Malaysians will go to the polls on May 9 in the country’s 14th general election. This is the most hotly contested election in Malaysia’s history, pitting the scandal ridden incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak against a coalition led by former political enemies: former prime minister Mahathir Mohammed, who is 92 years old, and his former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, whom Mahathir had imprisoned.
Anwar is once again in prison, on more trumped up charges, and is unable to contest the election, instead endorsing his former boss, who quit the ruling UMNO party that he led for 22 years in what he claims to be disgust over Najib’s corruption. Mahathir has since apologized for sacking Anwar, but make no mistake: this election is about strange bedfellows.
Najib won the 2013 election only through rampant vote-buying and gerrymandering and malapportionment. The government won only 47 percent of the popular vote, but won 60 percent of parliamentary seats. There is evidence that some of the $681 million in embezzled 1MDB funds that found their way into Najib’s personal bank account were used to secure votes. The opposition rightly felt they were robbed. The government recently announced new electoral districting ahead of the polls.
Despite some record-setting rallies, the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan is looser than it appears. There are key rivalries and differences between the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR), and Mahathir’s party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, that the government tried to have de-certified. Mahathir was set to run on the PKR ticket, but a court has since stayed the delisting.
The Islamist party Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which used to be a solid member of the opposition block, is no longer so. PAS ran afoul of its secular coalition partners when it pushed to implement hudud in Kelantan state, which it controls. As Najib’s political fortunes have waned, he has reached out to PAS, trying to lure them to his side. PAS now sees itself as an electoral kingmaker.
Najib has recently offered all sorts of goodies to his constituents, including significant pay raises for civil servants (the majority of whom are Malay). But there are steady signs that the Malay constituency is not a lock for UMNO. Many UMNO rank and file remain fiercely loyal to Mahathir, who ruled for over two decades before stepping down in 2003. There have been plenty of damaging leaks regarding the 1MDB fraud of some $4.5 billion that have come from within the government. Many civil servants are aghast at the degree to which Najib has abused power to cover his tracks and halt the investigation, which is now happening in up to 10 overseas countries, including Singapore, Switzerland, and the United States.
Likewise, there have been a few recent court cases, such as the overturning of the Electoral Commission’s delisting of Mahathir’s party, that suggest that some within the judiciary are pushing back against Najib.
The level of corruption has caused significant disgust amongst ethnic Malays. Opposition figures are now routinely campaigning in FELDA land grant areas, where land is distributed to bumiputeras at exceptionally low cost. These were once the absolute heartland of UMNO. While the “Malay tsunami” predicted by the opposition may be over stated, the government has never had the loyalty of the Malay constituency this in doubt.
The election is very much about bread and butter issues. The South China Morning Post recently did an excellent report on the cost of living, growing inequality amidst solid economic growth, and other financial factors that have caused so much dissatisfaction.
But it’s important to understand just how far Malaysia has fallen in terms of its democracy and electoral integrity, according to seven different independent watchdogs and international organizations. This has had a deleterious effect on Malaysia.
In its 2017 Democracy Index, The Economist rated Malaysia the third-most democratic country in Southeast Asia, but far behind Indonesia and the Philippines. Malaysia was rated a “flawed democracy,” ranked 68th in the world down from 65th in the world in 2016. Its overall score fell by 3.52 percent. While Malaysia’s scores for electoral process and pluralism, at 6.92 percent are tied for second in the region, they significantly lag behind Indonesia’s (9.17 percent). The Economist ranked Malaysia is media freedom status has “largely unfree,” and that was before the government passed its controversial Fake News Law.
While the Fragile State Index has shown Malaysia to be relatively stable since 2006, there have been sharp declines in several of the 12 different factors it measures. While, by regional standards, Malaysian security services are not overly politicized, they still rank within the bottom two quintiles of their data set.
Where Malaysia fell, which should not surprise anyone, is in the measurement of factionalized elites. Here Malaysia’s score fell by 24 percent between 2006 and 2017. In that same period of time, its scores for group grievance and human rights fell by 18 percent and 23 percent, respectively. Perhaps the most telling indicator is that its score for government legitimacy fell by 30.5 percent between 2006 and 2017; and almost all of that decline has taken place since 2013 when Najib’s government lost the popular vote but won a large parliamentary majority.
Although the Rule of Law Index rates Malaysia the second highest in Southeast Asia, it is at only 54 percent. Amongst the eight Southeast Asian states studied, Malaysia scored fourth in “constraints on government power,” sixth in “open government,” and fourth in “human rights.” Malaysia did score well in number of the factors, including second best in the region for ordering security third best for regulatory enforcement second for civil justice and second for criminal justice. Indeed, Malaysia was the only country in Southeast Asia that saw its position increase between 2016 and 2017.
The World Bank’s Governance Indicators paints a mixed but similar picture. Regarding “voice and accountability,” Malaysia’s seen two periods of improvement since 1996. But it remains and negative territory in the rankings; and since 2013, its scores have fallen.
The Electoral Integrity Project (EIP) ranked Malaysia 142nd of 158 ranked countries, down sharply from their 2015 report. On a scale of 1-100, with 100 being the best, Malaysia scored “very low” on seven of the 11 rated factors: Perceptions of Electoral Integrity, Election Management Bodies, Election Laws, Voter Registration, Media Coverage, and Campaign Finance. It got absolutely slammed for its gerrymandering. In the remaining four categories, Electoral Procedure, Party Registration, Vote Count and Results, it was ranked “low.” Overall, Malaysia scored only one point above Vietnam, an authoritarian one-party state governed by a Communist Party.
Freedom House has consistently rated Malaysia a “partially free” country since establishing its annual reporting in 1999. Reporters Without Borders, meanwhile, downgraded Malaysia in their annual rankings from 110 to 144th in the world, between 2002 and 2017, putting it in the bottom quintile.
The deck is clearly stacked against the opposition, which is nevertheless trying to make a go of it. In addition to the just-passed fake news law, there are a number of laws that have the potential to be abused by the government including the Sedition Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the Computer Crimes Act. And Najib, whose ruling Barisan Nasional coalition is running scared.
While Malaysia has long been one of the most politically stable countries in the region, that has led to an increasingly corrupt autocracy. Should Najib again win a parliamentary majority with a minority of the popular vote, we should not expect the opposition to accept it as passively as they did in 2013.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington, D.C.