tired of a party which seems bent on repeating the sins of the past.
Anwar was again acquitted of sodomy charges in January 2012 amid claims that UMNO’s old guard were using the legal system to carry out a campaign to smear and silence the country’s loudest and most popular opposition voice.
Sodomy is illegal in the country and if convicted Anwar could have faced up to 20 years in prison. After being acquitted on that charge, Anwar was again arrested in May for taking part in an illegal rally that was attended by tens of thousands of people who demanded electoral reforms. He might have to be content with walking away after winning the popular vote.
Among those most likely to take up Anwar’s mantle is his daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar, who remains popular in her own right and is a PKR vice president. But PKR sources also say others covet the top position, her ascendancy is by no means guaranteed and that alternatives might be needed from the children of former leaders responsible for the country’s current political predicament.
“Malaysia’s stability is now more uncertain that it has been for decades,” Greenwood said.
“As the Government’s past actions against Anwar demonstrated, as well other still unresolved scandals, the ruling elite have few qualms as to how they defend their interests when they perceive them to be threatened,” he said.
“Unless both side act quickly to defuse racial tension and threats of large scale anti-government protest, Malaysia may be on the cusp of the type of social and political divisions that have roiled Thailand for much of the past decade,” he said.