Malaysia’s democratic opening

Bridget Welsh
11 March 2008

As the results of Malaysia's general election poured in on the evening of 8 March 2008, it became clear that the country's voters had delivered an unprecedented blow to the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front / BN) led by prime minister Abdullah Badawi. The severe losses of the incumbent coalition - five (out of Malaysia's thirteen) state governments, eighty-two seats in the 222-seat national parliament, and a major swing against the non-Malay component parties within the multi-ethnic coalition - mean that the election marks a new political chapter in Malaysian history. After fifty years of rule by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) - the dominant party in the BN coalition - the signs of a shift are unmistakable: towards a new system of checks and balances, away from the racial politics that have characterised the country's history since independence in 1957, and wider democracy.

The government's hubris

Bridget Welsh is assistant professor in southeast Asian studies at Johns Hopkins University. Among her publications is (as editor) Reflections: The Mahathir Years (JHU/SAIS, 2004)

The reasons for the Barisan Nasional's setback have more to do with the coalition's lacklustre performance under Abdullah Badawi than the strength of the opposition. In his four years in office, Abdullah has managed to maintain the economic growth that characterised the tenure of his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad (who governed for twenty-two years, 1981-2003); but he was ineffective in channelling the benefits to ordinary citizens. The record levels of inflation, comparatively lower wages, increased lack of confidence in Abdullah's management and persistent corruption translated into massive disgruntlement among Malaysians of all races. Malaysians were squeezed, as economic gains were seen to be disproportionately directed toward an increasingly arrogant political elite, notably leaders of UMNO.

This declining economic legitimacy was compounded by a shocking record of managing ethnic relations, particularly of the concerns of the non-Malays. Chinese, Indian and East Malaysian voices were ignored and often insultingly dismissed as rising Malay chauvinism went unchecked within Abdullah's party. In fact, he harnessed racial identity to buttress his position within the party, rejuvenating the racially implemented affirmative action policy of the "new economic policy" (NEP) and lost the confidence of the non-Malay community in the handling of the sensitive expansion Islamic governance.

The failure of Abdullah's leadership on non-Malay issues was best illustrated by the debacle of the Hindraf affair, an unprecedented protest in November 2007 by Indian Malaysians (organised by the Human Rights Action Force coalition) drawing attention to poverty and the discrimination against their community. The BN government arrested the leaders and immediately scheduled elections after this event, hoping to win on the back of the Malay vote this election. This was a serious miscalculation. To add insult to injury, Abdullah used this election to try to strengthen his base within his own party, by promoting loyal new candidates and dropping established and popular veterans. These misjudgments provoked a revolt within UMNO, that even pledges of resources and concerted attempts at rift-mending could not resolve. Internal BN factionalism was exacerbated by rushed negotiation over seats with the component parties in the coalition that only served to weaken the electoral machinery of the incumbent government further.

From Kenya to Armenia, Russia to Spain, openDemocracy authors assess the outcome of elections around the world in the first weeks of 2008:

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's judgment day" (22 January 2008)

James Ker-Lindsay, "Cyprus: walk, don't run" (22 February 2008)

Gérard Prunier, "Kenya: histories of hidden war" (29 February 2008)

Andrew Wilson, "Russia's post-election balance" (3 March 2008)

Armine Ishkanian, "Democracy contested: Armenia's fifth presidential elections" (4 March 2008)

Ivan Briscoe, "From the shadows: Spain's election lessons" (10 March 2008)

The opposition's snowball

The three main opposition political parties - the Anwar Ibrahim multi-racial Parti Keadilan Rakyat (National Justice Party / PKR), the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Islamic Parti Islam sa-Malaysia (Islamic Party of Malaysia / PAS) - collectively benefited from the overall unhappiness with the government. The bonds between the opposition have been forming Since the heyday of the reformasi era in 1998-99 - during which Anwar Ibrahim (then Mahathir's deputy prime minister) was arrested and convicted in a political witchhunt (he was released from prison in 2004, and his ban on standing for political office expires in April 2008). They may differ in their ideological outlook, but in this election they entered into a non-aggression pact and (with a few minor exceptions in East Malaysia) did not compete against each other. Each section of the opposition openly encouraged its supporters to vote for its anti-government partners - irrespective of the party involved, and regardless of race.

Anwar Ibrahim served as a bridge between the ideologically divided PAS and DAP and transformed his party from one relying on Malay vote to a multiracial one. This involved painful decisions, including an open rejection of the NEP and consistent calls on Malaysian identity, not individual racial identity. It worked, as all opposition parties gained ground.

The campaigns of the opposition were fundamentally different from earlier elections. Their ambition was defined and modest, with an aim of breaking the BN's two-thirds' majority in parliament which gives the party a stranglehold on government. This approach snowballed into broader national support - partly because it was a stark contrast to the hubris of the BN government, whose posters projected "only one choice", when in fact there was an alternative to choose from.

Another source of opposition influence was Abdullah's own political liberalisation in areas such as civil society and political assembly, which had created conditions for more mobilisation by his critics. It was the opposition's ability to bypass the government-linked establishment media - through the internet, blogs, emails and send messages (SMS) - that enable it to get its messages across more effectively.

They had thirteen days to do so, the longest campaign in Malaysia's history, and were able to respond to the BN's campaign themes. On the defensive, the BN increasingly was caught in a lie, from the crowd levels at opposition rallies to its figures on the economy. The BN was not able to move beyond its paternal mindset towards an increasingly sophisticated and informed electorate. Their ads touting "be grateful for what you have" grated on a public facing tight economic circumstances and (in the case of non-Malays) exclusion.

The final self-inflicted wound for the BN came in the last stages of the campaign, when it launched an all-out personal attack on Anwar Ibrahim; this backfired in the Malay community, the very ethnic base that the BN was depending on to win in a polity that has traditionally voted along ethnic lines. This reaction became part of a general trend as Malaysians abandoned the pattern of ethnic voting, with all groups voting for the opposition in large numbers; the largest anti-government swing was in the Indian Malaysian community, which has traditionally been loyal to the BN coalition.

A Malaysian farewell

The final worry of the campaign was the electoral process. Malaysian elections have usually been free, but not fair. The push for electoral reform since 2004, which included a mass rally of over 40,000 in November 2007, put this issue centre-stage. The opposition intentionally asked its voters to vote late in the afternoon to reduce the opportunity for the BN to replace registered voters with "phantoms" or "clones". This BN practice did happen, but not to expected levels - in part due to failings in the BN machinery. Concerns about irregularities remain an issue; but they have been overshadowed by the sheer force of opposition gains, which is a testimony to the power of Malaysians' discontent with their rulers.

The election results will bring greater democracy to Malaysia. A stronger opposition will bring more checks and balances at the national level; and in state governments the push for transparency, against corruption, and potentially for the introduction of local elections will open Malaysian elections further. The move toward multiracialism also offers the space for widening of civil liberties across racial boundaries. These steps won't be easy, but the 8 March polls signify a rupture with the closed racialised politics which have dominated the country for decades.

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