CLIVE KESSLER. Malaysia’s electoral fantasy belies worrying reality.

May 1, 2018

Malaysia’s fourteenth general elections (GE14) have finally been called. For almost a decade Prime Minister Najib Razak has ruled on recurrent hints of a snap, surprise election; this is the second time he has let the Parliament run close to its full five-year course. On 7 April, Najib dissolved the Parliament, leaving it to the Election Commission to proclaim 28 April as the nomination deadline for candidates and 9 May as the day of the vote. Rather than holding the election as usual at the weekend, when city-dwelling voters may easily return to the villages where many are registered to vote, GE14 will be held on a Wednesday — yet another obstacle to the opposition’s hopes of prevailing because of a high voter turnout.

While outwardly Malaysia’s elections appear democratic, Malaysian governments no longer draw their authority from the democratic wellsprings of legitimacy that free elections provide. These days, their mandates are tied to preserving Malay political power and assuring the religious supremacy of Islam. Elections are held not to generate legitimacy but simply to produce and name a winner — and to ensure that that winner is always Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

Here the Election Commission’s task has over the years become ever more difficult. It has to manage the delineation of constituencies, via malapportionment and gerrymandering, to produce an UMNO victory. Urban opposition supporters are corralled into ‘ghetto constituencies’ of 150,000 voters or more to dilute their voting power. The elections are fought and won in the rural Malay heartlands (and in the ‘amenable’ rural constituenciesof Sarawak and Sabah that helped secure UMNO’s last victory) where constituencies often consist of a quarter of that number.

Malaysian elections have never been a level playing field, and they are now less level than ever. The Election Commision has this time outdone itself; its partisan creativity in its latest constituency delineation exercise has been breathtaking.

Long awaited, GE14 will be a very fast election. Between nomination and polling, the entire campaign will last only 11 days. Of more significance is the longer period preceding it. Once elections are called, all parties must select their slate of candidates to contest the many federal and state constituencies. This is never an easy matter, even for UMNO, but it can draw on vast party and state resources to encourage compliance and party unity. For the opposition, it is harder, and the long-intervening period only adds to their problems. In the weeks leading up to nomination day, the various uneasily allied opposition parties and the different factions and interests within them vie for position and haggle over seats to contest — a scramble for seats at a poisoned banquet.

In the previous 2013 elections there was a united popular front opposition; this year there is no such framework to offer only one opposition candidate in every constituency. PAS will run its own candidates, often to UMNO’s advantage, while the non-Malay-backed Democratic Action Party, Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party, Dr Mahathir’s Bersatu, and Amanah (a Muslim breakaway splinter from the Malaysian Islamic Party) are struggling to reach ‘no contest’ agreements and cooperate.

The important phases in Malaysian elections are the period leading up to the calling of the polls, when all these structural arrangements for elections are established, and then after the elections as winners jockey for position in light of the results. The actual election period is a fantastic interlude during which an alternative reality prevails. In the campaign period and on election day, the country’s fate is decided in a kind of absurdist political carnival in which Malaysia’s historical and demographic realities are forgotten, and the peculiarly composed and unbalanced ‘voting nation’ constructed by the Election Commission pre-election is substituted.  The Election Commission’s constituency delineation ingenuity constructs a ‘voting nation’ that, through the vastly unequal weight given to rural over urban electorates, is far more hardline pro-Malay and pro-UMNO than the nation as a whole and its citizens.

There is no easy way to predict the outcome of these national elections. Different elections are held in each of the nation’s 222 federal electorates (plus state seats), and overall opinion polling figures mean little. With the fragmentation of opposition forces, GE14, held as always under the ‘first past the post’ voting rule, will likely include many three- and four-cornered contests.

Splitting the anti-UMNO vote, different opposition parties will vie against one another, and UMNO will enter ‘spoiler’ candidates to divert votes away from its political opponents. And where UMNO fears losing to a genuine opposition candidate, it will ‘run dead’ and throw its votes to its new complicit partner in the poisoned banquet that is Malaysia’s democracy, the once oppositional Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). Many seats will likely be won not on a clear majority but on a ‘plurality’, where the winning candidate may receive as little as one-third of the total number of votes.

In the end, the elections will produce their required result: an UMNO and Barisan Nasional coalition victory. But this will deliver little legitimacy or political authority to Prime Minister Najib and his party. If UMNO wins by a large margin, Najib himself will have only a dubious victory that provides little comfort — since these pro-Najib indicators will be seen as artefacts of a finessed polling system, not of genuine national political support — and if he wins unconvincingly or worse, Najib’s days will be numbered. The in-fighting within UMNO will be brutal. Current Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi will likely emerge victorious in a post-election battle for leadership. The era of Najibian indecisiveness will be over, and under Zahid the world should expect a rule of no-nonsense authoritarian Malay–Islamist domination.

This article was first published in East Asia Forum on the 29th of April, 2018. 

Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales. He has been studying Malay culture, society, religion and politics since the early 1960s.

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