“Malaysia’s GE14 Promises Suspenseful Weeks Ahead” by Lee Hwok-Aun

2018/38, 9 April 2018

Prime Minister Najib Razak dissolved parliament on Saturday, 7 April, paving the way for Malaysia’s 14th general elections. State governments will follow suit in the days ahead, except for Sarawak which held its elections in 2016. The Election Commission will then announce candidate nomination and polling dates. Recent history suggests Malaysians will cast their votes on the either the 28-29 April or 5-6 May weekends.

Najib’s move was anticipated. Aggressive electoral redelineation and anti-fake news legislation had been passed in the parliament sitting that adjourned on 5 April, as well as a ‘provisional dissolution’ of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) by the Registrar of Societies. This move against the new opposition party, helmed by the Pakatan Harapan’s Prime Minister candidate Mahathir Mohamad, adds to the array of tactics utilized by the incumbent Barisan Nasional coalition.

A decade ago, heading into Malaysia’s 12th general elections, the outcome was largely taken for granted. Few predicted momentous change; the opposition was not fully united and Barisan Nasional would retain its two-thirds majority. To a confounded public and pundits, BN’s seemingly impregnable two-thirds border was breached. Almost exactly five years ago, Pakatan Rakyat forged an alliance for the 13th general elections and people rallied around magnetic leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Expectation of change punctuated campaigns, especially in urban areas which Pakatan overwhelmingly won. But despite securing 51% of the popular vote, above BN’s 47%, Pakatan could not claim the keys to parliament. BN fared worse than in 2008 but held on to the majority of seats, due to inordinate rural bias in the system, and on the back of the Malay electorate, as well as Sarawak and Sabah which remained securely in its fold.

Events leading up to this 14th general elections could not be more unpredictable. Najib, beleaguered by gargantuan corruption scandals, has not only survived, but has strengthened his grip on UMNO and the coalition it dominates. The macroeconomic report is robust, but the ground is restive. Economic growth has apparently not translated into commensurate improvements in living standards.

Two Malay-based splinter parties have emerged in recent years, vying for Malay majority constituencies, and taking the fight to the heartlands of UMNO and Islamist party PAS, which has staked out a “third force” position. One year ago, the opposition lacked a common front, clear leader and joint platform. Today, not only has Pakatan Harapan solidified their pact, they have settled on Mahathir as their best bet to win over Malay voters, negotiated seat allocations, projected a manifesto with unprecedented vigour, and even agreed to all component parties adopting PKR’s logo on the Peninsula.

The advantages of incumbency remain strong. BN can count on its grassroots presence, party and civil service loyalty, along with its delivered and promised social assistance and infrastructure projects, and biased public institutions and electoral system. The general view is that BN, invigorated by its grandest ever manifesto, will hold power, but since 2008 nothing is taken for granted anymore.

Will these factors suffice to override the unpopularity of the Prime Minister and antipathy toward an out-of-touch political establishment, enough to allay economic anxiety and discontent? Can Pakatan be credible and appealing enough to reach a tipping point? How will PAS’ presence split the Malay vote?

Will GE14 see BN’s popularity erode, or its fortunes swing back? Personalities, pledges, policies, and passions will flood Malaysia in the coming weeks. The plot has been intriguingly scripted; the climax will be phenomenally suspenseful.
Lee Hwok-Aun is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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