The word on the street is that elections in Malaysia will be called this year, ahead of the end of Barisan Nasional’s (BN) five year term. On the surface, it seems like an odd decision. The last election saw BN lose its two-thirds majority in Parliament, along with the popular vote, although a gerrymandered system in which rural Malay votes held more sway than more mixed urban areas kept BN and Prime Minister Najib Razak in power. The nearly four years since have seen scandal after scandal; relentless crackdowns, the fracturing of the opposition, and a massive, international money laundering scheme that implicates even Najib himself.
With everything that’s happened, it’s hard to believe the BN would want to call elections early. But dive in deeper and the on-the-ground reality is starkly different from what one perceives from a distance. BN and its dominant member, the United Malays National Organization (UNMO) are stronger, and more entrenched, today than any point since 2013. Conversely, the Malaysian opposition is more fragmented, and weaker than four years ago. When you factor in everything in BN’s favor, it is unlikely – but not impossible – that this election will see the world’s longest ruling democratic party finally lose power.
A Firmer Grip
The first step that the BN-controlled government took after the shock results in the 2013 election was to resume court proceedings against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, resulting in his five year imprisonment on charges of sodomy – charges many believe were politically motivated. This soon became a trend, as others followed Anwar to court, or jail.
“Two years after his second conviction, opposition leader Anwar continues to be held behind bars, on politically-motivated charges, while countless under opposition parliamentarians have been charged or convicted for Sedition and other repressive laws in order to weaken the opposition,” said Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Campaigns for Southeast Asia
While this crackdown was ongoing, the Wall Street Journal broke the story about massive corruption at 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). The deep web of deceit leads all the way up to Najib himself, who many believe is the “Malaysia Official 1” referred to in an ongoing investigation being conducted by the United States Department of Justice.
The government’s reaction to the 1MDB scandal was to clamp down even harder, shutting down any chance of an independent investigation, and harassing journalists or activists who spoke up. Though not unprecedented in Malaysia’s one-party history, which, many forget, saw many waves of oppression, it was a marked shift from the opening up in Malaysia early in the millennium.
For BN, the easiest path toward maintaining power was to make the opposition untenable. Hence the focus on Anwar, as he was the glue that held the unwieldy opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, together. With member parties ranging from the left-leaning, ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party to the conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, it was Anwar’s will, not ideology, that kept them in line.
It is not a surprise then that, soon after Anwar was jailed, Pakatan Rakyat fell apart in 2015, with the public reason stated as a conflict over a piece of pro-Islamic legislation. The coalition that emerged from the rubble, Pakatan Harapan, is smaller, controlling just 74 out of 222 seats in Parliament, and still lacks a coherent voice.
This weakened opposition, currently lacking a leader with Anwar’s dynamism, is unlikely to generate the momentum that led to record voter turnout and mass enthusiasm for Pakatan Rakyat in 2013. This isn’t to say that many Malaysians are not upset about 1MDB and the government’s actions. There has been a wave of activism driven by civil society, and just last November, the country saw widespread grassroots mobilizations for Bersih 5.
“This time we even had the former Prime Minister, Mahatir Mohamed, supporting the agenda of Bersih,” said Mandeep Singh, secretariat manager for Bersih. “We were able to go into new areas, create awareness, and talk about reform and the need for free and fair elections.”
Despite the government’s attempts to shut down the media, people are aware of 1MDB and corruption in BN. The challenge is that, even if there is discontent at the ruling party, the elections themselves may not even provide many Malaysians a chance to channel that frustration productively.
Flawed Process, Flawed Outcome
Despite the opposition’s weakness, it is hard to imagine a surge in BN’s standing after the blatant scandals. Few believe the official explanation for the huge deposits into the prime minister’s bank account – that it was a gift from the Saudi Royal Family. The question is if disdain for Najib will outweigh distrust of the opposition.
“You… see the support for the opposition floundering because people know that they have no operational vision, no idea what they want to do,” said Chew Chuan Yang, documentation and monitoring coordinator at the Malaysian NGO Suaram, speaking to The Diplomat in a personal capacity. “They say they want to stop corruption, but what’s their game plan? There’s none.”
What BN is banking on is that things return to a default, and that their rigging of the electoral systems makes defeat impossible. In fact, the barriers against the opposition winning are plentiful. Remember, they actually won the popular vote in 2013, yet still trailed BN in Parliament by more than 40 seats. To claim power would require a bigger popular vote margin. In 2018, that task becomes even harder as the government is redistricting seats in certain areas, allegedly to dilute the opposition’s power and give even more say to their rural, Malay base.
Moreover, promised electoral reforms have not come. Malaysia still lacks automatic voter registration, nor is there any form of absentee or distance voting. This means that migrants from East Malaysia who reside in West Malaysia have to fly home on election day if they want to vote. Youth are also facing challenges in registering. Both of these groups’ preferences lean toward the opposition, meaning if these barriers reduce their turnout in any way, it will only make it harder for the opposition to boot BN from Kuala Lumpur.
Even if the opposition somehow overcomes all this and wins, it may not matter much. After so many years in power, BN has a incredibly strong political machine, with civil servants in control across the country’s vast bureaucracy. That machine will likely stand in the way of the new, incoming coalition’s ability to govern.
Factor in the fact that the opposition can’t agree much on policy, and you have the recipe for a short-lived government, similar to what we saw in Japan earlier this decade, when the Democratic Party wrested power from the longtime ruling Liberal Democrats and proceeded to fail at governing, leading to the LDP’s triumphant return to power just three years later.
“If, say, somehow the opposition scrapes enough votes to win the next election… I think they will govern for about two years before they get literally, rioted out office,” said Yang.
Still, the power change may be symbolic. Malaysia tops even Japan in single-party rule, as it has not seen even one democratic power transition. Just the fact of a prime minister who is not a member of BN could create a mental shift in how Malaysians think about politics.
“There’s a chance that people will know the government isn’t supreme, it can be changed, and it will be changed,” said Yang. “That kind of idea has to be implemented in Malaysian people’s hearts and minds.”
Moreover, it may lead to, in the future, the formation of an ideological opposition that can present concrete policy proposals. Ideological, issue-focused political campaigns are something that Malaysia has, for the most part, never experienced. BN’s policies have been focused on patronage politics and the distribution of state money through affirmative action schemes that support its mostly rural Malay base, with a significant sum siphoned off, of course. The opposition’s focus is to criticize BN and Najib for being corrupt and call for “change.”
Shifting from 60-plus years of single-party rule will not be easy. The coming election could be the first sign if Malaysia is ready to test the waters and become a real democracy. Otherwise, playing it safe means continuing its deal with the BN — and if that happens, it might be a long time before change comes to Malaysia.
“If there is no change of government in the next election, like it or not, any chance of reform with be delayed for another 10 years,” said Yang. “And even then, 10 years is hoping that we are lucky.” Because if even a scandal as big as 1MDB couldn’t depose BN, it’s hard to imagine what, eventually, will.
Nithin Coca is a freelance writer and journalist who focuses on cultural, economic, and environmental issues in developing countries. Follow him on Twitter @excinit.