A desperate opposition looks set to fail again in Malaysia’s forthcoming general election, Richard Cockett reports

Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, has until June 24 to make a decision on when to hold the country’s fourteenth general election. The latest he can go to the polls is August, but he is more likely to choose April or May. Either way, he should be reasonably confident of winning, and he might even improve on his ruling coalition’s underwhelming performance last time around in 2013.  If he does, it will be a remarkable political comeback for Najib; only a couple of years ago he was mired in the gigantic 1MDB corruption scandal and his leadership of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) was being seriously challenged. But then in Malaysia the odds have always been stacked in the government’s favour.

UMNO, as part of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, has won every election since independence from Britain in 1957, by fair means and foul. UMNO leaders have traditionally tried to maximise the majority ethnic Malay vote, especially in the rural areas, to counter-balance the substantial ethnic-Chinese and Indian demographic, which is more likely to vote for the opposition, and is more predominant in the towns and cities. UNMO has been helped in its endeavours by one of the most gerrymandered electoral systems of any democracy in the world; constituency boundaries are drawn to herd the highest number of opposition voters into the smallest number of seats, while similar number of Malays return a vast swathe of rural UMNO MPs. Helped by large dollops of cash, sometimes in brown envelopes, it has been a recipe for success every time. In one recent academic study, Malaysia was ranked 142 out of 158 countries for ‘electoral integrity’, just one place above Zimbabwe, and four ahead of communist-controlled Vietnam. This same study found Malaysia’s electoral boundaries to be the ‘most biased’ of all the countries assessed.

In 2013, however, it was still a remarkably close run thing. Najib came closer than any of his predecessors to surrendering UMNO’s grip on power. Indeed, he was saved only by the gerrymandering; the opposition Pakatan Rakyat, led by the veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim, won the popular vote, but took only 40 per cent of the parliamentary seats, while the BN coalition won only 47 per cent of the popular vote, but still won 60 per cent of the 222 seats. It was a deeply frustrating and disappointing result for Anwar and his allies. There was a feeling that their moment had finally come, but the result proved once and for all that the system was comprehensively rigged against them. To compound Anwar’s misery, the following year, in 2014, he was convicted again on charges of sodomy, charges that he maintains were politically motivated, and went to jail after failing to overturn the verdict. He remains behind bars, but is due to be released in early June.

UNLIKELY ALLIANCE: One-time rivals Anwar Ibrahim (l) and Mahathir Mohamad are now political partners
UNLIKELY ALLIANCE: One-time rivals Anwar Ibrahim (l) and Mahathir Mohamad are now political partners

That 2013 result haunts the opposition and has shaped the often bizarre political manoeuvrings of the past few years. Most notably, Anwar has now teamed up with his one-time nemesis and rival, the 92-year-old Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a former leader of UMNO himself, in a new opposition coalition. This has to be one of the most unlikely political partnerships anywhere, let alone in Malaysia. Anwar was a protégé of Mahathir, who served as prime minister for 22 years, back in the 1990s, before Mahathir turned on the younger man. He was largely behind the original charges of sodomy that sent Anwar to prison the first time in 1999. Mahathir might have been an economic moderniser while prime minister from 1981 to 2003, turning Malaysia into one of Asia’s ‘Tiger economies’, but he also has a well-deserved reputation as an intolerant authoritarian, dedicated to preserving the privileged position of Malays in the country’s multi-ethnic society. By contrast Anwar has been leading the reformasi movement for the past two decades, supposedly dedicated to the exact opposite – creating a new Malaysia based on equal rights and opportunities for all. Now, however, the electorate is being asked to believe that they have buried the hatchet and will work together for the same ends.

The reason for their new-found friendship is pure political expediency; they both want to unseat Najib. On the one hand, Mahathiris driven by nothing much more than personal animosity. Najib thwarted his internal attempts to oust him from the UMNO leadership, so now Mahathir wants his revenge, and is prepared to team up with Anwar to get it. On the other hand Anwar needs the Malay rural voters that Mahathir can bring to the opposition, and without which they cannot advance from the bridgehead that they won in 2013.  If the opposition wins, Mahathir will become the oldest political leader in the world, until he is supposed to hand over to Anwar after a royal pardon is arranged to allow him to become prime minister.

This convoluted arrangement smacks of desperation, and it remains to be seen how many of even Anwar’s weary followers are convinced by it. Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of the Kuala Lumpur-based think-tank IDEAS, argues that adding Malay rural voters makes the ‘opposition stronger than in the past’, but further gerrymandering of the electoral system could render that advantage moot anyway. The government-picked Electoral Commission is about to publish its latest delineation of electoral boundaries, and the result is expected to favour the government even more. Furthermore, although Anwar might have the dubious honour of having added Mahathir to the opposition line-up, he has as the same time lost the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which fought with him in 2013. PAS is strong in a few states, and the party’s defection will undoubtedly damage Anwar’s prospects still further.

Thus despite Najib’s miserable term in office, beset by scandal and party infighting, this deeply uninspiring and compromised leader still seems to be in the box seat going into the last few pre-election months. He has not only been helped by the divisions and disarray among the opposition, but also by an economy that has been doing relatively well, fuelled by large-scale Chinese investments.

If Najib does win, the losers will not be so much Mahathir and Anwar, but Malaysian democracy in general. ManyMalaysians have been watching these self-serving and unprincipled political moves with a cynical eye. They despair that politics will ever change much until the system itself it changed, and the chances of that happening seem as remote as ever. Even the political activists and civil society, says Wan Saiful, are ‘just tired’ of fighting the same old battles to no effect, or even with the extraordinary effect of putting the ancient Dr Mahathir back into power.

The apparent futility of the formal electoral process had resulted in widespread apathy and political disengagement among people, especially the young. Last July the electoral commission revealed that 3.7million Malaysians, most of them young, who were eligible to vote had not yet registered to join the 14million who can. Without any apparent trace of irony, the commission lamented that this was a ‘worrisome’ trend. Polls consistently show that fewer Malaysians care about politics, but also believe that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Already, there is a strong grassroots movement afoot to spoil ballot papers at this election as a form of protest against the whole political system, mostly organised by those who despair at the cynical opportunism of the opposition in embracing Mahathir.

Dr Richard Cockett was South-East Asia correspondent for The Economist from 2010 to 2014, based in Singapore. He is the author of several books on history and foreign affairs, including Blood, Dreams and Gold: The changing face of Burma. He is now a London-based staff writer for The Economist

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