Written by Tricia Yeoh.

Ruling incumbent Barisan Nasional (Barisan) has governed Malaysia since the country’s independence in 1957, despite attempts by different opposition parties at forming substantive political alternatives over the years. Its hold on power has been rigorously documented, having been achieved through a combination of authoritarian and restrictive legislation, a highly top-down decision-making structure centred on the Prime Minister, and lucrative economic handouts creating dependency especially amongst rural Malay-Muslim voters, which forms the majority of the country’s population.

In the 12th general election in 2008, Barisan lost its two-third majority in the federal Parliament for the first time, as well as five states, to the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat. Over the last ten years, Barisan’s popularity has arguably eroded, where in between, an election in 2013 led to the opposition winning popular support but insufficient seats in Parliament to form the federal government (Malaysia practices a first-past-the-post electoral system). This year, the ruling coalition is bracing for one of its toughest fights ever as the country faces its 14th general election on 9 May.

Dr. Mahathir’s presence is the game-changer. At 93 years old, he is still a formidable force on the campaign trail throughout the country, with hordes of crowds making their way to listen to what many citizens remember as the country’s ‘Father of Modernisation’ during his 22-year reign from 1981 to 2003.

In the last two elections, the opposition coalition had former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim as its leader, currently serving a jail sentence for a sodomy conviction that many have decried as political targeting. He is expected to be released on 8 June this year, well after the election is over. But in his absence, this election has former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed at the helm of opposition leadership.

The re-grouped coalition, called Pakatan Harapan (Pakatan, or the pact of hope), is made up of four parties, the latest member of which is Dr. Mahathir’s own Parti Bersatu Pribumi Malaysia (PPBM), which positions itself as an alternative to UMNO, the Malay ruling party within Barisan. Dr. Mahathir’s presence is the game-changer. At 93 years old, he is still a formidable force on the campaign trail throughout the country, with hordes of crowds making their way to listen to what many citizens remember as the country’s ‘Father of Modernisation’ during his 22-year reign from 1981 to 2003.

Not all agree with the choice of having Dr. Mahathir lead the opposition, especially since many of the country’s current problems stem from structures that he introduced. An economy based largely on patronage and crony capitalism is one example of a system that he mastered, arguably to build the modern, prosperous economic Malaysia that flourished in the 1980s and 1990s. But Barisan has an even bigger shadow looming over it – current Prime Minister Najib Razak’s alleged involvement in corrupt-ridden 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad). The scale and magnitude of the 1MDB scandal is unprecedented in Malaysian history, and has become the mantra behind calls for Najib’s resignation.

Initially formed as a national sovereign development fund, 1MDB has racked up nearly USD11.73 billion in debt, and the US Department of Justice alleges that USD3.5 billion was misappropriated from 1MDB. The Wall Street Journal reported that close to USD700 million from the fund had been channeled directly to Najib’s personal bank accounts. Malaysian investigations into the case eventually led to the swift removal of critics, including the Deputy Prime Minister, the Attorney-General, the head of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and one state’s (Kedah) Chief Minister. Today, both the sacked Deputy Prime Minister and Kedah Chief Minister are key members of the opposition PPBM, both of whom have vowed to topple the Barisan government in the upcoming election.

The new boundaries appear to have placed voters into ethnic ghettoes, making seats even more mono-ethnic than before, which will have detrimental long-term effects on political contestation.

The Pakatan opposition seems to have coalesced in time for the current election campaign. But it will be a tremendous uphill battle for them, since Barisan has executed strategic measures to ensure its continued stay in power. The Election Commission – which ultimately reports to the Prime Minister – redelineated electoral constituency boundaries just before elections were called, employing typical tactics of gerrymandering and malapportionment to its advantage.

In the state of Selangor, which is currently under opposition control and which Barisan wants to win back, the ratio between the largest and smallest seats is four to one. In 2013, the average size of the parliamentary constituency won by Barisan was about 48,000 voters while it was 79,000 voters for the opposition. The redelineation exercise has increased this gap further. Worse, the new boundaries appear to have placed voters into ethnic ghettoes, making seats even more mono-ethnic than before, which will have detrimental long-term effects on political contestation.

In recent weeks, the Election Commission has also emerged with unprecedented rulings on what is permitted during the campaigning period. First, it decided to hold the election on a Wednesday, right smack in the middle of the week. Most elections have been held on weekends, and despite it being a public holiday, a mid-week polling day will inconvenience voters especially those working outside their home state. It also announced that only images of party presidents and deputy presidents, or their equivalents, can be used on campaigning material. This rules out pictures of Dr. Mahathir Mohamed and Anwar Ibrahim on most banners and posters. Finally, the Barisan has lavishly announced cash incentives and promises of development, also optimising resources at its disposal which oil its electoral machinery (think ground and door-to-door canvassing) the way the opposition would never be able to fully access.

Ultimately, this election will be about the Malay vote, which accounts for 62 percent of voters, hence the battleground taking place in the Malay heartland states of Johor and Kedah. Polling numbers suggest that although Malay support for the opposition has increased compared to the last election, this may still be insufficient to turn the tide against Barisan, especially if voter turnout is low given midweek polling. The Islamic party PAS will also play a spoiler vote, splitting Malay support in many multi-corner fights.

This is one of the most hotly contested elections in Malaysia’s history, but even Dr. Mahathir’s presence may not be enough to end Barisan’s dominant rule, given the latter’s state and institutional capture, economic largesse and tactical play.

Tricia Yeoh is a PhD candidate at the School of Politics, History and International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus and IDEAS Fellow. She tweets at @TriciaYeoh. Image credit: CC by Firdaus Latif/Flickr.

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