Malaysia’s Election and Najib’s Challenged Mandate

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June 28, 2013

East West Center Asia Pacific BulletinJune 19, 2013

Malaysia’s Election and Najib’s Challenged Mandate

by Bridget Welsh

Najib now faces multiple challenges, from electoral legitimacy and inclusive national representation across ethnic communities and classes, to building confidence in political institutions and engaging a more demanding citizen. He now has to secure his position as the leader of his own party. His position is not one of strength after this election. His leadership skills will be tested as never before, with the chances of substantive reform even more remote than ever.–Bridget Welsh

Najib latestMalaysia held its most competitive national polls in May, with the 56-year old incumbent coalition managing to hold onto power. The Barisan Nasional coalition led by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak won 133 or 60 percent of the seats, although it captured only 47 percent of the popular vote. The results, conduct of the polls and aftermath have raised questions about Najib’s maiden mandate as ironically he has emerged weaker out of the contest than before he went into it.

The reasons for Najib’s challenged mandate stem from the election itself and the broader changes taking place in Malaysian politics. Foremost, there are concerns about Najib’s electoral legitimacy which are two-fold. There is a discrepancy between the popular vote and the results. A gap between results and popular support is common in electoral systems of proportional representation or mixed systems, but in Malaysia’s first-past-the-post system the advantage should have been given to the winner of the most votes.

This discrepancy has shed light on some of the systemic factors in Malaysia that create an uneven playing field in elections, including malapportionment, gerrymandering, unexplained voter transfers, mainstream media bias and, importantly, the excessive use of state resources for campaigning and vote-buying. This election was one of the most expensive in history, largely through the link between political power and incumbency.

The second concern involves the conduct of the polls itself. On the day of the election there were credible reports of blackouts during the counting process, ballot box mishandling, unexplained missing ballots and foreigners casting ballots.


The Election Commission reports directly to the prime minister, failing the basic international standard of impartiality. The debate is not over whether irregularities occurred—as both sides acknowledge problems given the record number of electoral petitions filed—but whether these factors affected the outcome. Najib emerged out of the polls with many questioning whether he is Malaysia’s legitimate leader. The opposition-led “Black 505” rallies, with thousands attending regularly from all walks of life, showcase the persistence of an electoral legitimacy deficit.

Najib’s challenged mandate has also come in the form of a rupture in the multi-ethnic power-sharing coalition that has governed the country since independence. The Barisan Nasional as a multi-ethnic coalition is effectively dead, as it no longer viably represents non-Malays, especially Chinese Malaysians who comprise over a quarter of the population. Malaysia has long been touted as a successful example of multi-ethnic governance, with elite cooperation assuring representation of the different interests along ethnic lines.

Here too there are fundamental shifts. The Chinese-based component parties within the coalition were decimated, so much so that they no longer feel it is appropriate to be part of the cabinet. This has meant that Najib has had to seek out Chinese representation largely from East Malaysia and the post-election cabinet has a record low in representation. At the same time as effectively excluding Chinese Malaysians, Najib blamed the results on a “Chinese tsunami,” further alienating the community and showcasing the limits of multi-ethnic representation in his government.

Anwar IbrahimThis general election—GE13—also illustrated the shifts in political identities of Malaysians, as race was less of a factor in voting, especially among non-Malays. Voting occurred across ethnic lines, as more Malaysians thought of themselves as Malaysians rather than their ethnic community. GE13 on one level revealed contestation between the old racial political formula with a new non-racialist citizenship.

Najib now has to contend with these different perceptions of race in national politics, one entrenched in his own party’s Malay chauvinism and another with a more inclusive model of representation. By reinforcing race-based politics in his post-election rhetoric and cabinet appointments, he faces a challenge of engaging those who are embracing a different non-racialized model of politics.

The results of the polls also point to another challenge: the majority of Najib’s support comes from the lower classes or those dependent on government distribution whereas the majority of the middle class voted for the opposition, across races. Overall, Malaysians who were more educated, informed and economically independent opted for change, while those more dependent on the system voted for consistency.

Najib here faces two intertwined issues. First, he has to win over the middle class to carry out policies and it is this cohort, concentrated in the urban areas, which are essential for governance. The lack of middle class support for Najib ensures he has an uphill battle in front of him.

The support of the lower classes will also come with costs, specifically expectations of a continuation of more financial handouts. Already Malaysia broke records with populist initiatives from free dinners to direct cash transfers. This dependence on government distribution will constrain any substantive economic reform. A major transformation during Najib’s tenure has been to increase short-term handouts rather than develop a more coherent long-term development strategy to address the rising economic inequalities and create jobs.

