Malaysia's ruling coalition won a keenly-contested election Sunday, extending its 56-year run in charge of this Southeast Asian nation but with what looks to be its narrowest majority since independence from the UK in 1957.
Ahead of the election, some analysts thought the ruling National Front was vulnerable to a challenge spearheaded by Anwar Ibrahim, a former government insider who broke with the ruling coalition in the 1990s and sought to rally anger against government corruption and a bulge of youth voters hungry for democratic change.
But that effort, amid charges of electoral fraud from Anwar's camp, came up short, with strong support among Malaysia's ethnic-Chinese minority and from urban Malaysians, of all backgrounds, balanced against rural Malay constituencies that still heavily favor a government that has led the country through a period of unprecedented prosperity.
Preliminary results show the National Front winning 133 seats, with the opposition Pakatan Rakyat, or People's Alliance, getting 87. In 2008, the ruling coalition won 140 seats against the opposition coalition's 82. That marks a gain for the opposition at national level, though it ceded control of one of the four regional administrations it held going into the poll.
Anwar charged that the loss was down to a rigged election. "It is unfair to expect us to form a decision based primarily on the results of an election that is considered fraudulent. We are not accepting it without reason," he said.
In a statement emailed to reporters early Monday morning, Prime Minister Najib Razak in contrast praised the conduct of the election, which he described as ‘true, fair and transparent’ and asked Malaysians “to accept the will of the people, respect the result and show the world we are a mature democracy.” The 80 per cent turnout for this thirteenth election was the highest in Malaysian history
Going into the vote, the opposition ran on an Obama-esque platform of '"ubah," or "change," a mantra chanted at exuberant rallies around the country in recent weeks. More substantively, Anwar and allies focused on issues such as graft and cronyism, promising to curb ethnic favoritism in government contracts and business dealings, which minorities feel unfairly benefit the 60 percent Malay majority from which the country draws its name.
After race riots in 1969, the Malaysian government introduced a policy of race-based economic privileges for the Malay majority who, typically more rural and less educated than the ethnic-Chinese minority, were at the time bit-players in the country's private sector. Those policies continue to this day. Critics say they've merely created a class of wealthy ethnic-Malay rent seekers, who have been a drag on economic growth while leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of the nation's minorities.
Supporters of the system say it has helped redress historic economic imbalances between the races and become a crucial part of the Malaysian social-contract, preventing another outbreak of the 1969 violence that scarred the national psyche.
The National Front is spearheaded by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the ethnic-based Malay party that has been the senior partner, with ethnic-Indian and Chinese parties, in the coalition government since independence. Anwar's coalition is composed of his People's Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat, PKR), the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), an ethnic-Chinese group.
Backers of the Pakatan Rakyat, which hoped to better its previous best-ever showing in 2008 by winning power for the first time, expressed disappointment with the outcome. Speaking in Alor Setar, capital of the rice-growing Kedah state in the north, voter Lys Idris says she hoped for a new government. “Last time I voted BN, but now maybe we we should go for change,” she said, speaking after voting at a school at the town's outskirts.
The opposition had hoped that the youth vote and urban disenchantment with the long-established incumbents would sway voters more than the government's record on the economy, which has seen Malaysia make a half-century jump from being one of the world's poorest countries at independence in 1956 to hoped-for developed status by 2020.
Lim Guan Eng, a key opposition figure and representative of the DAP, says opposition leaders will likely convene in the coming days to discuss their response to the election.
“The election process was disappointing,” he says. “The ink was a sham, people could rub it off,” he adds, referring to widespread claims that voters could with minimal effort remove the indelible ink from their index fingers after voting. Voters dipped their finger in the ink after casting their ballot, with the stain meant to remain for several days, as a counter against potential repeat voting.
About 25 per cent of Malaysia's 29 million citizens are of Chinese descent, and initial results show the latter to have voted for the opposition en masse, likely wiping out the ethnic-Chinese parties that have long been crucial minority mainstays of the National Front.
Expressing surprise at the extent of the Chinese swing away from the victorious National Front, Prime Minister Najib said that “I expected it but I think not... to this extent. None of us expected this extent. But despite the extent of the swing against us, BN did not fall,” he added.
The result could fuel ethnic tensions in the country, mostly dormant since the riots in 1969 left around 1000 mostly Chinese-Malaysians dead. The swing against the government suggests it has mishandled relations with minorities.
“The BN failed to fully comprehend the dynamics of race and religion in the country and they continue to manage the country by inciting fear or race and religious conflicts which are beginning to irritate many Malaysians, especially the minorities,” says Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman, Coordinator of the Malaysia Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
But for now, the Malaysia status quo remains, if shaken by a changing electorate and new demands. Najib's vow to regain the two-thirds majority that allowed the ruling coalition to amend the Constitution at will for decades ended in failure and as the seats are counted it looks like BN has its narrowest majority ever.
That result points to a likely shakeup in the ruling coalition, and wind still in the sails of the forces for political change. Lim Guan Eng says that the result, at least, means the opposition has edged closer to the National Front, meaning that even if the government has eluded Pakatan Rakyat for now, it should be in a position to mount a stronger challenge come 2018, when the next elections are due. "We have made our presence felt even more strongly this time," he says.