Each election has its own set of challenges and in this election, the charge has been to whitewash the overarching scandals which have plagued the Najib government with a number of schemes and hand-outs to various sections of societies. – Dr Vignesh Ram*
Speculation has been running high in Malaysia on the likely date of the elections which has to be held before 24 August 2018. The latest speculation doing the rounds suggests that the election would be held before the upcoming Haj season commences in July. The Prime Minister Tun Najib Razak has been spearheading the charge for the ruling coalition of parties under the Barisan Nasional (BN). Malaysia has been under the ruling party since its independence from Britain in 1957. PM Najib has been consolidating his power within the party over the years falling out with his former mentor and former Prime Minister of Malaysia Dr Mahathir Mohammad who ruled over for more than two decades. The entry of Dr Mahathir as the opposition Pakatan Harapan’s PM candidate has enthused new hope with the electorate in Malaysia to dent the ruling party’s position.
The Electoral Dynamics in Malaysia
Malaysia is a multiracial country with Malay’s and Bumiputera dominating the ethnic mix along with Chinese and Indian’s who making up the rest of population mix. Apart from the ethnic mix, there is also the phenomenon which political commentators have come to call the rural-urban divide. The two factors play a crucial role in the dynamics of elections in Malaysia. For instance, the best example of how this phenomenon plays out can be seen in the largest and the most populous state of Selangor which has been under the control of the opposition party since the last elections. The general trend understood so far in Malaysian politics is that the urban voters in Peninsular Malaysia have mostly stuck to the opposition while the ruling BN coalition sees its major votes among the rural Malay population.
Malaysian politics witnessed a chaotic phase in the lead up to the General Election (GE14) with a change being witnessed within the ruling party. The 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal drove the wedge between Najib and his mentor Dr Mahathir leading, Mahathir joining the anti-Najib and Anti-corruption movement and finally launching Parti Pribhumi Bersatu now part of the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. Nevertheless, the designation by the PH to have Dr Mahathir as the PM candidate for the opposition ruffled a few feathers within the opposition ranks who staunchly disapprove of him and hold him responsible for the jailing of opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim on trumped-up charges during his stint at Malaysia’s Prime Ministership. Nevertheless, the calculation of picking Mahathir as the PM candidate could be seen as a strategy by the opposition to break into the crucial rural vote bank often seen as a BN forte. The probable effect which the opposition has come to call the ‘Mahathir effect’ could play a crucial role in the upcoming elections.
However, political pundits predict a three-corner fight to occur in the current elections as one of the previous partners of the opposition the Parti Islam Se Malaysia (PAS) fell out with the opposition PKR. It is now clear that the PAS which hopes to be the swing party in the elections is learning more towards the BN. Though there have been no indications of a formal partnership between the two parties what is clear is that the PAS will not tie up with the PH to pressure the ruling party much further. Any partnership between the PAS and PH in Selangor state was explicitly dismissed by Selangor Mentari Besar Azmin Ali also seen to be one of the rising stars within the opposition ranks. Therefore, a three-cornered fight could be seen in a number of seats leading to tough competition for the opposition to win in a number of key seats which it managed to get hold of in GE13 by a small margin. The PAS continues to loose support in key constituencies under its control despite the rapid rise in what has been termed as ‘Islamization’ in the country. The inability of the PAS to develop its state such as Kelantan in which it is the ruling party has been less appealing to the electorate including the huge number of young voters.
However, keeping in mind the young voters a movement has been doing the rounds on social media especially twitter now called the #undirosak movement. The movement is claimed by the many followers to be an effort by the mostly young voter to spoil votes in the upcoming elections thereby showing displeasure with either of the parties in the fray. Nevertheless, this brings another but a small new dynamic in the electoral politics in Malaysia.