Malaysia’s weakening political institutions is yet another challenge in the wake of GE13. The polls brought to the fore the collusion among government agencies and the incumbent coalition, as state resources were used in the campaign in an unprecedented manner and standards of professionalism were dismissed in favor of incumbent interests. From the Election Commission to the National Registration Department questions are being asked about where the line between the government and partisanship should be drawn.

The credibility of the Police in particular has come under scrutiny after theNew IGP political crackdowns and shocking number of deaths in custody. By politicizing government agencies, Najib has weakened the capacity for inclusive governance, particularly given that he was not supported by the majority of Malaysians.

Malaysian citizens are increasingly beginning to question their leaders and their performance. When the government engaged in a series of post-election political crackdowns against student activists, bloggers and opposition members, the response was to increase protests. Both Najib and the opposition face a more politically mobilized electorate with higher expectations, and more critical outlooks fueled by political skepticism.

Citizens are willing to address issues without waiting for political elites to act; post-GE13 more Malaysians are moving out of the electoral process to effect political change. Politics has become an everyday phenomenon, in which leaders are expected to provide sound national leadership to move the country forward.

Najib now faces multiple challenges, from electoral legitimacy and inclusive national representation across ethnic communities and classes, to building confidence in political institutions and engaging a more demanding citizen. He now has to secure his position as the leader of his own party. His position is not one of strength after this election. His leadership skills will be tested as never before, with the chances of substantive reform even more remote than ever.

5 thoughts on “Malaysia’s Election and Najib’s Challenged Mandate

  1. Najib has only one challenge – to transform his party. All other challenges are challenges to UMNO not Najib because Najib means nothing without UMNO, in fact he means nothing without one man – Mahathir.

    Najib does not have and need a message of change TO HIS PARTY. The fact he continues to sell his failed message of ‘transformation’ to everyone else but his party, tells you he just won’t do what the challenge is.

    So all Najib really will do is cope with a job that he can’t do – until they wake up and figured out they have to get rid of him..

  2. UMNO Sec-Gen,Tadmansor has declared yesterday that all UMNO posts will be contested.. Lets see this flip – flop Party will WALK the TALK! Or its as the GOM questionable and sleazy to the core! Wake up 164,000 voters, exercise your Members’ Power, no more samseng and not worth a sen leaders!

  3. Third World Leaders have all gone down the same path. Elections based on First past the post has been interpreted as winner take all. Once elections are over they are back to the same-o same-o and continue to do what they have been doing in the past. Third World Leaders should recognise that the institutions of government are there to place constraints on the powers of the elected government to operate within the law. Excessive yielding to their right of way by these institutions will not only be inimical to the long term interest of the Party in power but also the state as these issues come to roost 10 years down the road.

    Few governments around the world are today returned with an overwhelming majority. That in itself is a message from the voters that you have to rule taking into consideration those who have not voted for you. Leaders may be democratically elected but that does not mean that they are democrats. That title is only given to those leaders who rule within the fame work of the law and play by the book. Decisions made today will come to roost 10 years down the road. Take the privatization of education. Some of the institutions charge annual fees that are in excess of the pre tax annual salaries of middle class employees. In the long run no government has the capacity to give loans to all the students who would like to study in private secondary and tertiary institutions.

    The leader is for all the citizens and, in this regard, they must allow for a robust accounting of policies , the rights of citizens and the institutions of government that are responsible for the enforcement of the law. Majority rule means that the government is run according to basic principles of democracy. It is a waste of time to demonise those opposition and release tear gas every time they seem to be out of tune with government.

    Finally, the most important principle in a democratic system is that the leader once elected should always give deference to all those checks and balances that are inherent and part of the democratic form of government.


    Because we have gotten into sam-sening politics in Umno….so good that all post be challenged but that might flip flop as all fears to loose benefit just like in MCA where they cared about their own no-min post situation and NOT their members or communities.

    The opposition meanwhile has nothing to gain nor fear and have gotten use to serving the people only.

    Come end Sept Germany ballot will impact EU unlike Australia with has same pop with Msia………..The EU has as many as ASEAN people.

    With all that is going on, we have not sighted a firm foreign policy, have we? Our stand on SCSea, our political direction maturity and all that would see us as a matured nation. The way I see it that those who are matured are the voters esp the young ones who voted first time. They have not idea of kg politics, they micro blog fiercely and formed their opinion of what they wanted as justice alignment.

    BN has no popularity mandate ! Najib has no Umno popularity mandate too.

    Where are we heading as a nation?

  5. The tan sri and his no 2 of the ec should be renamed Laurel & Hardy (that’s giving my age away)
    You cannot insult Laurel and Hardy. The two fellas are just goons.–Din Merican

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