A Political Tidal Wave Hits Malaysia

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
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180511-MY-people-1000.jpg Supporters of the Pakatan Harpan opposition alliance cheer and wave partisan flags after Mahathir Mohamad claimed the bloc won Malaysia’s 14th General Election, in Kuala Lumpur, May 9, 2018.

In the end it was a tsunami. For the first time in 61 years, the opposition won a Malaysian general election, sweeping the ruling coalition from office in an electoral rout.

The Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition won 113 of 222 parliamentary seats, compared with Barisan Nasional’s 79. The Islamist PAS party won 18, and independent candidates won 3.

The 92-year old former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who had ruled the country for 22 years, was sworn in again as PM, with Dr. Wan Azizah Ismail, the wife of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, becoming deputy prime minister.  Outgoing Prime Minister Najib Razak accepted the results, and despite some concerns, the transition was smooth and orderly.

The electoral drubbing continued at the state level, with PH now controlling six of Malaysia’s 13 states. In addition to Selangor and Penang, where they were expected to win, the opposition bloc captured Kedah, Negeri Sembilan, Malacca and, significantly, Johor, which was the birthplace of UMNO 72 years ago on Friday.

PAS added Terengganu to its stronghold of Kelantan, which it has governed since 1990. BN now only holds two state governments: Perlis and Pahang. State governments in Sabah and Perak were still being negotiated at the time of writing.

Wednesday’s historic vote drew a high turnout. As many as 12.4 million people, or 82.3 percent of eligible voters, cast ballots. Many queued up in long lines outside polling stations. They were motivated by a rising cost of living, an unpopular new sales tax (GST), rampant corruption, including the $4.5 billion fraud scandal involving the sovereign wealth fund 1MDB.

Najib’s corruption clearly was a drag on all BN candidates.  But it is important to understand just how bad it was for the BN. Political giants fell, including the heads of two of the parties in the ruling coalition who lost their seats, two deputy prime ministers, eight ministers and 19 deputy ministers.

It is important to note that in addition to Mahathir, several other senior leaders quit UMNO in disgust and joined the opposition, including former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, and former Minister for Rural and Regional Development Shafie Apdal, the leader of Warisan, who delivered Sabah to the opposition. In the end, UMNO was left with a small bunch of self-enriching elites who had lost touch with the people.

Against all odds

The outcome of the popular vote was never really in question. The PH coalition won 52 percent of the vote in the 2013 polls, when opinion polls on Najib and his government were much stronger. Nonetheless, the gerrymandered and malapportioned districts gave the BN 60 percent of parliamentary seats.  

And the government, in a controversial, though not unsurprising decision, redistricted votes weeks ahead of the 14th General Election. In a country where 76 percent of the population is urban, 44 percent of the 222 seats were in rural constituents, dominated by ethnic Malays.

Urban constituencies, with far higher proportions of Chinese and Indian voters were significantly larger than sparsely populated Malay-dominated constituencies. The gerrymandering and redistricting was thought to be sufficient to keep the BN in power.

In addition to those advantages, the government controlled the media and used the Election Commission, which is supposed to be independent, as an arm of the government to disenfranchise the opposition. The government also tried to suppress the vote by holding the election mid-week. So for PH to have won by so much is very significant.

How did voting shift?

BN went from 130 to 79 seats, a 40 percent decline.  

In many ways, it is interesting to look at where those votes went.

UMNO fell from 87 to 54 seats, a 38 percent decline. The faith-based PAS party clearly picked up some of those seats, especially in places like Terengganu. PAS increased its seats from 13 to 18, polling better than expected.

Mahathir’s Bersatu party went from 1 to 12 seats. But the real net benefiter was the People’s Justice Party (PKR), headed by Wan Azizah.  It went form 28 seats to 49 seats, a 75 percent increase. In Sabah, Warisan, went from 2 to 8 seats, again poaching those from BN-linked parties.

The Chinese dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), the second largest member of PH, went from 38 to 42 seats, a 15 percent increase; and all of that came at the expense of the BN-aligned Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), which went from 7 to 1 seats, an 85 percent decline.

While the headlines really wanted to make this story about the clash of titans between Najib and his former mentor, Mahathir, the real headline is that a broad-based coalition with massive popular support defeated a corrupt and increasingly authoritarian political machine that had lost touch with the electorate.

Where does a PH government go from here?

The new government, unlike its predecessor, enjoys a popular mandate. And it will need it because it has much to do. Mahathir will announce a 10 man cabinet on Saturday.

