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|December 10, 1999||atimes.com|
A wake-up call for ho-hum Malaysian politics
By Anil Netto
PENANG, Malaysia - Malaysia will greet the New Year with many old faces in power, but the country's erstwhile predictable political scene has undergone some significant changes. Some analysts even say the party that has dominated Malaysia's politics for so long is likely to experience a bit of turbulence.
The United Malays National Organization (Umno), which has been so much a part of the country's history, remains the dominant party in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. The coalition swept 148 of the 193 parliamentary seats in the general election on November 30, but Umno itself lost 16 seats.
In truth, Umno took a telling beating in the Muslim heartland, and analysts now say that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad may have some explaining to do if he wants to remain party chief.
Umno is scheduled to have its own elections before the year ends. Despite the party's respectable showing in the 29 polls - 72 seats - Mahathir's position within Umno is the subject of speculation because of the lost Muslim votes.
''As the Barisan Nasional leader, [Mahathir] has performed,'' says political scientist Johan Saravanamuttu. ''But I think his position in Umno is not entirely secure. Within Umno, he has a lot of questions to answer.''
All the ''ulamas'' (Muslim religious leaders) running on the BN ticket lost. But Johan says the most potent blow was Mahathir's Minister of Islamic Affairs being beaten by the author of ''Shit'' - national laureate Shahnon Ahmad, who penned the graphically titled satirical novel about Malaysian current affairs.
Analysts say more Umno leaders are now likely to see Mahathir as a political liability despite his keeping the International Monetary Fund at bay during the recent regional economic crisis and keeping the country afloat. Explains Johan: ''It's a legitimacy crisis.''
''The situation of Umno as a political party is far from stable,'' he says. ''It has lost the Anwar forces, the former dissident group from Semangat 46 is not strong. He (Mahathir) doesn't have anyone holding the Islamic portfolio and several Umno ministers and deputy ministers have fallen. It's almost like a mini-crisis in Umno.''
''Anwar'', of course, is Anwar Ibrahim, the sacked deputy premier who has been in jail since September last year. His wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, running as leader of the new liberal National Justice Party (keADILan), made a bid for his Permatang Pauh seat in last month's election and won.
Wan Azizah's keADILan is itself part of a coalition - the Barisan Alternatif, which also includes the Islamic Party (PAS) and the multi-ethnic but Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP).
Of the three, it is PAS that has emerged as the dominant opposition party, bagging 27 of the 45 opposition parliamentary seats. It even managed to capture 60 percent of the votes in the oil-rich Terengganu state, a prize catch in the Malay heartland.
Analysts say the opposition inroads among the Malays, who make up about half the population, will leave Umno in a fix. It has several limited options. One of these would be to raise the Islamic ante - but that could jeopardize the non-Malay support it so assiduously - and successfully - cultivated in the run-up to the polls. The other option would be to ignore the Islamic challenge posed by PAS. But this will also mean taking the risk of allowing PAS to make further inroads.
According to some observers, Umno is likely to opt for a process of more quiet Islamization while assuring non-Muslims that only the Barisan Nasional would allow them to practice their cultures and religions freely - a claim the opposition disputes.
But it is not only Umno that is currently asking itself hard questions. Opposition parties are doing the same, with one of the main questions being whether they should continue their cooperation in the Barisan Alternatif.
The DAP apparently seems to be mulling this prospect the most, since its secretary-general, Lim Kit Siang, lost his parliamentary slot in an upset defeat. DAP actually increased its parliamentary seats to 10 in the November polls. But Lim, a veteran politician, resigned his party post anyway, taking full blame for the swing in Chinese Malaysian votes to the ruling coalition.
He blamed the DAP's ''setback'' on ''the success of the Barisan Nasional campaign of fear and falsehoods, confusing, misleading and scaring traditional DAP voters into believing that a vote for DAP is a vote for PAS and an Islamic state''.
Nonetheless, many Chinese Malaysians did vote for the opposition parties. Because of the multi-ethnic appeal of both coalitions, the campaign did not see any major ethnic issues being raised, though voting was still along ethnic lines in some places.
Still, the sentiment among opposition party leaders so far is to keep alive the spirit of the Barisan Alternatif. DAP deputy secretary-general and new parliamentarian Chong Eng himself comments, ''As long as all the alternative parties comply or perform according to the Alternative Manifesto, it will continue to operate. The DAP will try to work within the Barisan Alternatif. An alternative coalition is the only answer to the political hegemony of the Barisan Nasional.''
As for Anwar, his position is unclear. He continues to have a high profile as his sodomy trial continues, but it remains to be seen whether public interest in the case will be sustained.
Then again, there is Wan Azizah's presence in Parliament that may remind Malaysians of the ''reformasi'' phenomenon, the public clamor for far-reaching changes which Anwar was instrumental in unleashing.
Analysts say that if Malaysians voted for political stability - and it looks like they did - they will get that in the next few months. But beyond that, the outlook looks distinctly hazy, partly because Umno seems rather unsure what to do next, but more importantly because there remains no clear successor to Mahathir.
(Inter Press Service)
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