MALAYSIA: VOTE FOR A CHANGE IN CONTINUITY
In what has been seen as its worst performance in a general election since Malaysia's independence in 1957, the multi-racial coalition led by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi called the Barisan Nasional (National Front) has won 139 out of the 220 seats in the elections to the Parliament held on March 8,2008. Results for two more seats are awaited. Even if it wins these two seats, it will have only 141 seats as against the 148 required for a two-thirds majority.
2. The ruling coalition has acquired an absolute majority, which would be adequate for it to continue in power under Prime Minister Badawi, but it would no longer be able to amend the Constitution without the support of the opposition. Winning a two-thirds majority has always been seen as the end-objective of the ruling coalition. It has won it in every election since 1957 except in 1969, when it lost its two-thirds majority very narrowly.
3. This is the second time the ruling coalition has gone to polls under the leadership of Mr.Badawi. In the 2004 elections under his leadership, it won 199 seats. It has thus suffered a loss of 60 seats in this election. An alliance of opposition parties consisting of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (the Justice Party---PKR) led by former Deputy Prime Minister, Mr.Anwar Ibrahim,and the Islamic Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), won a spectacular increase in its tally from 19 seats in 2004 to 81 seats.
4. The BN also suffered major reverses in the elections to the State Assemblies, which were held simultaneously. The Islamic PAS obtained a two-thirds majority in Kelantan, where it was already in power. The opposition alliance won control of four states - Kedah, Penang, Perak and Selangor--- from the BN. There are 13 States and three Federal Territories in Malaysia.The main constituents of the BN are --- the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and the Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Malaysian People's Movement) . The MCA and the MIC seem to have been largely repudiated by the Malaysian communities of Chinese and Indian origin, which they represented. However, it is not yet known how many seats each of the four major components of the BN won.
5.While Indian-origin Malaysians constitute only about nine per cent of the total population of Malaysia, Indian-origin voters form significant numbers in at least 67 parliamentary and 141 state assembly seats where they comprise between 9% and 46% of the electorate. They seem to have used their numbers to vote for the Opposition. They were the deciding factor in constituencies where Malay and Chinese votes were divided. Indian-origin voters, who in the past voted for the Government in large numbers, did not do so this time.
6.Twenty-two Indian-origin candidates contested for 18 parliamentary seats and 49 Indian-origin candidates contested for 40 State Assembly seats. The MIC fielded nine candidates for the Parliament and 19 for the State Assemblies. The DAP fielded seven Indian-origin candidates for the Parliament and 17 for the State Assemblies while the PKR fielded six Indian-origin candidates for the Parliament and 13 for the State Assemblies. Only three of the nine candidates fielded by the MIC for the Parliament have won. About 20 Indian-origin candidates fielded by the DAP and the PKR for the Parliament and State Assembly elections are reported to have won. However, it is not yet known how many for the Parliament and how many for the State Assemblies.
7.Mr.S. Samy Vellu, who is the President of the MIC and was also the Minister for Works in the outgoing Cabinet, lost his Sungai Siput parliamentary seat in Perak he had held for three decades. He was the longest-serving Minister with almost 30 years in the Cabinet. He was defeated by Dr D. Jeyakumar of Mr.Anwar Ibrahim's PKR. Samy Vellu, whose Tamil-speaking parents worked as rubber tappers in a rubber plantation, started his career as a bus conductor and then an office boy. After taking over the leadership of the MIC in 1979 and becoming a Minister, he became one of the richest Malaysians of Indian-origin .
8. Mr.Manoharan Malayalam, a leader of the HINDRAF (Hindu Rights Action Force) presently under detention under the Internal Security Act along with some other leaders of the HINDRAF, won the election to the Selangor State Assembly as a candidate of the DAP. He won by a margin of 7184 votes defeating a Chinese candidate of the ruling coalition in a constituency, where Chinese voters are in a majority. He, like many other Indian-origin candidates, carried on his election campaign through E-mail and SMS messages.
9. The results are a vote not against the continuance of Mr.Badawi as the Prime Minister, but against the continuance of some of his policies relating to economic development, the reluctance to change the policy of preference to Bhumiputras (sons of the soil) in matters relating to employment and award of licences for starting industries and business enterprises, arbitrariness in governance by exploiting the two-thirds majority etc. Perceptions of a soft policy towards corruption and crime have also contributed to the losses suffered by the ruling coalition. The campaign launched by Dr.Mahatir Mohammad, Mr.Badawi's predecessor as the Prime Minister, on allegations of corruption against the Government some months ago also contributed to the set-back suffered by Mr.Badawi.
10. The election results make it clear that the ruling coalition, which will continue to rule the country, but with a reduced majority, no longer enjoys the confidence of the minority communities of Chinese and Indian origin to the same extent as in the past. While the unhappiness of the Chinese-origin community is essentially due to perceptions of economic injustice to them, that of the Indian-origin community is due to perceptions of economic injustice to them as well as the Government's perceived indifference to their anger over the demolition of a large number of Hindu temples and bulldozing of religious idols by the local authorities in many places on the ground that the temples had been constructed illegally on land not belonging to them.
11. Mr.Badawi was not in a position to address the economic grievances of the two communities during the election campaign lest there be angry reactions from the Malays. But he did address the religious grievances of the Hindu members of the community of Indian origin by promising through advertisements in the media that he would see that there were no more demolitions of the Hindu temples in future. However, his promises on the temple issue were not adequate to win back the support of the Indian-origin community.
12.The election results are likely to create a political vacuum in the Indian-origin community. The MIC of Samy Vellu stands discredited because of his failure to pay attention to the anger of the Indian origin people. He was seen by large sections of the members of the community as mainly interested in the perks of office as a Cabinet Minister without the courage to stand up for the interests of his community.
13. The HINDRAF has not yet been able to emerge as a new political party to take the place of the MIC. It is seen by large sections of the Malays and even by Government circles as having links with the Hindu nationalist forces in India and with Hindu religious elements in the US. The HINDRAF could, therefore, face difficulties in converting itself into a political formation with an identity and policies of its own, different from those of the MIC.
14. The election results are a wake-up call for policy correctives. Even after the set-back, Mr.Badawi has sufficient majority mathematically to implement the required correctives, but it is not just a question of electoral mathematics. It is also a question of emotions ---the kind of adverse reactions which policy changes might create in the Malay community. To continue in power, he has to depend on the Malays. He has to carry them along with him in his quest for policy correctives.
15. The opposition parties are intensely happy over the results. At the same time, they have cautioned their cadres against any public celebration of their good performance. They do not want a repetition of 1969 when celebrations over the failure of the ruling coalition to get a two-thirds majority led to widespread communal riots between the Malays and the Chinese-origin people. (9-3-08)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )