Malaysia: A Pyrrhic Victory for Barisan Nasional?

10 May, 2013    ·   3926

V Suryanarayan deconstructs the victory of the ruling party and what it means for the future of democracy in Malaysia

The general elections held on May 5, 2013 in Malaysia returned the ruling Barisan Nasional  to power. However, strange though it may seem, the Opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, polled more votes than the Barisan Nasional,  both in peninsular Malaysia as well as in Malaysia as a whole. The total votes polled by Pakatan Rakyat numbered 5,623, 984 votes (50.87 per cent) compared to 5,237, 699 votes (47.38 per cent) polled by Barisan Nasional. In peninsular Malaysia, the Pakatan Rakyat polled 5.035,611 votes (53.29 per cent) as against 4, 322, 139 (45.74 per cent) garnered by the Barisan Nasional. The Barisan Nasional won 133 seats as against Pakatan which won 89 seats

How do we explain this strange phenomenon?  The clue lies in the manner in which the constituencies are delimited. In Malaysia, rural constituencies are given more weightage than the urban constituencies. The rural areas are preponderantly Malay, whereas the urban areas are mainly inhabited by non-Malays. This delimitation enables the Malays, the Bhumiputras, to return more members to the Parliament and thus ensure Malay political supremacy. 

The 2013 election was perhaps the “dirtiest” election ever held in Malaysia. Reports of phantom votes, double registration, unauthorized registration and unauthorised changing of voters list – all these have plagued Malaysia for several years. For the first time, the Malaysian government introduced “indelible ink” in the 2013 election, but the indelible ink could be removed within seconds. A large number of bogus voters were transported, many of them of foreign origin, to constituencies where Barisan Nasional was facing stiff opposition. What is more, the Federal Government as well as the State Governments misused the official machinery for partisan ends. According to Nelson Media Research, the Federal Government spent 36.1 million Ringgit in advertising in February 2013 alone.

The media, both print and audio-visual, is under the tight control of the Federal Government; but the opposition resorted to clever tactics. It began to successfully spread its message through New Media. According to Ambika Srinivasan, the co-chair of the Bersih, which has been relentlessly campaigning for free and fair elections? The caretaker Prime Minister, Najib Razak has “failed to live up to the Transparency International pledge that he had signed promising ethical conduct”. 

Anwar Ibrahim, the charismatic leader of the Pakatan Rakyat, after the announcement of the results, has declared that he will undertake a tour throughout the country and will expose the crimes of the Government. He characterized the election as the “death of democracy” in Malaysia. He has planned a sustained campaign against electoral bias and cheating, which is propping up the “arrogant racist government”.

Without more details, It is difficult to undertake a rigorous analysis of the results; but certain emerging trends can be highlighted.
1) The Barisan Nasional has got a majority of 44 seats. This result is the worst for the ruling coalition in Malaysia’s history. 
2) The contest was very close. 72 seats were won by less than 10 per cent margin. 44 seats were won by less than 5 per cent margin. Both the ruling coalition and the Pakatan gained these seats. The results in these constituencies should be reviewed to find out whether any electoral malpractice was committed.
3) The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), which represents the Chinese community in the Government, fared very badly. It could win only 7 seats. There is demand for the resignation of the party leadership. Whether the MCA can represent the Chinese community in the Government is also a moot question.
4) The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), which represents the Indian community, got 4 seats, compared to 3 seats in the 2008 election.   It may be recalled that the HINDRAF, on the eve of  the election, in a surprise move, decided to support the Barisan Nasional, which resulted in confusion among the Indian voters. Majority of Indians do not have any faith in the promises given by the Barisan Nasional. 
5) Najib Razak has been sworn in as Prime Minister. But there is lot of uncertainty whether he would continue as Prime Minister for long.  Many Malays would like to have a more dynamic leader who can win back Malay support.
6) DAP has emerged as the most important component in the Pakatan Rakyat, Soon after the results, Anwar Ibrahim, in a statesmanlike gesture, suggested that Lim Kit Siang should be the leader of the opposition, but, Lim Kit Siang, in an equally noble gesture, wanted Anwar to continue as leader.

The 2013 election is a watershed in Malaysia’s history.  It goes to the credit of Pakatan Rakyat that it has improved its tally under difficult circumstances. That raises a fundamental question about  the nature of Malaysian political system. Harold Crouch, an astute observer of Malaysian political scene, has remarked: “It is hard to place Malaysia in a clear cut category between democracy and authoritarianism”. He writes, “Malaysia is neither democratic nor authoritarian, as the Malaysian political system has been oscillating between repression and responsiveness”.