Malaysia’s thirteenth general election, which Prime Minister Najib Razak will have to call by April 2013, could be a watershed in communal relations. More than ever before, there is a chance, albeit a very small one, that opposition parties running on issues of transparency, economic equity and social justice could defeat the world’s longest continually-elected political coalition, the National Front (Barisan Nasional), that has based its support on a social compact among the country’s Malay, Chinese and Indian communities. That compact, granting Malays preferential status in exchange for security and economic growth, has grown increasingly stale as the growing middle class demands more of its leaders. Both ruling party and opposition are using images of the Arab Spring – the former to warn of chaos if it is not returned to power, the latter to warn of popular unrest unless political change comes faster.
Social and demographic change, coupled with effective opposition leadership and the rise of a broad-based movement for electoral reform, are likely to make this election at the very least a close contest. The ruling coalition, composed of the dominant United Malays Nationalist Organisation (UMNO); the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA); and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), as well as several smaller parties, faces the People’s Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat), composed of the People’s Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Rakyat, PKR), led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim; the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (Partai Islam Se-Malaysia, PAS). More than ever before, the swing vote may be the Malay middle ground: urban professionals, students and “netizens” – internet users – who have benefited from constitutionally-protected preferential status for Malays but who are tired of cronyism and corruption and are chafing under the tight controls on civil liberties.
The deck is stacked against the opposition for many reasons, not least because of an electoral system based on questionable voting rolls and carefully gerrymandered, single-representative constituencies where victory requires only a plurality (first past the post). Demands for a more level playing field gave rise in 2007 to a broad-based civil society movement, the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, known as Bersih (Clean), that has held four mass street rallies drawing tens of thousands of participants: in November 2007; July 2011; April 2012 and August 2012. The first three were broken up by police with hundreds of arrests. In the third, violence on the part of a few participants led to harsh police counter-actions and allegations of brutality. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, now retired but leading UMNO’s ultra-conservatives from the sidelines, has been warning Malaysians to expect more violence in the streets if the opposition loses.
The big issues are the economy, corruption and political reform. Bread-and-butter topics matter most to the electorate, and Barisan’s vast resources enable it to dole out economic favours to strategic constituencies in the lead-up to the election. The opposition is getting plenty of mileage out of corruption scandals involving top UMNO officials, although UMNO is fighting back with legal challenges and defamation suits. Political reform is seen by both sides as a political winner. Prime Minister Najib has rolled back or reworked some of the draconian legislation – most notably the colonial-era Internal Security Act (ISA) – that Mahathir used to curb dissent during his 22 years in power, but the opposition denounces it as too little, too late.
Two huge issues are largely off the official agendas of both coalitions but dominate them in many ways. One is the preferred treatment for Malays in virtually all spheres of public life and whether opening political space and promoting social justice would diminish that status. The ultra-conservatives within UMNO are determined to protect Malay rights at all costs. The other is the question of Islamic law and religious tolerance. Under Mahathir, Malaysia embarked on a program of Islamisation of the government and bureaucracy, culminating in his declaration of an Islamic state in 2001. PAS, once known for a hardline Islamist agenda, is now led by pragmatists who are willing to put contentious issues like Islamic criminal justice on hold, at least temporarily, in the interests of trying to defeat Barisan. But neither side is above trying to scare non-Malay communities, particularly the Chinese, by predicting greater intolerance if the other wins. Within the opposition coalition, relations between PAS and the Chinese-dominated DAP remain fragile.
Both sides are furiously making calculations about tactics to win seats, tailoring their message to the communities concerned. The two eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak could be kingmakers, because they control 25 per cent of the available seats.
Ultimately the question Malaysians will have to answer on election day is which of the two choices will be better able to accommodate political change, while protecting minorities against the hardline forces that more openness can produce.