Lining up patiently outside polling stations in their hundreds of thousands, they swamped the country’s Elections Commission’s preparations. All in all, 84 percent of those eligible to vote participated — or some 11,257,147 voters, by far the highest number ever recorded in Malaysia’s history.
This was proof of the supreme importance with which the electorate viewed these polls. However, contrary to what many in Anwar Ibrahim’s opposition People’s Pact (PR) alliance had expected, the ruling National Front (BN) did not lose power.
Still, the results were a surprise, especially for the ruling elite from BN who’ve held power for well over fifty years. Led by the aristocratic Prime Minister Najib Razak, BN failed once again to secure the all-important two-thirds parliamentary majority — a point at which amendments to the Federal Constitution can be made without recourse to bipartisanship. Having said that, Najib was able to win back one of the four state assemblies — Kedah — that had fallen to PR in the 2008 national polls.
Unfortunately for him, the richest prize — the central and highly-urbanized state of Selangor surrounding Kuala Lumpur-Putrajaya — eluded his grasp. This was made all the more painful for the premier since he had assumed personal responsibility for BN’s campaign to regain the state.
Moreover, the premier, who campaigned assiduously, looked on as the BN’s majority in the 222-seat lower house of parliament slipped by a further seven seats, from 140 to 133 — a significant and embarrassing loss after his extraordinarily lavish, Obama-style “presidential campaign” and a series of populist hand-outs to the poor, to students and other targeted sections of the community.
While there are no current challengers to Najib’s position as head of his United Malays National Organization party, his crusty and opinionated predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad has stated his disapproval at Najib’s less-than-satisfactory showing. Mahathir noted that the results were worse than the 2008 polls.
There have been further issues fueling the uneasy mood in KL in the aftermath of the polls: ranging from a rhetorical battle on race and Chinese voter preferences, to political in-fighting within the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and allegations of vote-rigging.
First, the prime minister on the night of the results mentioned — perhaps under strain and unwittingly — his unhappiness at the shift of ethnic Chinese support away from the BN to PR, especially the center-left Democratic Action Party which is dominated by members of that ethnic group. This was further underlined by other comments from senior BN and especially UMNO leaders, some of whom felt “betrayed” by the disappearance of the Chinese vote. This mood was to culminate in a provocative frontpage headline on a pro-government Malay language daily screaming “Apa Lagi Cina Mau?” (“What Else Do the Chinese Want?”).
For many Malaysians, this attempt to blame BN’s lackluster showing on one community’s lack of support was deeply disappointing. Indeed, the move ignited an intense and at times emotional debate in the mainstream and alternative media. Other observers have argued that the swing against BN was both a combination of ethnic Chinese unhappiness as well as the disenchantment of urban inhabitants with Najib’s coalition.
There’s no doubt that while BN has been triumphant in the rural areas, it has failed to craft a message that resonates with the increasingly demanding urban middle classes. These groups want more action against corruption and inefficiency.
But the most explosive issue remains the many allegations of vote-rigging. Should Anwar be able to challenge the outcome of the polls, the prime minister’s position may well be imperiled. However, should Anwar fail to do so, his own position as the head of the opposition may well come under attack as they embark on their own post-mortems and internal bickering. Stay tuned.
Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.