May 12, 2013
Post GE-13: Malaysian Opposition Calls for Protests
by Joe Cochrane (05-10-13)
JAKARTA, Indonesia — If there was a moment after the nail-biting national election on Sunday when Malaysians could envision a respite from five years of political turmoil, it did not last long.
Within hours of the election commission’s announcement early Monday that Prime Minister Najib Razak’s governing National Front coalition had won a majority in Parliament, Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader, declared that the voting was rigged, said he would contest the results and called for nationwide protests.
The Prime Minister’s office countered that Mr. Anwar was a poor loser stirring up unrest, while the police warned that the opposition leader and dozens of other people who spoke at a protest rally in a packed soccer stadium just outside the capital, Kuala Lumpur, on Wednesday night could be charged with sedition.
Such tit-for-tat exchanges between the government and the Opposition were commonplace after the 2008 election and in the campaign for the vote last Sunday. But analysts say that the continuing political attacks and threats of protest this time are raising the specter of a potentially explosive showdown fueled by ethnic tensions laid bare again in the vote and longstanding animosity between Mr. Najib and Mr. Anwar.
“In a way, it’s escalated things,” said Simon Tay, the Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “And with an escalation, you’re not sure of what the results will be.”
The election was itself something of a referendum on the ethnic-based politics that has prevailed under the National Front, which has led the country since its independence from Britain in 1957. Under that system, ethnic Malays have been given preferences in land purchases, bank loans and university admissions.
Voters were essentially given a choice between a semiauthoritarian government that has delivered economic development, albeit through ethnic-based political and economic policies, or a total change in leadership to a combative but untested opposition.
With a record 80 percent of registered voters turning out, the National Front won 133 of the 222 seats in the federal Parliament. But the tally represented a loss of seven seats compared with 2008 and, for the first time since 1969, the governing coalition took less than 50 percent of the popular vote.
While rural Malay Muslims tipped the balance to Mr. Najib, a higher-than-anticipated number of Chinese-Malaysians voted for the Opposition.
Mr. Najib, 59, said at a nationally televised news conference early Monday that he was surprised by the voting pattern, which he called a “Chinese tsunami.” This was repeated in comments in Malay-language newspapers that implied that Chinese voters had betrayed Mr. Najib’s party, the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, which many Chinese supported in the past.
Analysts said that Chinese voters were upset that the government had not made more progress in rolling back official preferences for ethnic Malays.
While Mr. Najib has urged national reconciliation and called ethnic-based campaign politics “unhealthy,” some analysts said his “tsunami” comment only magnified the ethnic debate in Malaysia and exacerbated post-election tensions.
“The political divide in Malaysia is poisonous,” said Karim Raslan, a Malaysian newspaper columnist and political observer.
The weeks before the election featured vociferous attacks in the strongly pro-government mainstream news media, in which Mr. Anwar, 65, was labeled a divisive, pro-American agent, while another senior opposition leader was rumored to be gay. (Spreading such rumors has become a not-uncommon political tactic in a country where homosexuality remains illegal.) A number of sex tapes purporting to be of opposition candidates, including Nurul Izzah Anwar, 32 — the Opposition leader’s daughter, who successfully defended her seat in Parliament — were anonymously posted on the Internet.
The governing coalition “hasn’t learned anything from the voter backlash,” Ms. Nurul said. “I foresee the continuation of gutter, racist and hate politics.”
The Opposition’s campaign platform included allegations that the governing coalition perpetuated widespread official corruption and would expand the state affirmative action programs that favor Malay Muslims, who account for 60 percent of Malaysia’s 29 million people. The government has rejected such claims.
The roots of the current dispute are also extremely personal and date back to 1998, when Mr. Anwar, who at the time was a senior UMNO leader and Deputy Prime Minister, was ousted in an internal party struggle with Mahathir Mohamad, 87, the country’s prime minister at the time. Mr. Mahathir retains significant influence within the party.
Mr. Anwar was arrested and beaten while in custody and in 1999 was sentenced to more than five years in prison on corruption and sodomy charges, which he served. The charges were later dropped, but relations with Mr. Mahathir remained fraught.
“Certainly the level of dislike, disdain, of lack of respect for each other has gone up considerably in the last 10 years or so, especially since after 2008,” said Lim Teck Ghee, head of the Center for Policy Initiatives in Kuala Lumpur.
Last year, Mr. Anwar said he was “willing to forgive but not necessarily forget” his dismissal and imprisonment. Still, Mr. Lim said there remained widespread concern within UMNO that Mr. Anwar would open legal inquiries against Mr. Mahathir, Mr. Najib and other senior party officials should he ever become prime minister.
“It’s not simply concern about who is the next Prime Minister,” Mr. Lim said. “Mahathir’s very afraid that if Anwar and the opposition come to power, Mahathir’s place in history is going to be smeared, and I think he is fighting that very, very strongly, and this feeds into the politics of hate in the country.”