Malaysia’s ruling party shaken by unprecedented election setbacks

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That there are now two ruling coalitions in Malaysia –” UMNO’s and another led by Anwar Ibrahim –” aptly describes Malaysia’s post-election reality. For the first time, the opposition’s credibility is being put to test at the governing level.

Like its seismological version, the political tsunami that struck Malaysia had barely been predicted. Even the waves such as public outrage over the reversal of petroleum-subsidies, increasing crime, government wastage and huge anti-government demonstrations over various issues, ranging from price hikes, judicial corruption to perceived alienation of minorities –” which all took place in the months before the general election on March 8 –” were not considered enough reason to expect the Malaysian electorate to deal the ruling coalition the severest blow in its history. It is precisely because of the tsunamic nature of the changes that very few political analysts in Malaysia had predicted such an outcome, not even this writer, who has been analysing the Malaysian political scene for Crescent for more than ten years.

The aftermath is an open season for everybody, including UMNO stalwarts, to turn on Abdullah Badawi (pic, right), some even demanding his resignation. Several state governments retained by UMNO are also embroiled in delays and crisis: even the sultans, who have traditionally listened to the prime minister’s recommendations, are for the first time using their constitutional powers to refuse Abdullah’s choice of state leaders.

The Malaysian opposition, represented mainly by Islamic Party (PAS), the ultra-secularist Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the fledgling multiracial party People’s Justice Party (PKR) led by Anwar Ibrahim, succeeded in denying UMNO the traditional two-third majority enjoyed by the ruling party. For ruling parties in many countries, not getting a two-thirds majority in Parliament would not be something to get embarrassed about, but against a backdrop of half-a-century of rule by the same coalition since independence, as well as the huge legal and electoral hurdles stacked against the opposition, the performance is a defeat of sorts. As if that were not enough, the opposition parties also took control of another four state governments in the federation, in addition to Kelantan, which has been ruled by PAS since 1990.

It is important to understand just how meaningful this is. Beside Kelantan, Malaysia’s rice-bowl state of Kedah, a Malay heartland, is now controlled by PAS in coalition with PKR; Penang, one of Asia’s premier industrial and tourist destinations, by DAP; the multiracial and historically important Perak and the prized state of Selangor, the country’s most developed province, by a coalition of all three parties. In addition, the three parties quadrupled their seats in parliament, and almost wiped out three main component parties of the ruling National Front led by UMNO, relegating the few winning UMNO candidates to opposition status in these five states.

The opposition’s successes have cost Abdullah many prominent ministers and party leaders, forcing him to trim the cabinet and for the first time admit mistakes, with even UMNO stalwarts calling for reforms within the government: the same battle-cry which almost cost Anwar Ibrahim his life in 1998. Abdullah also announced a new cabinet, breaking away from the one he inherited from the late former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the man who many argue orchestrated the systematic rot of the last two decades, for which Abdullah, who has been in office for only five years, has had to carry the blame. On March 22, an incoming minister in charge of the judiciary demanded that the government apologise for its interference with the judiciary in 1988, which led to its parlous state today.

Many attribute the present success of the opposition to Anwar Ibrahim, and rightly so, especially after his intense campaigning, criss-crossing the country, which is typical of his modus operandi. His almost-one-man battle against relentless eleventh-hour personal attacks by the government media ensured a last-minute swing of sympathy votes from Malays, whom many had expected not to vote against UMNO this time. Anwar was not abashed to admit this either: “Newspapers were full of vicious personal attacks against me, so I knew things had to be going well,” he told Newsweek.

That the ruling parties lost votes despite pulling out all stops in their campaigns and engaging billionaire CEOs of banks and airlines as well as celebrity singers, shows the emergence of a maturing electorate that no longer takes propaganda seriously. Even electoral dirty tricks, such as the so-called ‘postal votes’ (which can be brought in at the last minute to any ‘marginal’ seat) and multi-voting by the same individuals in different places, were not enough to swing back the tide. If such tricks had not been used, there is little reason to believe that the UMNO’s dominance might not have been toppled altogether.

The most painful reality for UMNO, however, is the fact that Anwar has been able to return to mainstream politics, and that on a multiracial platform, a feat rarely achieved by opposition leaders because of racial prejudices, exacerbated and exploited by the ruling party. Proving his comeback is the fact that both his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar won with large majorities in two important constituencies; the latter, by all accounts a political rookie who bears a familiar surname, won against a hugely popular UMNO minister. Anwar’s lifelong prime ministerial ambition, for which he was seen as a threat and punished by Mahathir, can now be regarded as an achievable possibility after years of uncertainty. As if that were not enough to frighten UMNO’s leaders, who have tried hard to forget or ignore him, Anwar has been playing on the idea that he needs only thirty defecting MPs from the ruling coalition to form a federal government, a move many warn will backfire if what he claims is true. And even if this does not happen, there will be constant tension, as one observer puts it, from the fact that it might.

