Malaysia: A Comeback for Barisan Nasional?

26 Mar, 2013    ·   3857

Aparupa Bhattacherjee on whether the ruling party can retain its grip on power in the upcoming elections

Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Research Officer

The thirteenth national elections in Malaysia are due to take place in June 2013. Speculation surrounds the event as the stakes are extremely high for the ruling party Barisan Nasional, after their disastrous performance in 2008. In the history of the the party, it was only in the twelfth Malaysian national elections that they failed to achieve the two-third majority in the Dewan Rakyat or the House of Commons. They usually retained their hold over all state assemblies in every election with the notable exception of the state of Kelantan.

However, the 2008 election resulted in the party losing the four extra states of Penang, Kedah, Perak and Selangor to the coalition of Opposition parties. What did Barisan Nasional do wrong in the 2008 elections? Have its previous mistakes been rectified for the upcoming 2013 elections?

Initiative Towards Reform 
The major shortcomings that were detrimental to the success of the Barisan Nasional during the 2008 election were issues such as rising inflation, shortage of goods, fuel subsides, rising crime rates, mismanagement within the party and corruption. Anger among ethnic Indians regarding issues such as restriction on jobs, education, freedom of religion, and widespread feelings of a loss of dignity also played a vital causal role in the Barisan Nasional losing the last elections. A major flaw centred on the leadership of Prime Minister Abdul Ahmad Badawi.

The new government after the 2008 election was headed by a new Prime Minister: Mohammed Najib Abdul Razak. Being an economist, he took the chair with a focus on domestic economic issues and political reforms. In order to keep up to his promise of curbing poverty and rising inflation rates, Najib introduced economic reforms under the name of Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) in 2010. The Programme aims at keeping Malaysia on the list of high income status nations by the year 2020.

The government also introduced two BR1M projects. According to the first project, an amount of 500 Malaysian Ringgit was given to households with an income less than 3,000 Malaysian Ringgit a month. A similar programme was again introduced in 2013 under the banner of Second BR1M. The 1M or the 1Malaysia is an ongoing campaign announced by the Prime Minister to emphasise ethnic harmony, national unity and efficient government. To improve the quality of public service and to increase efficiency of the government, the Government Transformation Programme was introduced. The current Malaysian government has also implemented many measures to increase transparency and accountability of the government. The success of all these measures will help Najib to have strong grip during the upcoming thirteenth elections.

Hurdles to Barisan Nasional's Success
Unfortunately all the steps taken by the current government have also attracted criticism, which can be detrimental to Najib’s success. During his New Year speech, the Prime Minister claimed that all the initiatives taken by the government were successful. However, reality appears to be different. For instance, the ETP is regarded by many as a failure, as many Malaysians neither understand it nor enjoy the promised fruits of ETP. The silent death of the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC), which was also supposed to be part of the ETP, has further acted as a major blemish on the record of the current government. Malaysian investment abroad worth RM 19.5 billion in first half of 2012 surpassed the RM 13.6 billion worth of inward investments. Although Najib claimed Gross National Income per capita of 49 per cent, World Bank data indicates that Malaysian Gross national Income is 16.2 per cent. The failure on the part of the government to attract foreign investment will not only affect Malaysian economy but will also affect Najib’s vote bank. Under his rule Malaysia has also fallen in the rankings of the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Report. 

In the same speech, Prime Minister Najib also painted a colourful picture of the success of the Malaysian economy translating into high standards of living. But the underdevelopment of the rural and poor urban areas portrays a wholly different picture. Under Najib’s rule, Malaysia has been successful in presenting the nation as the regional peace builder by negotiating several peace deals between the neighbouring nations and their insurgent groups. But such deals have invited problems for Malaysia. One of them is insurgency in Sabah, which might play a pivotal role in weakening Najib’s position during the next election. For many Malaysians, the recent Sabah massacre is the result of the inefficiency of the government. The Malaysian government has also invited criticism in their modus operandi of dealing with situations like these.  As a result, there is a lurking fear that Sabah and Sarawak which have always been considered as safe vote-banks for Barisan Nasional might slip into the hands of Pakatan Rakat, the Opposition. The 1Malaysia programme has not been successful in building the social value and moral fabric which is essential for ethnic unity in Malaysia. 

These failures on the part of Najib’s government make the Opposition confident of their success. Although there are ideological differences among the Opposition coalition, the unhappiness of the common man with the way that the current government has functioned makes the Opposition more and more convinced of their success. If Pakatan Rakat is successful in the upcoming election, new political history will be on its way to being written in Malaysia.