PENANG, Malaysia - Election fever is in the air
in Malaysia. Many analysts expect parliament to be
dissolved in early March, with the general election to
be held by the end of the month. Though the government's
current term does not expire until November, Prime
Minister Abdullah Badawi is expected to call for a snap
general election ahead of party elections of the ruling
United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
Malaysian prime ministers have traditionally
preferred to keep the general election date a closely
guarded secret. In the past, this used to be an
advantage. When they suddenly dissolved parliament,
opposition parties would invariably be caught off guard.
With a short campaign period - usually not more than 10
days - the ruling coalition would be assured of victory,
especially since it controlled most of the electronic
and print mainstream media, while the opposition parties
would be grappling with limited campaign finances and
severely limited media coverage.
But over the
years, opposition politicians have wised up to the hints
and signs of impending polls. So when Abdullah canceled
his trip to the Group of 15 summit in Venezuela this
week, speculation mounted that he would be calling for
snap elections soon.
He is expected to dissolve
parliament before it meets again on March 8 and
elections are likely to be held a couple of weeks later.
A ruling-coalition politician told Asia Times Online
that once the candidates' list is finalized in the next
few days, parliament could be dissolved by the end of
Thursday night, Abdullah held
meetings lasting 10 hours with leaders of the main
component parties of the ruling coalition. The meeting
was to discuss the ruling coalition's seat allocations
among the various component parties and to finalize the
Critics point out that
Abdullah is carrying on the tradition - seen in very few
other democratic nations - of keeping the country
guessing as to when the polls will be held until the
very last moment. Guessing the date of the polls has
become something of a national obsession in Malaysia and
shifts the focus of the polls from the real issues.
Not that there are any real issues, if the
mainstream media in Malaysia are to be believed. Nearly
all the mainstream print and electronic media in
Malaysia are controlled by the ruling coalition or
parties friendly to it. The media have been actively
infusing their readers and viewers with "feel-good"
ahead of the polls.
The 5.2 percent gross
domestic product growth last year was splashed across
the front page in at least three major dailies. The
media have also highlighted positive news from the newly
launched national service scheme for school-leavers,
which officials say is aimed at promoting national
unity. Badawi has been portrayed as the new man in
charge who is working to improve the system by wiping
out inefficiency and stamping out corruption.
What's more, the top-selling English-language
daily newspaper, The Star, has been flashing the ruling
coalition's logo - a pair of scales - in photos in its
first few pages at every opportunity it gets. Nothing
has changed in terms of the mainstream media's news
coverage slanted heavily in favor of the ruling
The opposition alliance's manifesto
is expected to call for a repeal of repressive laws, to
stipulation of a reasonable minimum wage, adequate and
affordable health care, and improved personal security
in the wake of a spate of violent crimes. But its
demands are expected to receive little publicity in the
Instead, the mainstream media have been
playing up cases of dozens of "prominent" members of the
opposition Keadilan party defecting to UMNO. This tactic
aimed at demoralizing opposition party members has been
used in Malaysian election campaigns as far back as
people can remember.
Angry Keadilan activists,
in turn, claim that some of these defectors are
virtually unknown within Keadilan and could be no longer
party members. They retort that more UMNO members have
joined Keadilan than vice versa - but such views never
make it to the media.
The mainstream media have
avoided mentioning the one person who is likely to
remain a major factor in the polls: jailed ex-deputy
premier Anwar Ibrahim.
In the last general
election, Anwar's ouster, which sparked
reformasi, helped the opposition Barisan
Alternatif alliance, especially Parti Islam SeMalaysia
(PAS), to make sharp inroads into traditional UMNO
strongholds. PAS captured the east-coast state of
Terengganu and easily retained power in neighboring
Kelantan. The opposition alliance also gave the ruling
coalition a fright in Kedah, the northern home state of
then premier Mahathir Mohamad, winning close to a third
of the seats there.
This time the outrage over
Anwar's humiliation has eased somewhat, but lingering
restlessness still prevails in the Malay heartland. Many
of them feel cut off from the mainstream of development
while others live barely on the poverty line.
PAS is expected to retain Kelantan easily,
whereas the ruling coalition could put up some
resistance in Terengganu. The PAS-led opposition state
government in Terengganu is likely to remind voters that
Kuala Lumpur has stopped royalty payments to the state
based on offshore oil extraction and instead has been
channeling some of the funds through friendly agencies
to the people as "goodwill" money.
battles will be fought in Kedah, where PAS and Keadilan
are fielding their big guns - prominent personalities -
against ruling Barisan Nasional coalition figures.
Keadilan will be boosted by the presence of several
veteran politicians from the former Parti Rakyat, which
has merged into the party - although official
recognition of the merger has been withheld.
a commentary in Friday's issue of the The Star, a
columnist candidly admitted that gerrymandering of
constituencies had occurred since the last general
election. The Star is controlled by the Malaysian
Chinese Association, the second-largest component party
in the Barisan Nasional after UMNO.
is putting in extra efforts to win back the lost seats
because gerrymandering, common in all democracies, has
always benefited the ruling parties," said the writer.
Such redrawing of the constituencies, along with the
lopsided media coverage, is likely to hurt several
opposition politicians and damage their chances.
He cited two cases involving the constituencies
of the PAS secretary general and the party's former
youth chief, who rely heavily on Muslim voters. In both
these seats, their boundaries had been redrawn to
include a sizable number of non-Muslim voters, who were
previously in other constituencies.
Sarawak in northern Borneo, disunity in the ranks of the
ruling coalition could undermine the near total
dominance of the ruling coalition in the state. Sarawak
contributes a huge chunk of the ruling coalition's
The media are likely to
help Abdullah to paper over the cracks in the ranks of
his ruling coalition. In the final week of campaigning,
the media have traditionally announced startling
revelations to boost the ruling coalition's chances and
undermine the opposition.
This time, some
analysts predict that there will be announcements of
more anti-corruption arrests of a few prominent
personalities as the polls draw near. For a while now,
there has been a lull, although one minister recently
said that 18 high-profile cases are being investigated.
All said, the ruling coalition, using a
combination of media, machinery (state apparatus) and
money (via development allocations) are likely to
steamroll their way to a two-thirds majority. But the
real question is whether the opposition can make
inroads, especially in Kedah, while retaining the two
states on the east coast.
Abdullah badly needs a
decisive mandate to legitimize his position as prime
minister and UMNO leader ahead of the UMNO polls in the
middle of the year. How strong Abdullah's position is
after the polls will be determined to a large extent on
how well the ruling coalition performs, especially in
these three states in the Malay heartland.
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