In tandem with UMNO’s losing control over several states, calls for “Malay unity” have resurfaced. The move may be a veiled “unity effort” to woo Malay opposition members, especially from PAS, which is part of opposition-controlled states, to abandon their present coalitions and join UMNO to form coalition state governments. Owing to the victories of non-Malay candidates, the new coalitions have increased the non-Malay composition in the new state governments, spelling an end to UMNO’s dominance via business contracts given to UMNO cronies who hitherto greased the party machinery. But the possibility of PAS switching is remote, although not non-existent.

PAS gobbled up almost all the seats in Kelantan, won control of Kedah state, and its candidate became chief minister in the state of Perak despite PAS having won fewer seats than any of its coalition partners. Yet one of the ironies of PAS’s gains is that the party has become more defensive than ever about its Islamic commitments. Even before the elections, it had not taken such pains as it is now to explain that an Islamic state (which effectively means implementing Islamic policies, and not necessarily the implementation of Shari’ah or hudud laws) is not its aim. So much so that it was forced to lodge police reports against leaflets claiming that PAS will begin curtailing sales of alcohol and close gambling outlets, as it did in Kelantan. In Kedah, a Malay heartland, PAS controls a state which includes the popular tourist destination of Langkawi island, but leaders have been almost silent about any possible action to control the influx of tax-free alcoholic drinks for the tourism industry. In Selangor, PAS’s participation is required to give the coalition a majority to rule a state which has in its economy one of the region’s largest breweries. Odd as it seems, the party appears stronger in exerting pressure over Islamic matters when it is in opposition; but it seems to be on the fringe when it is part of the government.

The fact that Anwar Ibrahim has sprung back to challenge the ruling coalition despite all the propaganda against him, makes the question of PAS’s dependence on him ever more relevant. Not long ago, when pressed to answer this claim, Nasharuddin Mat Isa of PAS explained that its strategy was drawn from the Prophetic example, in which the Prophet (saw) “used different strategies when addressing the Makkan and Madinan communities.” The PAS deputy president, in an interview with Crescent in July 2005, said that “Our relationship with Anwar and the others … is because we know it is quite impossible for PAS as an 800,000-member organisation to govern at the Federal level.”

PAS is being forced to display “openness” to maintain its fragile majority in several of the coalition state governments. While such openness is an attitude required from a Muslim party, it is not being displayed from a position of strength, nor from an Islamic moral high ground, but rather for political expediency, to deny UMNO and its allies an opportunity to get back to power. Its present share of power has been mostly due to the art of electoral politics. In order to be more effective and not only popular, PAS will ultimately have to generate “power without politics”: an exercise which requires far more commitment and solutions whose terms are longer than five years.

As such, the question posed in the conclusion to last month’s report (see Crescent, March 2008) is still valid, albeit with a new twist, that this time it is to be answered from a position of victory rather than defeat: what is PAS’s future role in a quasi-democratic, multi-racial, multicultural Muslim country such as Malaysia, now that it has met with some electoral success? PAS’s answers will be seen in how it handles non-Muslim support in the new states, at the same time keeping its raison d’etre intact.

The opposition may claim it has won the trust of the electorate; pro-government observers keep arguing that the results of the election were mostly a protest vote. While both interpretations may have some truth, the burden of victory on the opposition is heavier than the burden of defeat faced by the wounded ruling parties. The initial promises to pay more attention to people’s welfare, making large cuts on unnecessary luxuries and pledging zero tolerance on corruption, are positive steps. Any failure to improve things will mean not having such a chance again for a very long time. After all, it’s not for every general election than an Anwar Ibrahim will be there as an alternative prime minister to show the opposition’s seriousness about forming a new government. In the meantime, Malaysians await Anwar’s entry to parliament. Whether he will be occupying the seat more important than his old one, when he was the number two man in power, is another issue to be covered at a later time.

For now, the new political landscape is still evolving rapidly. Unlike what the real tsunami has done to even the most hardcore conflict-torn region, it still remains to be seen whether Malaysia’s small but uniquely crowded political landscape will be permanently altered.

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