Malaysia's opposition on a roll
3 June 2009
By Anil Netto
PENANG - Malaysia's opposition alliance has chalked up its fifth by-election win out of six since a general election last year.
This time, the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front - BN) coalition did not put up a candidate, perhaps fearing that another by-election defeat would be demoralizing. That left the coast clear for the Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance) to brush aside three independent candidates on Sunday.
The by-election in Penanti on mainland Penang, one of four states ruled by Pakatan after a fifth was wrested back by the BN, was also crucial for another reason. The victorious candidate, Mansor Othman, of the People's Justice Party (PKR), one of three parties in Pakatan, will now assume the position of Penang deputy chief minister following the recent resignation of the incumbent. Mansor
clinched 87% of the votes for a 5,558 majority, more than doubling the PKR's majority in the general election.
But voter turnout was only 46%, compared to over 80% during the general election, dampening the euphoria somewhat. Many supporters of the BN, especially its dominant United Malays National Organization and "floating" fence-sitters, stayed at home because the BN was not participating. The resulting lack of excitement over the poll - as the outcome was never in doubt - also led to complacency among a section of the PKR supporters.
In the PKR campaign, national issues took center stage, especially the manner in which the BN wrested power in the state of Perak after three Pakatan assembly members crossed over to the BN under controversial circumstances. Over 160 arrests in recent weeks arising from protests over the power grab only heightened public disquiet. Prime Minister Najib Razak's own political baggage was also frequently highlighted.
The PKR candidate, Mansor Othman, tried to focus on local issues. He highlighted his role a decade ago in kick-starting a microcredit program which was later taken over by the federal government. He also vowed to work hard to ensure comfortable, affordable housing for lower-income residents of Penang and to provide support for small traders.
While the campaign was going on in Penang, a new financial scandal was unraveling in the state of Selangor involving the 405-hectare Port Klang Free Zone project. The plan, first approved by the cabinet in 1999 during the Mahathir Mohamad era, was to transform Port Klang into a national load center and regional trans-shipment hub along the lines of the Jebel Ali Free Zone in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates.
But its execution was dogged by "cost escalations, weak governance and weak projection management", which severely undermined both the viability of the project and the Port Klang Authority's ability to repay a soft loan to the Finance Ministry. Ballooning interest payments could result in the project outlay increasing from 3.5 billion ringgit to 12.5 billion ringgit (US$3.6 billion). A host of issues were highlighted in a just released audit report that could embarrass key BN politicians.
To make matters gloomier for the BN, first-quarter gross domestic product figures unveiled by the government revealed that the economy contracted by 6.2% in the first quarter, down from 0.1% growth in the last quarter of 2008. The second quarter in 2009 will see a similar performance, said the governor of Malaysia's central bank.
Najib predicts the economy will contract by 4-5% for the whole year.
"The revision is due to very weak external demand as well as falling private sector investment and FDI [foreign direct investment] flows," he was reported as saying, adding that conditions were "far worse than expected". The government's earlier forecast had projected that the economy could grow or shrink by 1%.
Opinion is divided over when exactly a recovery can be expected and to what extent the government's 60 billion ringgit stimulus package will help.
In a comment on Najib's 1Malaysia blog, a middle-income reader named Fariz observed, "The government has been giving out lots of projects and contracts to cushion the financial impact the world is currently facing. However, the person or company who receives such projects/contracts will benefit solely. How about those employed under them? The middle income earners will not gain anything from it ... The government must find another method/way to filter down the money to the grassroots level."
Faced with growing economic pressure and a resurgent Pakatan, several critics and analysts are now worried that the authorities could resort to more authoritarian measures in the coming weeks.
"In Najib's Malaysia, speaking the truth has become sedition and criminal defamation. Darkness is descending on Malaysia," wrote veteran opposition politician Lim Kit Siang in his blog. "Malaysians must not be cowed."
Lim said police had taken a statement from him after a chief inspector filed a police report complaining that his campaign speech in Penanti on May 25 amounted to sedition and criminal defamation against Najib. In the speech, Lim had held Najib responsible for the Perak constitutional crisis and the "unethical, undemocratic, illegal and unconstitutional power grab, resulting in the expansion of the crisis of confidence" with one national institution after another, allegedly compromising their credibility.
Such abuses of power are among the reasons why the legitimacy and credibility of Najib as prime minister has continued to come under great strain, observed Lim.
There will be no respite for the BN. Another by-election looms on July 14, this time in Manek Urai in Kelantan on the east coast. The BN will have its work cut out if it is not to lose its sixth by-election.
By Anil Netto
Anil Netto is a freelance writer based in Penang, Malaysia.
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