Legitimacy crisis in post-election Malaysia
By Anil Netto
PENANG - Large crowds have turned out in protests in major cities on peninsular Malaysia in response to a general election marred by allegations of irregularities and vote-buying. As the protests spread across the country, the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat's challenge has the potential to destabilize Prime Minister Najib Razak's new government.
In the central state of Selangor, some 100,000 thronged a stadium in the first major protest three days after the May 5 polls. Thousands more attended a simultaneous protest at the Rusila Mosque in Terengganu on the peninsula's east coast. These were followed by another large turnout of close to 100,000 at another
stadium, in the northern state of Penang, on May 11.
On Sunday night, some 30,000 crammed into the streets of Ipoh, the capital of the state of Perak, for yet another rally. More rallies are expected this week, including in Johor Bahru in the south and Kuantan on the east coast of the peninsula. Smaller groups of Malaysians have congregated in cities abroad, including in Melbourne, Taiwan, and Singapore.
At all the rallies participants have dressed in black to symbolize a democracy "blackout". The de facto Pakatan Rakyat (PR) leader Anwar Ibrahim and other coalition politicians have made several rousing speeches decrying fraud and irregularities at the polls. They have also made their case with international audiences, including in interviews with big global broadcasters.
In a campaign that highlighted rampant corruption and cronyism in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, the PR won almost 51% of the popular vote at the polls. But with constituencies gerrymandered to favor less-populated rural areas traditionally held by BN, PR won only 40% of parliament's 222 seats. (BN captured 133 parliamentary seats to the PR's 89.)
PR retained the state governments of Penang and Selangor, both developed states that it has governed since 2008, and the rural east coast state of Kelantan and lost narrowly in the northern state of Kedah.
Despite winning less than half of the national vote, BN now controls 10 out of 13 federal states due to its careful carving of constituencies. In Perak state, which PR captured in 2008 only to lose power after a few of its elected representatives defected, the BN won only 43% of the popular vote but still captured the state assembly, winning 31 state seats to the PR's 28.
Subramaniam Pillay, a steering committee member of the civil society Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih), notes that the last time constituencies were redrawn was in 2003, and that only a simple majority in parliament and the state assemblies is required to redraw electoral boundaries - though a two thirds majority is required to increase the number of seats.
PR's three component parties are expected to challenge the results in some 30 parliamentary constituencies where the BN won with small majorities. They have 21 days from the date the results are officially gazetted later this month to submit court petitions.
They could also file more general suits relating to vote-buying and constitutional issues related to the conduct of a caretaker government. Bersih, which has staged massive street rallies in the past against BN's perceived manipulation of the electoral system in its favor, has said it would set up a "People Tribunal" to investigate the allegations of fraud and irregularities.
Najib, for his part, claimed a "Chinese tsunami" (a reference to the ethnic Chinese who represent 25% of the population) voted down BN candidates in many urban areas. Utusan Malaysian, owned by Najib's United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, took the cue with a headline splashed on its front and back pages asking "What more do the Chinese want?".
BN's insistence on viewing the country's fast-changing political landscape through a race-tinted lens is consistent with its old style of politics, which is theoretically based on power-sharing among race-based political parties in BN but in reality is dominated by the ethnic Malay-led UMNO.
The contrast with the PR's self-proclaimed "new politics" could not be more pronounced. Multi-ethnic demonstrators have said they represent a "Malaysian tsunami" that wants good governance, clean and fair elections and an end to corruption, and an end to the BN's practice of exploiting ethnic divisions.
"Some commentators here have missed the whole point: we are not saying the opposition will take over the government or whether the elections results can be verified and fraud detected," said Jeremiah Liang, who left a comment on a blog. "No. The real change is that the people of Malaysia, from all races and mostly urban, starting with Selangor and then to other states, are saying to the incumbent government: You have lost the people's mandate to lead and to govern."
The police have responded by threatening to investigate 28 speakers at recent rallies for sedition, an offense, punishable by imprisonment, that the BN has long used to stifle criticism of its rule. The organizers of the various rallies will also be investigated for allegedly violating the Peaceful Assembly Act, which requires they give 10 days notice to the police before staging rallies. Should the government make mass arrests, the situation could tilt towards instability, some analysts believe.
To what extent election fraud, including allegations of voting buying in the crucial North Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, can be proven with sufficient evidence to overturn the results remains questionable. PR parties will face significant constraints to scrutiny in interior and difficult-to-access rural areas long controlled by BN politicians.
However, in one significant expose, the social reform group Aliran found people lining up for payments ranging from 150-200 ringgit (US$50-67) over the weekend in a few nondescript locations based on vouchers received before polling day. Some of those lining up for payments but who didn't receive cash were told they would only receive payment if the BN candidate in their area won.
Others says the real source of fraud lies in the integrity of the electoral rolls. The BN's granting of identity cards or citizenship documents to migrants in Sabah that allow them to vote had been the subject of a royal commission of inquiry but was postponed ahead of the election.
The Election Commission, meanwhile, has received flak for using indelible ink that disappears with mild scrubbing. With 260,000 military and police personnel eligible for early voting five days before official polling, the issue has raised concerns that BN-loyal security officials may have voted more than once.
The PR's focus on electoral irregularities and gerrymandering may mask somewhat the coalition's failure to deliver its clean governance message in grass roots rural areas. Many of the rural voters receive their news from television, radio and newspapers tightly controlled by the BN-led federal government, while few have access to more independent Internet-based news.
If PR did get its message across, it may not have resonated with rural voters as it did with urban ones. For instance, its pledges to reduce highway tolls, provide free higher education and usher in good governance lacked popular resonance in remote areas of Sabah and Sarawak where direct BN populist hand-outs maintained voter loyalty.
Among rural voters and some urban voters there were no doubt concerns that they would lose out if the BN's affirmative action policies were replaced by the PR's promise of more meritocracy in the distribution of state funds. While PR had indicated it would adopt a more needs-based - rather than race-based - approach, old insecurities remain.
Other weaknesses in the PR campaign included disputes over seat allocations among component parties that led to several multi-cornered contests that split votes in pro-PR areas. The late selection of PR candidates also gave them little time to familiarize themselves with the area and electorate in Malaysia's short campaign period.
Despite these weaknesses, Anwar has announced plans to hold more rallies. While it still seems unlikely these will morph any time soon into a larger Arab Spring-like movement that overturns the result, the rallies and the allegations add to the pressure on Najib, who is clearly struggling to come to terms with the erosion of BN popular support.
Anil Netto is a Penang-based writer.
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