The political machinery that has run Malaysia since independence in 1957 will face its toughest test at the upcoming elections, with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim well placed to increase his party’s hold at the national and state levels.
However, taking power from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition that it heads still appears unlikely. The incumbents maintain a foothold in Malaysia’s predominantly Muslim west, although their grip on Chinese, Indian and non-Islamic communities has weakened substantially.
Most pundits believe a late March or April election is likely. Prime Minister Najib Razak is planning a short campaign in the hopes of blunting the opposition’s attack. UMNO also controls the mainstream press and has formidable financial resources.
Anwar has unveiled a series of electoral pledges, taking aim at the corruption that has flourished in Malaysia and remains UMNO’s biggest blemish in citizens’ eyes, speaking openly about the scandals that have plagued successive governments.
"We are responsible for returning human dignity and pride to the people," he said in a speech following the release of a manifesto on Monday outlining his pledges. Anwar also pledged to wage war on corruption, dismantle business monopolies and abandon draconian laws which civil liberty groups say are an infringement of basic democratic principles.
His three-party alliance, the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Pact), has also promised to lower fuel prices, increase jobs and raise wages. Anwar is forecasting a new era to be marked by ethnic diversity and economic vibrancy.
Anwar aims to create jobs by reducing the country’s reliance on foreign labor, while raising the minimum wage through the creation of a fund worth U.S. $600 million. Anwar also pledged to scrap operations of a rare-earths processing plant run by Australia’s Lynas Corporation, which has raised health concerns.
At present, Anwar’s Pakatan Rakyat coalition holds slightly more than a third of the seats in parliament, with the Malaysia’s eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak expected to play a crucial role in the upcoming vote.
Years of neglect, complaints that they have not received their fair share of the revenue from locally produced oil and gas reserves and allegations of electoral fraud are significant concerns in both states.
Sabah has also seen border incursions, an influx of refugees and is often used by insurgents transiting to and from conflicts in the southern Philippines and Indonesia, casting doubts over Kuala Lumpur's ability to protect its far-flung borders.
“The people are rising to demand changes…. We are the catalyst of this process,” Anwar said while announcing his manifesto.
In 2008, UMNO was horrified by its worst electoral performance ever at the polls, losing its cherished two-thirds majority. The party has since tried to rebuild its standing among voters.
Perhaps to minimize the challenge posed by Ibrahim’s opposition campaign, Najib insists his party has met all of the election promises that he made in 2008 and argues that the opposition cannot afford its manifesto.
The elections must be held by June 27.