Foreign Affairs

Previewing Malaysia’s Upcoming General Election

Ian Tan takes a look at the political situation in Malaysia ahead of Wednesday's election, in which the ruling government will be seeking a 14th term in office.

After 61 years in office, Malaysia’s ruling government will be seeking an unprecedented 14th term in office in an election taking place this Wednesday.

In 2013, Barisan Nasional – a coalition of 13 parties – was returned to government with 133 seats out of the 222 seats in the Lower House. While winning 60% of seats, it failed to win the popular vote – securing just 47.38% against the Opposition’s 50.87% in a first past the post voting electoral system with seats that are heavily gerrymandered to favour the government.

Five years later, the gerrymandering has only gotten worse.

Barisan rushed through a controversial re-districting plan by the Electoral Commission as one of its last actions before the election. The seats are heavily gerrymandered and malapportioned, with constituencies ranging in size from 18,000 to 146,000 people. Barisan controls 14 of the 15 smallest constituencies while the Opposition alliance, Pakatan Harapan, controls 14 of the 15 largest constituencies. Across seats held by Barisan prior to the upcoming election, the average number of voters was 48,228 while it is nearly doubled for seats held by the Opposition – with an average of 79,436. To Bridget Welsh, an academic based at John Cabot University in Italy, it is “by the far the worst case of electoral manipulation in Malaysia’s history and one of the most egregious in the world.”[1]

The incumbent Prime Minister, Najib Razak, also remains embroiled in a global corruption scandal spanning four countries, including the United States and Switzerland – both of whom still maintain active investigations. The 1MDB scandal, involving a state development fund designed to boost Malaysia’s economy, saw US$3.5billion misappropriated from the fund. In early July 2015, it was further alleged by the that US$700million of this ended up in Najib’s own personal bank account. Embattled, Najib ordered a series of investigations into the scandal as pressure on him mounted. It was arguably his weakest and most vulnerable moment of his whole political career.

On the 29th of July 2015, Najib sacked his Attorney-General – the top prosecutor in Malaysia – after catching wind that corruption charges were being planned to be laid against him. Also sacked was the Deputy Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, while members of the parliamentary committee investigating the state fund were elevated into ministry and the investigation suspended. Two leading newspaper portals were banned from publishing for three months due to reporting “fake reports” relating to the scandal, while five media executives, a cartoonist, and opposition figures were arrested under the archaic Sedition Act. In August, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission said that the US$700million was actually a “donation” from Saudi Arabia and that most of it was returned. In January 2016, Najib’s new Attorney-General cleared him of any wrongdoing, though investigations, especially by the US Department of Justice, could still lay charges against Najib.

To help oust Najib, the Opposition has linked arms with an unusual ally – former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed. The 92-year-old had a falling out with Najib, once his mentee, and formed a new party which is now part of the Pakatan alliance. Muhyiddin is also now part of the party. Ironically, Mahathir now shares a stage alongside Opposition figures who once opposed him; the same figures he once jailed under the notorious Internal Security Act during his 22-year tenure as Prime Minister. Even more ironic is that Mahathir will be contesting under Pakatan’s common banner – shaped in an eye to symbolise the black eye that Anwar Ibrahim, a revered Opposition figure currently in jail on politically-motivated sodomy charges, received while in police custody after his sacking as Deputy Prime Minister by Mahathir in 1998.

It is a remarkable turnaround for Mahathir who, despite his age, is still able to stand for an hour straight and deliver a passionate and robust stump speech. For Pakatan, it is their hope that Mahathir – who has been named as their Prime Minister if they win government – will be able to help the party make in-roads into rural Malay-majority seats which forms the core base of Barisan. Making in-roads here will be crucial for them to be able to form government, analysts say, with the Opposition needing to win as many as 30 of the roughly 60 rural seats in order to win. Pakatan draws much of its support from urban areas and commands the support of ethnic Chinese and Indian communities who flocked to the Opposition in the 2013 and 2008 elections, respectively, in what were termed “tsunamis”, after being concerned with the rising Islamisation and oppression of minorities in the country. With Mahathir on their ticket, Opposition figures remain confident that a “Malay tsunami” will come with Mahathir still revered and held in high esteem by many rural communities.

The odds are still stacked against the Opposition and it remains an uphill battle on whether they can win. The election will be held on a weekday, in the middle of the week, and the Government only made it a public holiday after public pressure. Still, many people from major cities will struggle to return to their local villages where they are registered to vote with a low turn-out election set to benefit the ruling government. Two Opposition candidates had their nominations denied, one of them a senior Pakatan figure, under controversial circumstances. The Electoral Commission has banned the use of Mahathir’s face on Opposition billboards for unspecified reasons. It has also rejected an application for Malaysia’s national human rights commission to help oversee the elections. In the big picture, these are little stories which many in the Opposition have come to accept as part and parcel. And yet, they are important when setting the context for Wednesday’s election.

Overall, it is difficult to predict who will win. Conventional wisdom suggest that Barisan will win – as they always have. But analysts say that this is the toughest and closest election yet with momentum swinging behind the Opposition. Whether this momentum can propel them into power for the first time since Malaysia’s independence, or give Barisan a record 14th term in office, remains to be seen.


[1] http://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/2139024/malaysian-election-protests-called-najib-tries-redraw

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