After the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition’s electoral disaster in 2008 – its worst ever poll result and the loss of its two-thirds majority in parliament – could Malaysians be thinking the unthinkable ahead of this year’s general election? If the 2008 elections delivered a shock result, this time around there is a sense that the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition could run BN close, or even deliver the first change of government in the country since independence. Prime Minister Najib Razak promises elections ‘very soon’, and realistically GE13 (so called because it is the country’s 13th general election, rather than a reference to the year) is very likely to come sooner than the deadline at the end of June. BN – led by the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) – has set a minimum campaigning period of just ten days and has to dissolve parliament by 28 April. For months now, layers of uncertainty have surrounded the timing of the election. Second-guessing Najib’s intentions has become a national sport in the past 18 months – each hint of an early election causing breathless paroxysms in the country’s media and thriving blogosphere. This uncertainty has infected the financial markets: question marks over when the elections might come, and the result, have undermined stock exchange and currency performance, leaving Malaysia among the worst performers in the region this year. During this phoney war, both sides have fanned a sense that this is a make-or-break election for the country. In the opposition’s eyes, it is their – and the rakyat’s – best opportunity to break away from a racist ruling coalition that has become too comfortable, complacent and corrupt over decades in power. For the government, it is essential to see off the destabilising challenge of an untested and unsteady coalition that cobbles together disparate secular, centrist and Islamist parties. Electoral maths The government should look more comfortable. Over nearly 60 years, BN has employed the benefits of long-term incumbency to maximum advantage and carefully constructed a rigged electoral deck. State resources are mobilised to shore up popular bases, the cleanliness of the electoral rolls is questionable, and constituency borders gerrymandered. A notable example being the disproportionate number of seats in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak (one quarter of seats for one fifth of the population), electoral ‘fixed deposits’ for BN in previous polls. Yet Najib is campaigning hard. He has criss-crossed the country in recent months; in one week in February, distributing ang pows at a Penang hawker centre for Chinese New Year, then to Perak, before making a 48-hour jaunt through Sabah. Leveraging Najib’s personal popularity seems to be a key plank of BN’s election strategy. According to the independent Merdeka Centre survey polling, the premier’s approval ratings are perched in the low 60s. But BN has struggled to raise its support above the mid to high 40s, lower than the total share of the vote it garnered in the 2008 elections. Despite the government’s advantages, the electoral maths does not provide much clarity for either side. But the government has moved forcefully to reject any suggestion that PR might be a credible government-in-waiting. In January, leading members of UMNO vocally went after a senior Malaysian bank economist who suggested at a public meeting in Singapore that the opposition would win a narrow parliamentary majority. Amid the publicity, he was suspended from his post the following week. For PR to fulfil the economist’s prediction, it is likely to need to mobilise the support of two distinct groups. Firstly, ethnic Chinese voters and the middle class in the peninsular states. Support for the government among these two groups tumbled around the time of the government’s heavy-handed response to two Bersih electoral reform protests in Kuala Lumpur in July 2011 and April 2012. But by themselves these groups are unlikely to be enough, so the second group it needs to attract are the populations of Sabah and Sarawak. In 2008, PR won more of the vote in peninsular Malaysia than BN – and to improve its gains this time around needs to secure a swing in these key battleground states. To capture the extra 30 seats it needs for victory, PR has to make inroads into Borneo’s 56 seats. Winners and losers At this stage, PR does not seem to have made the necessary inroads to achieve a large enough push into these ‘fixed deposits’, and on current indications a hard-fought BN victory seems the most likely outcome. Although race, religion and regionalism provide the context for Malaysian politics and its polling calculations, the electorate’s main concerns are more prosaic. These follow the basic concerns of voters anywhere in the world, and centre on the economy, good governance, and standards of living. On the economy, the coalition has performed relatively well – despite opposition accusations, BN has constructed a system of crony capitalism that has kept Malaysia squarely in the middle-income trap. Amid a slump in global demand since 2008, Malaysia’s economic growth has remained fairly resilient, driven mainly by domestic consumption and investment. The bumiputera economic policies (pro-Malay redistributive policies) and government handouts also continue to help shore up support among both rich and poor Malays. Meanwhile, to address concerns over election corruption, Najib has personally signed Transparency International’s Election Integrity Pledge. If the practical implications of this are limited, it is at least a nod in the right direction. The four state governments controlled by PR since 2008 have also performed largely creditably in this area. But at a national level, the opposition parties are untested, and face some suspicion. For many there is an underlying belief that PR – and in particular its de facto leader, Anwar Ibrahim – is a group of unprincipled opportunists, willing to take power alongside fundamentally incompatible ruling partners in a pact that they know could not survive the stresses and strains of government. Ultimately, this probable continuity of government is likely to be positive for near-term stability and security – despite the warnings of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad that PR plans ‘Arab Spring-style’ protests if it loses the election. In the event of a PR loss, we can expect the same accusations of vote rigging and electoral irregularities that followed the 2008 poll, particularly if it loses ground. Some demonstrations might also follow, but the outcome is still likely to be smoother than a transition period. When it does comes, any handover of power after so many decades is unlikely to be smooth or pain-free for standards of governance, ethnic relations, Malaysia’s financial markets and government-linked companies, or for foreign businesses operating there. How a change would affect the business environment is far from clear. Substantive policy debates are notably absent on the campaign trail, and in government pragmatism is a greater driver of policy than principle. If a change of government is unlikely to happen this time around, the political system has already altered and will be transformed even more if PR outstrips its 2008 performance. The idea of BN losing power does not seem such a fanciful notion any longer. The country has begun a transition away from one-party authoritarianism, and if the current trajectory continues, the coalition should expect more hard-fought elections. By Tim Powdrill Senior Associate, Intelligence & Analysis, London
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