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Significance of Malaysia’s Elections
By Ernest Z. Bower, and Jennifer Frentasia, CSIS
Malaysians went to the polls on May 5 to elect their representatives for the federal parliament and state assemblies for 12 of 13 Malaysian states (Sarawak was excluded). The election was a tightly contested affair with a record turnout of 80 percent.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak led the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) to a victory, winning 133 of 222 parliamentary seats, while the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) took 89 seats. The margin of victory was the narrowest in Malaysia’s national election history. In fact, the ruling coalition lost the popular vote by 270,000, gaining seven less seats than in the 2008 elections. Then-Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi was forced out following BN’s poor showing, allowing Najib to come to power. However, BN fared well in state assemblies, increasing its control of state legislatures by 1 to 10 of the country’s 13 states.
Q1: How does the election impact political stability in Malaysia?
A1: Malaysia maintains a relatively stable political outlook after the elections. Malaysians sent a strong message of the need for faster political evolution and economic reform to the coalition that has led the country for 56 years. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said that he intends to challenge the elections based on his allegations of voting fraud and irregularities but the pursuit of his case is not likely to politically destabilize the country, though tensions remain high.
Allegations against BN include claims that the indelible ink (designed to ensure voters could only vote once) was washable, that BN chartered flights from East Malaysia to transport people to vote in key states in the peninsula, and use of ghost voters.
The elections reveal significant cleavages in Malaysian society, including the impact of ethnic-based policies. Trend lines show young and urban voters, and large segments of the Chinese-Malaysian population, remain concerned about issues such as discrimination, corruption, and suppression. The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Gerakan, the Chinese parties within BN coalition, were among the worst performers in the elections.
Economically, investors and analysts welcomed Najib’s reelection, showing their confidence in BN’s simple majority and Najib’s economic reform policies such as the New Economic Model which targets Malaysia to become a developed country by 2020. They are supportive of Najib’s use of multilateral agreements, including ASEAN free trade agreements and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations, to drive domestic economic reforms. Malaysia’s stock market jumped by more than seven percent, reaching a 10-month high a day after the elections.
Q2: How do the election results impact Malaysia’s ruling coalition Barisan Nasional and Prime Minister Najib Razak?
A2:BN’s weak outcome suggests that it still needs to implement significant reforms to retain its hold on power in the years ahead. BN again failed to gain the targeted two-third majority, effectively signaling the end of BN’s dominance and a move toward a two coalition system with a strong and viable opposition.
Najib’s safety as the prime minister and UMNO’s leader, the largest party within BN, is uncertain. Influential former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad warned that Najib’s position would be in jeopardy if he could not perform better than his predecessor Abdullah Badawi, who was forced out of the UMNO leadership after losing BN’s two thirds majority in 2008.
Based on that calculus, many analysts suggest Najib will face a challenge within UMNO from his Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. UMNO party elections are expected around October or November. Many observers miss the fact that Najib is in a more powerful position than his predecessor; he is a savvy UMNO insider, himself having replaced Abdullah Badawi four years ago. He has tabled a strong and viable political and economic reform agenda for UMNO and Malaysia.
Public and investor confidence towards Najib is high. In fact, he is significantly more popular than BN, as shown in his latest approval rating of 61 percent versus BN’s 45 percent. With his political pedigree, as the son of a revered former prime minister and with well-developed reform ideas, Najib may be able to hold off the ultraconservative and disaffected segments of his party.
Q3: What do the election results mean for the opposition Pakatan Rakyat?
A3: The election results were a disappointment for PR, as it failed once again to unseat the long-ruling BN despite major improvements in coordinating its three diverse component parties. Despite gaining seven parliamentary seats, PR could only hold onto three state assemblies, which shows how difficult it is to beat BN’s political machinery, especially in the rural areas. However, PR improved its margin of control in the economically critical states of Selangor and Penang and increased its standing in Johor, opposite Singapore.
Anwar Ibrahim had said he would retire from politics if PR lost and suggested he would pursue teaching in Europe. Without a charismatic and unifying leader like Anwar, PR will face a serious test. Anwar’s daughter Nurul Izzah, 32, defeated a government minister to retain her parliamentary seat and is expected to playing a role in PR’s leadership.
Q4: How will the elections impact the region?
A4: BN’s slim victory will almost certainly fuel the development of more viable opposition politics in Southeast Asia, closing the chapter of Cold War era autocratic leaders and single party polities that emphasized strong central control, rapid economic development, and weak institutions. As the region’s middle class expands, along with more access to information via the internet and telecommunications, voters across Asia are becoming more sophisticated and demanding more transparency, fairness, and increased delivery of services from politicians.
Q5: How will the elections affect U.S.-Malaysia relations?
A5: BN’s continued rule suggests that U.S.-Malaysia relations will remain robust, especially if Najib, who drove the process of improving relations with Washington, retains power. President Barack Obama is planning a visit to Malaysia to attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit on October 11, 2013. He will be the first U.S. president to visit the country since Lyndon Johnson in 1966. Although Najib’s position as prime minister is uncertain, Malaysia is likely to maintain strong continuity in its macroeconomic and foreign policies, such as continuing to press ahead with shared interests in trade, economic development, and security with the United States and emerging regional frameworks.
Ernest Z. Bower holds the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jennifer Frentasia is a researcher for the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS
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