Will The Opposition Be Able to Topple Malaysia’s Najib Razak in May Polls?
Foreign policy brief on Malaysia
Most observers say it is highly unlikely as Malaysians prepare to go to the polls on May 9 to elect 222 Members to the House of Representatives known as the Dewan Rakyat. Not only is Dr. Mahathir , at 92, a well known commodity having ruled earlier as Prime Minister, but Anwar Ibrahim, reportedly the most popular opposition politician, continues to languish in jail on sodomy and graft charges after his acquittal was overturned in 2014 and he was sentenced to a five year prison term. His wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail however remains active politically and the opposition has named her as their Deputy Prime Ministerial candidate.
There is some speculation that Najib Razak’s reputation too has suffered because of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal and if indeed the opposition coalition is able to muster a winning proportion of seats they would seek a royal pardon for Anwar Ibrahim and he would become the Prime Minister.
Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy, in which the King is head of state and the Prime Minister is the head of government. Executive power is exercised by the federal government and the 13 state governments. Federal legislative power is vested in the federal parliament and the 13 state assemblies. Since its independence in 1957 Malaysia has been ruled by a coalition fashioned around the dominant United Malays National Organization, or UMNO to which Najib belongs -as did Dr. Mahathir and, for a while , as did Anwar Ibrahim till his ouster by Dr. Mahathir and subsequent arrest on sodomy and graft charges.
The dominance of the ruling coalition was somewhat ruptured in the 2013 elections when the UMNO led coalition could not attain a two thirds majority and the Pakatan Rakyat led by Anwar Ibrahim who was out of jail at the time, obtained 50.9% of the popular vote compared to the 47.4% gained by the ruling Barisan Nasional or National Front. But the BN was able to win more seats, given the constituency structure, and the coalition formed the government with Najib Razak named the Prime Minister by the King. In the very next year the courts overturned Anwar Ibrahim’s acquittal sending him back to jail for five years.
In Malaysia, Members of Parliament are elected from single-member constituencies defined according to population and using the first past the post system. The party that has the majority in the House of Representatives forms the federal government. The Najib Razak led ruling coalition consists of more than ten component parties.
The three main ones are racially based parties: the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). The Mahathir led opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan or “ Alliance of Hope” is a collection of disparate forces that includes Chinese liberals, Islamists and nationalist Malays. One of its important constituents is the Democratic Action Party which is a multi-racial, centre-left political party advocating social democracy and secularism, social justice, social liberalism, progressivism, and multi-racialism There continue to be reports of the opposition coalition’s strength being undermined by squabbles among the constituents. One former member the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party, which wanted to introduce greater Islamisation in Malaysia and amend Malaysia’s Shariah law, is going its own way.
According to the law Malaysians 21 years of age are eligible to vote after registration. In terms of demographics over fifty percent of the population is Malay; the Chinese form almost a quarter of the total population; Malaysians of Indian descent form approximately 7% of the population; while all indigenous people combined form about 11% of the total population in Malaysia.
Given the sudden dissolution of Parliament by Najib Razak, the Election Commission set May 9 as the date for elections and reduced the campaigning period to 11 days against 15 days in 2013. It said that 14.94 million voters are eligible to cast their votes, representing 1.7 million new voters. For Najib a victory in the forthcoming elections is critical as party elections in his United Malays National Organization are scheduled to be held at the end of the year. The opposition’s hopes lie in a high voter turnout and the tarnished image of the Prime Minister. Reports suggest that while the BN’s posters and campaigning is visible the opposition still has to get its act together.
The opposition has focused its campaign primarily on the person of Najib Razak highlighting the financial scandal he is said to have benefitted from which has tarnished the country’s reputation. Transactions related to 1Malaysia Development Berhad(1MDB), a strategic development company, wholly owned by the Government of Malaysia are under investigation in six countries including the United States. An investigation by the United States Department of Justice, which is building a case to seize around $1.7 billion in assets connected to the fund, found that $731 million that was deposited into bank accounts controlled by Najib had come from 1MDB. Najib contends that the bulk of that money was given to him by a Saudi patron.
