Malaysia prepares for its closest election in 50 years

Economic growth and strict rule have kept the same government in power in Malaysia for more than 50 years, but calls for greater accountability are getting louder.

Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (c.) waves a national flag as he sings patriotic songs with supporters during an election campaign rally in Rawang, outside Kuala Lumpur, Sunday. Najib, head of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN, or National Front) coalition, has played up instability fears should the opposition win the upcoming election, and points out that Malaysia's economy has grown 5 percent a year in recent times.

Malaysia's ruling coalition has since 1957 steered the country between race riots, a brief and stormy marriage with Singapore, and a communist insurgency to the country's position today as one of the great economic success stories of the developing world.

But now its 56-year run in power since independence from Great Britain could be headed for the rocks. Malaysians will vote in a new parliament on May 5, and polls show a coalition led by former government insider Anwar Ibrahim has a shot at winning control of Southeast Asia's third largest economy.

“This election is the first one that is not a foregone conclusion,” says Clive Kessler of the University of New South Wales. Despite economic growth under the current government, perception of corruption and growing calls for more democracy and greater accountability have dogged it, giving the opposition a foothold from which to challenge the government. 

The government has responded to such calls with some political reforms that it hopes can serve as a ballast against a swing to the opposition. Those changes, such as relaxing media restrictions, might not be enough.

Anwar's Pakatan Rakyat (PKR, People's Alliance) opposition has campaigned on an anticorruption message, pledging “ubah,” or change, and hoping that enough of the 2.6 million first time voters – a fifth of the total – will back that message to swing the election away from the governing parties.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, head of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN, or National Front) coalition, has played up instability fears should the opposition win, and points out that Malaysia's economy has grown 5 percent a year in recent times. "The strength of the economy is creating a feel-good factor among voters,” he said.

Changing society

The strong challenge to the current government has been building for some time. Middle class and younger Malaysians have increasingly expressed dissatisfaction that the government is not responding to the changing society fast enough. In 2008 the opposition made history by taking a third of seats available and by winning five of Malaysia's 13 regional governments, its best-ever result.

Penang, a bustling electronics and tourism hub in the northwest, was one of the five regions won. An crowd of thousands gathered on Friday evening in Georgetown, Penang's colonial-kitsch tourist draw, to listen to leaders of the Democratic Action Party, a key opposition component, in a final rally to make a final plea to voters. Lim Guan Eng, the head of the party and a likely government minister should the opposition win on Sunday, says that the opposition can win, despite the prohibitive history. "People are sick of corruption, they want change. We have shown in Penang that we can govern," he told the Monitor.

But local BN magnate Teng Chang Yeow scoffs at the opposition's record in Penang: “they are good at claiming, but the truth is FDI [foreign direct investment] has actually fallen 73 percent in the last two years. How can they hope to manage the national economy when they can't even look after a small state like Penang?”

Malaysia-watchers predict that whatever happens, the handover might not be so smooth.

'Keep away'

For the most part, Malaysia has been politically-stable since around 1,000 people – most of them Chinese-Malaysians – were killed in 1969 race riots. But 2011 and 2012 rallies for changes to Malaysia's electoral system ended up with police firing teargas and water cannon at protestors in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, the country's biggest city. This year's election campaign has been marred by unexplained explosions and allegations of intimidation, sparking concerns that there could be trouble after Sunday's vote.

On Thursday night, the governing coalition held a charity event in Penang's historic Georgetown, doling out cans of Tiger beer to a small crowd listening as songstresses crooned Malay ballads and renderings of Celine Dion.

A BN supporter at the gig, who would not give his name, predicts trouble if the governing parties lose the election. “Keep away from KL [shorthand for Kuala Lumpur] next week if PKR wins. There will be problems there, violence on the streets maybe.”

“Najib has promised a peaceful handover, but he doesn't control those who might take to the streets, and even if he wins the election by a small majority, he will lose his position as party leader,” says author and professor Clive Kessler, who adds that a BN win could also see people on the streets. “If there are allegations of cheating, or if Barisan wins by a big margin, people might not believe that, and opposition supporters could protest,” he says.

On Friday, the prime minister denied allegations from opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim that his office had organized flights for 40,000 people – many of them foreigners – taking them from eastern Malaysia to vote in the vital Selangor constituency, which the governing coalition hopes, like in Penang, to retake from the opposition.

The charges sound wearyingly-familiar to some voters. Keira Cheong, one of the 25 percent of Malaysians of Chinese ancestry, sighs that “there's been a lot of corruption, everyone knows, but nobody can ever do anything.” Friend Veronica Chai, who works in Penang's pharmaceutical sector, cuts in. “Well we can vote at least, we at least need to try for change,” she asserts.

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