The Challenges in GE14
Each election has its own set of challenges and in this election, the charge has been to whitewash the overarching scandals which have plagued the Najib government with a number of schemes and hand-outs to various sections of societies. However, the opposition alliance is seen to be fighting a losing battle despite its positive track record in terms of governance in opposition-ruled states such as Selangor and Penang. One of the major challenges for the opposition alliance is that of what it terms as ‘Ethnic Gerrymandering. There have been accusations by the opposition alliance that the majority of the seats which will suffer the brunt of the re-delineation exercise would be related to the opposition-held seats.
For instance, it has been claimed by Dr Ong Kian Ming, Member of Parliament for Serdang (Selangor) that based on the second notice of Selangor delimitation released several seats won by PKR in the last elections by a slim majority in GE13 will see the percentage of Malay voters increased from 5 % to 10%. In providing further substantiation it has been argued that six seats where the Malay voters have increased were 1) Ijok (Seat won by PKR with 739 votes where the percentage of Malay votes have been increased from 50 to 60.4%) 2) Hulu Kelang 3) Lembah Jaya (Seat won by PAS with 8,713 votes where the percentage of Malay voters increased to 62.2% from 54.5%) 4) Pandah Indah 5) Morib 6) Sijang Kang.
Similarly, another challenge which has been haunting both parties has been the spectre of fake news. The internet has become one of the main sources for, especially young voters to take note of news. The impact of the internet revolution has been such that political parties have supposedly employed cyber warriors to monitor and also rebut any false news being spread and which can have a key impact on the electorate. As a whole internet censorship has been growing in Malaysia with the ruling Barisan Nasional recently cracking down on artists critical of the government. The spread of fake news has been one of the most important election topics.
New Hope for Malaysian Politics?
The Pakatan Harapan (Party of Hope) as the opposition coalition is called has caught the attention of voters. However, its hopes of winning the elections in many more seats are constantly dashed by a number of issues created by the ruling party. Apart from the electoral boundary shifts, there have also been challenges to contesting in the election itself. For instance, the Registrar of Societies has been silent on according status to the PH. This brings about multiple challenges to the organisation to conduct under the PH banner. Among the probable votes for the ruling party, what can be observed is that the PH will be able to maintain some seats in the upcoming elections but it will be in a tight spot if there is a three-cornered fight where previous polls have showed that in such cases the BN is poised to win 90 percent of the time. The opposition has also been facing stiff competition due to the problems with its inability to come to terms with the distribution of seats.
As Malaysia heads to the polls it is to be remembered that many new dynamics have been set into play. The election has been termed as the ‘mother of all elections’ by PM Najib who has assured that this would be an election which would determine Malaysia’s future. However, there is a clear disconnect between the various components of the ruling coalition. For instance, The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) has been continually under fire for not being able to defend the basic rights of the Chinese against relentless attacks against prominent Chinese businessmen such as Robert Kuok. The overall loss of votes by Chinese constituents over the years has been a key indicator. Similarly, infighting has plagued the Malaysian Indian Congress which has seen several setbacks and is now wooing Malaysian Indians with new schemes such as the Amanah Saham 1Malaysia (AS1M) where Below40 (B40) Indians have been provided with more incentives to buy shares in the scheme. However, critics have argued that the benefits are rather a long-term and will not get any benefits to current constituents.
It is under this context that there is palpable fear within the ruling coalition that the combination of these shortfalls within constituent parties and the perceived effect Dr Mahathir would have on Malay voters would be detrimental in some seats in Peninsular Malaysia which will become too close to call. Malaysians on social media have been rather inconsistent with their support however, there is a clear growing divide which is emerging and the ability of the opposition Pakatan Harapan alliance to hold together will determine their victory in the elections. Rest assured due to shrewd tactics and populist measures the road to GE14 seems to be on track to lead the Barisan Nasional to a victory but considering the surprises that were pulled in the last elections, there very well could be a surprise in store for the ruling coalition in the coming months.
Dr Vignesh Ram is an Analyst on Geopolitics and International Relations based in Bengaluru. He is currently associated with OTTNXT an organisation based in Kuala Lumpur.
His PhD was awarded on the theme ‘Extra Regional Powers and the Geopolitics of Southeast Asia – A Case Study of ASEAN’ in November 2017 by Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Kootneeti.