Opposition lawmakers said the 1MDB scandal had turned the country into a global kleptocracy and warned that re-electing the ruling coalition would destroy Malaysia. The U.S. Justice Department says at least $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB by associates of Najib and is working to seize $1.7 billion allegedly taken from the fund to buy assets in the U.S.
To add to Najib’s worries has been the recent decision by the European Union to curb the import of palm oil from Malaysia—a source of earning for millions of small landholders in the PM’s rural strongholds who have already been hurt by financial scams at the state owned palm oil agency Felda. Reports also suggest increasing discontent among the ethnic Chinese minority with some saying a win for the BN would see more Chinese leaving Malaysia.
Najib has not been idle. Though tarred by scandal, he had called for early elections banking on the opposition remaining ineffective. And to ensure this he has taken concrete steps. A government body temporarily deregistered Dr. Mahathir’s new political party because it had filed incomplete paperwork. Until the documentation is complete, Mahathir’s political bloc will not be allowed to campaign or display its logo. Just days before he called elections, Parliament dominated by Najib’s coalition approved redrawn electoral boundaries which would favour the National Front.
Already under a programme started by Mahathir when he was Prime Minister, the National Front has safeguarded preferential treatment for the Malay majority in areas ranging from government jobs to university places. Now Najib has promised to give raises to Malaysia’s 1.6 million civil servants, most of whom are Malay. He has also promised to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on police officers and certain companies run by bumiputra, or sons of the soil, as Malays and indigenous people are known.
Najib has been firing his critics and curbing the media. The Malaysian state has always had a high stake and control over mainline media through the concentration of press ownership among a limited group of pro-BN individuals.. Utusan Malaysia, Berita Harian, New Straits Times and The Star some of the papers known to be used by the government to publish positive stories for its benefit and to demonise the opposition.
The governments in Malaysia since its independence were formed by the same National Front(BN) and closely monitored the press, broadcasting and publishing companies in Malaysia. Commentators noted that the dissatisfaction of the people can be easily seen through comments on social media. And it is this channel for expressing disaffection and opposition to the government that is now being targeted. Just before its dissolution Parliament passed legislation making creating or circulating “fake news” punishable by up to six years in prison.
It defines fake news as “news, information, data or reports which is or are wholly or partly false” and includes features, visuals and audio recordings. The law, which covers digital publications and social media, also applies to offenders outside Malaysia, including foreigners, as long as Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen were affected. The bill states it is hoped the public would be more responsible and cautious in sharing news and information.
Though one cannot call the Malaysian elections a “one horse race” the advantage clearly lies with the incumbent—unless the charisma of Anwar Ibrahim from prison; voter’s loss of memory about Mahathir’s own rule; and the discontent of the non-Malays translates into a voting pattern that could further erode the National Front’s standing. Mahathir’s own party Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia would do well in his traditional stronghold of Kedah.
There is also some hope that senior and influential members of the government like Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin who have broken away from Najib could help the opposition. One of the advantages the opposition has is that it leads two prominent state governments-- Selangor and Penang which are two of the richest, most urbanised and industralised states in the country.
There has been some telling comment from some well known personalities. The Prime Minister’s younger brother Nazir Abdul Razak has described the current political situation as the "darkest political times", saying the interests of the country and the people must come first. In his Instagram post he said "Not personal interests, not personal loyalties, not even party politics” should be a consideration.
Meanwhile Tunku Mahkota Johor Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim of Johor State has said that quote “With the political scenario that is currently happening in our country, regardless whether or not it's the ruling government or the opposition, the people must be smart in evaluating what is best for our state and country. Currently, the people are only hearing what the politicians are saying through their speeches or reading articles circulating on social media….. Everyone is well aware that when a politician wants something, they will make sweet promises….Everyone knows that UMNO was formed in Johor. In a Johor's state palace to be exact. I know the people are discouraged by the leadership of the country and I understand. In my view, UMNO needs to have more assets than liabilities. It means UMNO needs to revamp the way it governs, change the way it thinks and it's policy. …
One important factor in my opinion is the current party's hierarchy system. We need more assets in the form of young talents who are ready to serve the country and share their knowledge and replace the old guards with those who have these potential.” End quote.
Till now the phrase “anti incumbency” seems to have been absent from the lexicon of Malaysian political discourse. Will the younger new voters introduce it? One can only wait and see.