First, a full royal pardon for jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim will be issued, and he will be released within days. He will then be eligible to run for parliament; i.e. someone within PH will vacate their seat, and he will run in a by-election. Prime Minister Mahathir has said he would step down and allow Anwar to become the Prime Minister, fulfilling his long ambition. This entire process will take some time.

But in the meantime, the new prime minister is quickly going to work. On the night of the election, Mahathir made clear that he was not going for retribution: “We are not seeking revenge ... what we want is to restore the rule of law.”

Mahathir is not looking for a broad-based purge of the bureaucracy, long a core UMNO constituency. But he announced that he would immediately begin investigating corruption surrounding three key officials and offices: Attorney General Tan Sri Mohamed Apandi Ali, who  quashed the investigation into Prime Minister Najib and 1MDB; Tan Sri Mohd Hashim Abdullah, who headed the Election Commission; and the head of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

Mahathir should immediately annul the recently passed Fake News law, and other draconian measures passed by UMNO. He should also move quickly to have sedition charges on political opponents dropped and or vacated.  

These are some of the easier fixes. Thereafter, they get a bit harder. And at the end of the day, PH is still a coalition government, though more cohesive since PAS quit last year, over its imposition of hudud in Kelantan.

On the economic front, the government is challenged with dealing with the massive losses from 1MDB and debt servicing. Mahathir has said PH is taking over an administration saddled with at least 800 billion ringgit of debts, but at the same time, he hopes to ease the unpopular Goods and Services Tax. The government needs to quickly put in place policies that are going to deal with the rapid rise in the cost of living for the people.

The real challenge is going to be how to respond to the reverse affirmative action programs that have been in place since the early 1970s and have benefited the ethnic Malays, from everything from land allocation, to university seats, bank loans, and opportunities to start and grow businesses.

Obviously, the DAP has called for an end to those programs; so has PKR as well as Mahathir’s new party. But how the new government plans to dismantle those affirmative action programs – long described as the “third rail” of Malaysian politics – will be very sensitive.

While many headlines have suggested that the new government will revisit some of the recent Chinese-funded development projects, it seems more likely that only the largest projects, such as the East Coast Rail Link, will be carefully reviewed. The concern about being caught in a Chinese debt trap is palpable.

This election should help root out the endemic corruption, though it will not be a panacea. The PH government will likely allow a freer media and more public oversight. If the government is not more transparent, they will quickly lose support of the electorate that put them in power.


The big question is what happens to Najib and the investigation into 1MDB.

Najib effectively quashed the government’s investigation into the scandal. It is likely that the new government will re-open the case and investigate him, bringing criminal charges, especially for the roughly U.S. $700 million in 1MDB funds that found their way into his personal bank accounts. In addition, there are investigations into 1MDB in at least six separate countries, including the United States, Australia, Singapore and Switzerland.

Malaysia, under Najib, was less than cooperative and forthcoming. That will, of course, change as a renewed Malaysian investigation will require significant international cooperation. And no longer a head of government, Najib can be indicted in the United States.

In the mean time, Mahathir has already instructed the Ministry of Finance to begin recovering assets.

Where to, UMNO?

The last big question is what happens to UMNO. Najib will almost likely resign as party chief. Should he not, then he will be ousted.

But the broader question is how the party moves forward. With 54 seats, it is still the single largest party in parliament. Having governed for 61 years, it has a large war chest and plenty of resources at its disposal.  

How will it position itself in the new parliament? It could either double down on the identity politics path that Najib set the party on in 2013, and more so in 2018.  If it does pursue that strategy, than expect it to find more common cause with PAS, at the expense of its traditional BN partners.

Or it can go back to its roots.

Khairy Jamaluddin, the former Youth and Sports minister, long seen as the future face of the party, has been unusually gracious in defeat. Khairy won re-election, and is positioning himself to lead UMNO out of the ashes of defeat. And he clearly took some swipes at Najib in a Facebook post:

“Now begins the very difficult task to rebuild this sacred party. We want UMNO to return to its original spirit where UMNO is not seen as detached from the people, a party only for the elites, a party that disregards integrity, a party that is arrogant. I want UMNO to return to (become) a party for the masses. A party that safeguards the honor of Malays, that takes care of the prosperity of other races, that is not racist, that truly fights for all communities.”

Hairy has few allies, and there will be a fight for the future of UMNO.

But until then, we have the first genuinely democratically elected government, with broad based legitimacy, that is seeking to end the practices of identity politics and vote buying, while freeing up the press, and making government more accountable.

Now that is a tsunami.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.


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