Malaysia’s ruling powers have extended their unbeaten grip on power following Sunday’s elections. However, their performance was far from convincing, leaving Prime Minister Najib Razak vulnerable to a future challenge. Meanwhile, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has refused to accept the result amid widespread allegations of cheating.
A high turnout of about 80 percent of Malaysians voted with predictions of a tight race. In late counting the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN), controlled by Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO), had won 133 seats in the 222-seat parliament.
It was the worst electoral performance by the coalition since Malaysian independence in 1957, with Chinese voters deserting BN, which overall dropped seven parliamentary seats from the 2008 election when the ruling parties lost their two-thirds majority. That result prompted Najib to successfully challenge then leader Abdullah Ahmad Badawi for the nation’s top job in 2009.
Najib’s Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin – a hard-line Islamic nationalist — has been widely touted as a potential prime minister whose faction within UMNO could be emboldened after Najib’s failure to improve UMNO-BN’s electoral stock.
Electoral irregularities were reported across the country following the recent election. For one, many Malaysian voters complained about the use of indelible ink. Each voter must dip their finger in ink, which is supposed to last a week, enabling electoral officials to prevent people from voting more than once.
One elderly woman who supports Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) held up her finger and told The Diplomat, “Look, I voted just half an hour ago and this washes off in the rain.” It was a typical complaint. One soldier said military personnel had voted a week earlier and the ink had long since washed off.
There have also been allegations of ghost voters on electoral rolls, including the names of people long thought deceased. UMNO has also been accused of granting citizenship to Muslims from the southern Philippines in return for their votes. The ruling parties were further bolstered by a compliant press, a substantial political war chest and superior organizational skills.
Fears of electoral rigging even prompted an open letter from for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan who said during the lead-up to the vote that ”Malaysia has a long tradition of parliamentary democracy. But there is an acceptance that not all the conditions for electoral integrity have been fully met in the past.”
The letter continues, “It has been encouraging to see the widespread desire not to repeat past mistakes. The country’s Electoral Commission has already responded by improving independent monitoring and putting in place new processes – including the use of indelible ink – to prevent abuse and build trust in the result.”
He said the principal focus would be on the election results but also on how the elections were carried out.
“This is understandable,” Annan’s letter adds. “Elections have been held in all but 11 countries around the world since 2000, the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security, which I chaired, warned that fewer than 60 percent deserved to be called genuinely democratic.”
Anwar has refused to concede defeat, demanding the country’s electoral commission investigate the irregularities. Meanwhile, Najib was disappointed by the results, which he conceded were worse than expected.
Nonetheless, by the time the polling booths closed, gerrymandering and racial biases, which constitutionally favor Muslim Malays over Chinese and Indians, carried the day for UMNO and BN.