Home >opinion >A potboiler of an election in Malaysia

The 14th general election (GE14) in Malaysia, due on Wednesday, has all the trappings of a potboiler. A 92-year-old ex-premier shunning retirement to fight the incumbent prime minister (PM) whom he once mentored; patching up with an arch-nemesis he jailed; the incumbent tarnished, with his name caught in the middle of a corruption scandal; rising nationalism and political Islam; pre-existing undercurrents of racial tension; and a country’s aspiration to become developed and modern—all make for a heady political battle.

Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled Malaysia from 1981-2003, taking the country on a journey of rapid economic growth and modernization, is leading the opposition against PM Najib Razak, leader of the right-wing National Front or Barisan Nasional (BN), the ruling coalition. While Najib belongs to the United Malays National Organization (Umno), the major political force in Malaysia since its independence, Mahathir has been expelled from the same party.

In what adds to the bizarre nature of GE14, Mahathir has reconciled with his arch-rival and former leader of opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, whom he jailed in 1999, and formed an alliance called Pakatan Harapan (PH), or the “alliance of hope". The battle largely is thus between BN and PH. However, the pro-Islamist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which split from the PH, is poised to split the opposition votes. In a survey done in 2015, 60% of Malaysians identified themselves as Muslims first and only 27% as Malaysians first. With the rise of Sunni political Islam, the chances of PAS doing well in a few constituencies should worry Mahathir.

All 222 parliamentary seats and 505 state seats across 13 state assemblies will be up for grabs on Wednesday. The major election issues facing the ruling coalition are charges of cronyism—particularly the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal where $681 million from public funds was found in the PM’s bank account, the rising living costs owing to suspension of many subsidies, the disenchantment of young voters, and the rise of an opposition leader in Mahathir.

Nationalism card

Najib’s Umno favours affirmative action for ethnic Malays with reservation in cheap housing, university admissions and government contracts, raising the minimum wage and increasing cash transfers. Since 1971, in order to raise the socio-economic status of bumiputras (sons of the soil), the New Economic Policy has worked well both for the party and the Malays. However, it has fostered ethnic tension, with non-Malays deserting Umno, leading to it losing the popular vote in 2013.

The rural-urban divide and its political implication cannot be lost on this election. While 30% of the population lives in rural areas, they contribute nearly 50% of the seats to Parliament. With the majority of this populace being ethnic Malays, BN hopes to win the bulk of those seats. The redrawing of constituencies, which happened in March this year, much to the opposition’s chagrin, has further consolidated Malay-dominated areas. Unsurprisingly, in a study last year, Malay rights topped the list of concerns for 37.4% of Malay voters, followed by leadership and economy.

How will GE14 impact India?

Indian Malaysians make up 7% of the country’s population, with 36 of them contesting in 22 parliamentary constituencies in GE14. Since the Chinese vote is likely to go with the PH, Najib’s hope of garnering the Indian vote has not only made him move closer to Narendra Modi, but also ensured he visited the southern states, where Indian Malaysians largely hail from, during his India visit in January.

As of January 2017, the number of Indian expats working in Malaysia was 130,000. India is Malaysia’s 10th largest trading partner and bilateral trade stood at $12.8 billion as of 2015-16. Apart from economic and commercial ties, there are also tourism, educational, traditional medicine and cultural links. As a part of India’s outreach to Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries and its relations with Malaysia, India is currently holding a large joint military exercise, ‘Harimau Shakti’, in Malaysia. India and Malaysia see each other as gateways to the subcontinent and SouthEast Asia, respectively. In light of this, it is in India’s interest to have a friendly regime in Kuala Lumpur.

India’s experience with Mahathir has been lukewarm in the past and New Delhi, notwithstanding Malaysian concerns about the treatment of Indian Muslims, will probably be comfortable with the ascendancy of Najib.

Malaysia, with an average income of $9,500 and aspiring to enter the “developed" countries club by 2020, feels it has been trapped for too long in the upper middle-income country bracket. While the economy does feature as a poll issue, religious and identity politics appear to overshadow it. Several factors like Malay nationalism, scepticism over Mahathir’s authoritarian legacy, the absence of Anwar, redrawn constituency boundaries, a split in the opposition votes and sound economic growth point to a situation where it is advantage Najib. However, a “Malay tsunami" against the Umno, and younger voters participating and voting for PH, could win the day for Mahathir. Whatever the result, its contours, shaped by a buoyant opposition, will go a long way in determining which way Malaysia and its democracy are headed.

Sambit Dash teaches at the Melaka-Manipal Medical College, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.

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