Ruling coalition faces tough challenges as Malaysia votes

13 May 2013

Despite winning one of Malaysia’s most heated elections, the ruling coalition faces a challenging time governing the country as it struggles with ongoing allegations of electoral fraud and a restless opposition.

Last Sunday the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, which has been in power for more than half a century since the country’s independence, won 60% of all parliamentary seats to form government despite losing the popular vote to the opposition alliance for the first time since 1969. Barisan Nasional’s ability to garner less than 47% of the popular vote is likely to prove challenging for Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose future in the party is unguaranteed given his dismal electoral showing, and who has to work hard to win back support for the coalition.

The government is facing a trust deficit. So far two think tanks have concluded that the elections were “partially free but not fair,” pointing out that the state-owned mainstream media was heavily biased in favour of Barisan Nasional, that there were hundreds of reports of voter fraud and that constituency sizes were unequal, allowing Barisan Nasional to win smaller seats to form government. The Economist has also called the election result “dangerous,” citing Najib who blamed the coalition’s huge losses on a “Chinese tsunami” and who then went on to defend a party-owned newspaper, whose headline encouraged anti-Chinese sentiment. (In Malaysia, ethnic Malays make up the majority of the population, the Chinese about 25%, while Indians and indigenous groups make up 10%).

The Prime Minister’s targeting of the Chinese community as the reason for his coalition’s poor showing are mistaken. Analysts show that Barisan Nasional’s electoral losses, while partially due to an increased dip in Chinese votes, was more accurately a result of an urban swing across all races in support for the opposition, whose platforms are to eradicate corruption and dismantle race-based policies that favour the Malay majority in Malaysia. Najib’s move to racialize the election result only hampers, and is inconsistent with, any form of “national reconciliation” that the government has promised in order to heal “racial and political divisions” in the country.

Nevertheless a “national reconciliation” might be inevitable in the coming weeks as the opposition continues to question the legitimacy of the incumbent government. On Wednesday, the opposition vowed to continue challenging the election results at a mammoth rally attracting over 60,000 people, where people dressed in black to symbolise the “death of democracy.” The opposition continues to claim that the elections were stolen by the ruling coalition due to many allegations of voter fraud and the process being heavily in favour of the ruling party.

The gap between urban and rural voters is also indicative of widening economic inequalities, where urban voters have greater access to the internet and are often more liberal in their views, while mostly Malay rural voters are frequently promised more development projects and guaranteed “special privileges” over other races in exchange for political support by the ruling party.

Alongside addressing these issues, the Prime Minister has to figure out how to form a racially representative cabinet. The Chinese component party in the ruling coalition has confirmed that it will not accept any government posts, having lost terribly in the elections. With only seven who are ethnically Chinese and four who are ethnically Indian out of the ruling coalition’s 133 elected parliamentarians, Barisan Nasional might have to form a government with little ethnic minority representation.

The government will also have to act quickly on economic issues. In the months leading up to the elections, the government dramatically expanded spending, offering cash handouts and public sector wage increases to would-be voters. This has contributed the country’s soaring deficit and public debt, raising questions about Malaysia’s macro stability, especially now that the government has to deliver on billions of pounds of election promises.

A national reconciliation is thus very much needed. The question, however, is whether the ruling coalition is able carry out the necessary reforms quickly and effectively enough to hold back a restless urban public intent on political change.

Jia Hui Lee

Photo – T100timlen