Malaysia’s general elections, an uphill battle for the opposition

Commentary: Malaysia’s general elections, an uphill battle for

the opposition

(First published on Channel NewsAsia, 22 October 2017, here).

Najib Razak has yet to call the elections. Tricia Yeoh explores the challenges and likely strategies the ruling Barisan Nasional party and the opposition coalition will take.

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s general election will have to be held by August 2018 at the very latest, but can be called for any time before that.

For months now, pundits were positive the election would be set for September 2017, but now it looks like the next window of opportunity available to Prime Minister Najib Razak is between March and April 2018, after Chinese New Year in February and before fasting for Ramadhan begins in May.

If, however, he chooses to forgo this option, the next opportunity would be between the end of July and August, which would cut things a little too close for him. If any incident were to occur then that would jeopardise his reputation, he would not have the flexibility of postponing it yet again.

Recall, for instance, that there is an ongoing criminal investigation into money laundering allegations related to 1MDB being carried out by the Department of Justice in the US, apart from other similar 1MBD money laundering probes in Switzerland and Singapore.

Regardless, delaying the polls for now seems like an astute strategy as it buys Najib the time to ensure any projects and goodies being allocated from the upcoming budget trickle down to the expectant beneficiaries ranging from contracting companies to low-income communities that receive cash handouts each year.

The budget announcement slated for the end of this month is expected to be a generous pre-election budget, as has been the case previously, before the ruling government goes to the polls.

These final months are also crucial for Najib as he seeks to unite various factions in UMNO, including and especially the powerful division chiefs across the country.

POSITIVE PROSPECTS FOR NAJIB

Prospects for Najib seem positive despite his woes over 1MDB, since the issue is fast fading from Malaysians’ minds. The complexities of the 1MDB scandal are not as easily relatable compared to the everyday concerns of Malaysians, save for perhaps a select group within the urban, cosmopolitan class.

The vast majority of Malaysian voters are preoccupied with more immediate concerns like job security, home ownership, and the rising costs of living.

Although urban voters are likely to lean towards the opposition, this may not be enough to overthrow the incumbents.

In 2013, there was a groundswell of support for the opposition, resulting in the opposition winning the popular vote.

In 2018, the wave of support will not be as strong as the last two election cycles given the break-up of the original coalition, the loss of a unifying figure leading the coalition, and the public’s general disenfranchisement with politics.

Urban seats will still be important in the upcoming election, where the ruling government finds little loyalty from urban professionals. More importantly, fence-sitters may sway the election results.

However, there may be a small percentage of disaffected voters who will choose to spoil their vote or not come out at all given their dissatisfaction with the opposition’s handling of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), its internal fighting, and willingness to cooperate with former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed.

Some consider this last move to be an unethical compromise on the opposition’s part given how critical they had been of Mahathir’s policies when he led the country.

But the real battleground lies in rural, Malay-Muslim Malaysia.

RURAL MALAY-MUSLIM MALAYSIA THE REAL BATTLEGROUND

This may also be why the tenor of political and policy issues has become predominantly religious of late.

Over the last few months, controversies have arisen over books that supposedly take a liberal approach to Islam, beer festivals, and the detention of a popular Turkish intellectual, Mustafa Akyol, who was allegedly speaking on the commonalities between Islam and Christianity without the permission of local authorities.

More of such controversies are bound to arise given that ethno-religious politics form the frontiers of socio-political contestation in Malaysia. We can expect political parties on both sides to capitalise on racially and religiously charged incidents going forward – because to win the hearts and minds of a majority Malay-Muslim Malaysia, one must prove to best represent their interests.

Newcomers Parti Bersatu, which has now teamed up with the opposition coalition, is led by Dr Mahathir and his son Mukhriz Mahathir, alongside disgruntled former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yasin.

The party is aiming precisely at the rural states of Johor, Kedah, Perlis and Perak. These states form the Malay-Muslim heartland and if, as the Democratic Action Party (DAP) has asserted, there is indeed a Malay tsunami this time round with a vote swing of at least 10 per cent, this may be the clincher required for the opposition to take power at the national level.

PAS THE SPOILER PARTY

Having left the opposition coalition, PAS now plays the spoiler party and is well-aware of its ability to be kingmaker. At the same time, Najib will continually attempt to entice the Islamic party PAS to remain on his side in the name of Malay-Muslim unity.

In February this year, Najib sent a food flotilla off to Myanmar in a public display of aid to the Rohingya refugees. Present at the flag-off were PAS’s deputy president and secretary-general.

PAS contesting as a third party in a first-past-the-post electoral system is far more likely to weaken the opposition coalition than UMNO in key marginal seats.

In exchange, UMNO may agree to support PAS’s Bill to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act, which would enhance syariah court punishments in line with hudud laws. Put on hold temporarily, this was the first time that an opposition Member or Parliament’s Private Member’s Bill was tabled in Parliament.

PAS as a third force directly threatens the People’s Justice Party’s (PKR) performance in many Malay-majority marginal seats.

The DAP on the other hand would not be as greatly affected as its seats are mainly Chinese-majority.

This combination unfortunately plays to UMNO’s narrative of the opposition being DAP-dominated.

However, given how racially tinged Malaysian politics has become, it is hard to imagine the Chinese-dominant DAP taking a leadership position at the national level. In 2008, despite the DAP winning the largest number of state seats in Perak, the position of Chief Minister was eventually given to PAS.

In short, given that this election will be essentially centred on economic and Malay-Muslim issues, both of which UMNO has cleverly shaped to its advantage over recent years, it is unlikely that the opposition coalition will be on the winning end. The opposition won the popular vote in 2013, and still could not form the government.

An additional factor would be the degree to which opposition parties are able to make inroads into Sabah and Sarawak, traditionally known as the UMNO “vote bank”, but which have recently voiced their dissatisfaction over what they perceive to be a lack of autonomy and socio-economic rights.

Former UMNO vice-president Shafie Apdal is leading a new opposition party in Sabah, but his efforts have been thus far waylaid by a string of arrests by the party’s top leaders by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).

UMNO has continually made full use of its infrastructure and resources, government institutions, political patronage and ethnic-religious politics to ensure its survival.

This time will be no different, and it is the opposition’s uphill battle to fight.

Tricia Yeoh is chief operating officer of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.

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