Going into its 13th General Election, Malaysia is on the cusp of a new chapter in its history. The hotly contested election is the first real opportunity in over 55 years for a change in government and there are high expectations for change. Since the 12th General Election in 2008, when the Opposition made unprecedented gains in the Parliament, there has been an irrepressible hunger for a ‘rematch’. According to most calculations, the Opposition won the popular vote in Peninsular Malaysia but due to gerrymandering this did not translate as well into seats in Parliament. The Opposition did increase its seats from 19 to 88, out of a possible 222, breaking the Government’s two thirds majority and its direct control of the Constitution (the two thirds majority allows the Government to make changes to the Constitution). Overnight, Malaysian politics was transformed from single party rule to a two party system. This has left a feeling of ‘unfinished business’ for many Malaysian voters and there has been keen anticipation and interest in the upcoming election throughout the five year electoral cycle.
Despite the mood for change, it is hard to predict the outcome of this election. The immense popularity of Opposition figures such as PKR’s Anwar Ibrahim, DAP’s Lim Guan Eng and PAS’s Nik Aziz is undeniable and has been on open display at public rallies or “Ceramah” across the country. By contrast, Prime Minister Najib Razak and other Government leaders have been repeatedly embarrassed at their own rallies, with despairingly few supporters turning out, despite drawcards such as free food, gifts, money, lucky draws, and appearances by popular stars paid for by the Government, including the Korean singer Psy. Yet, the Prime Minister has predicted that his coalition will win back the two thirds majority. The great fear of many in the Opposition is that the Government, through its control of the Electoral Commission, has put in place massive fraud to make the Prime Minister’s prediction come true. Allegations of voting irregularities are rife, and range from numerous dead people, millions of illegal immigrants and foreigners being registered to vote, spoilt ballot papers, ballot papers with serial numbers to identify voters, to false voters with ridiculous names such as “Cucumber Pig” and “Blue Power Ranger” on the electoral role.
Since independence, Malaysia has experienced more than 55 years of continuous rule by Barisan Nasional (BN), a coalition of three major political parties lead by UMNO (United Malays National Organisation). During the one occasion when the ruling coalition did lose some power at the ballot box, May 1969, deadly anti-Chinese and anti-Indian racial riots broke out which scared the collective psyche of the Malaysian electorate. Most Malaysians have thus steered clear of politics – voting is not compulsory and many Malaysians mentally and physically opted out of the political process. The significant gains that the Opposition made at the 12th General Election completely reshaped the Malaysian psyche regarding the electoral system. There has been a fresh and renewed interest in all things political and a scrutiny and expectation of transparency that would have seemed unthinkable a decade ago. This has been fuelled by the Internet and social media, the accessible and uncensored news alternative in a country with draconian media regulations and restrictions.
The Malaysian electorate is currently facing many issues that cause disquiet and will be on voters’ minds when they cast their ballots. There is unrest about spiralling crime rates, the distribution of identity cards (citizenship) to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, and the invasion of a small armed force of 300 fighters from the southern Philippines into the eastern state of Sabah. But larger underlying problems such as the deep seated racial divide, corruption, inconsistencies in the rule of law and electoral fraud are also of concern.
Barisan Nasional looks at the possibility of electoral change with trepidation, however the reality is that electoral failure will give BN and its component parties the best chance and the biggest incentive to reform and remain relevant in the future. BN’s three major component parties all have race based memberships - UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) for Malays only, MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress) for Indians only, and MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association) for Chinese only. The disruption and disunity of race based politics in a country as diverse as Malaysia is inconsistent with modern values, and has alienated many Malaysians from BN and its platform.
The Opposition in comparison are comprised of three ideological parties, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR – the justice party), Parti Agama Semenanjung (PAS – a Muslim party), and Democratic Action Party (DAP – a liberal and socialist aligned party). BN’s racial politics and segregation seem out dated when contrasted with the multi-racial and multi-religious collaboration of the Opposition parties. All three are officially multiracial –for instance non-Muslims can join PAS and several have been preselected as PAS candidates. DAP recently had its ‘rocket’ logo deemed unacceptable for printing on ballot papers – its partners PKR and PAS came to its rescue, allowing DAP candidates to run under the PAS and PKR logos in West Malaysia and East Malaysia respectively. The realisation that this apparent amalgamation could wipe out the ruling BN caused a sudden backflip on the ruling on DAP’s registration status. Additionally, contrary to predications of calamity by the incumbent Government, Opposition held State Governments won during the last election have not crashed and burned, but rather have been extremely successful and have demonstrated what can be achieved through transparency and accountability.
The changes brought by the 12th General Election have been a positive step in Malaysia’s evolution as a modern state, bringing greater transparency, accountability, political engagement and greater awareness for voters of their own role as citizens. The paternalistic relationship the Government has previously had with its citizens, as personified by Tun Dr Mahathir’s twenty year reign, is at an end. The 13th General Election hails a unique opportunity for Malaysians to further their democratic evolution with an accountable and representative Government directly elected by the people and directly accountable to its people.
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