"Political Tsunami" in Malaysian Politics

Minorities Punish the Government

In Malaysia's recent parliamentary election, the opposition benefited from frustrated minorities and discontent about corruption. Is the "state racism" of the ruling National Front coalition coming to an end? Oliver Meiler reports

Lim Guan Eng, Secretary-General of the opposition party DAP (photo: AP)
Lim Guan Eng, Secretary-General of the opposition party DAP, celebrates his victory. The ruling National Front has, surprisingly, lost its two-thirds majority

​​Sometimes even a comfortable election victory can seem like a crashing defeat. In Malaysia, the governing Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition is used to success and has been in power without a break since independence in 1957. Last Saturday, it won another election and will form the next government. But it lost votes significantly, and, for only the second time since 1969, failed to win a two-thirds majority, which means it will no longer be able to do almost what it likes.

The victors are looking like losers. The headline on Sunday in The Star newspaper, which is close to the government, was "Political Tsunami" – a term which is usually used with considerable discretion in South-East Asia. Other papers referred to "shock" and "revolution" – "the end of an era" seems best to describe the election result.

In spite of its power over the media and its endless funds, the National Front was only able to win 139 of the 222 seats in parliament, 59 fewer than in the election four years ago. In addition, it will only control eight instead of twelve of the thirteen states. Several of its most prominent figures, including ministers, lost their seats.

The minorities' sense of frustration

The opposition – a loose coalition of three parties which are very different, even contradictory, in their ideological positions – profited from its anti-establishment campaign. But, even in its wildest dreams, the opposition did not expect such a large increase in its representation. It profited from the increasing sense of frustration felt by the large ethnic minorities living in this multi-ethnic country.

The Chinese, who make up about a quarter of the population, and the Indians, who make up about ten percent, feel they suffer from systematic disadvantage as a result of the political domination of the country by the largest group, the Malays, who make up 55 percent. In addition, they complain of racist discrimination.

There have also been a number of new scandals which have placed the Malaysian power elite, which is traditionally prone to corruption, in an even more murky light. Anger about the scandals unites all three ethnic groups, as does discontent over the increases in prices for food and energy over the past few months. When Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi came to office in 2003, he was known as "Mr Nice Guy" because of his gentle manner – now his nickname has been adapted into "Mr Price Hike".

Power change ahead?

Defence Minister Najib Razak (left) and Prime Minister Badawi (right) (photo: AP)
Defence Minister Najib Razak, left, and Prime Minister Badawi, right. Najib, who has declared Malaysia to be a "Muslim country", is said to possibly succeed Badawi

​​For the 68-year-old Badawi, who is the son of a Muslim cleric on the island of Penang, the poor election result is also a personal defeat. He says he will not resign, but it is likely that he will be unable to hold on to power for long. Even before the election he was being criticised within his party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which dominates the government alliance. He is accused of appearing lethargic and inconsistent and of not being able to push through decisive reforms.

His illustrious predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, is one of his most energetic critics. Mahathir, the country's autocratic ruler from 1981 to 2003, turned the country into a modern South-East Asian Tiger which achieved considerable economic success.

Mahathir was once Badawi's mentor. Now he attacks him at every opportunity and is pushing for a rapid change at the top in both party and government. His successor would most likely be his current deputy, Defence Minister Najib Razak, who is politically very similar to Mahathir and is said to have leadership qualities.

"Malaysia is a Muslim country"

Razak also comes from a prominent political dynasty. But he and his circle have become mixed up in a mysterious affair involving the brutal murder of a Mongolian model, allegedly by Najib's closest adviser. The woman was killed in 2006, but the Malaysian justice system seems to be taking its time over the case.

Najib divides the country. He often speaks against minorities and non-believers. He caused a storm last year when he repeated Mahathir's old maxim: Malaysia is a Muslim country because it has a Muslim majority. Hindus, Christians and Buddhists were deeply offended. Najib stands for the old Malay nationalist racial policies which were one of the reasons for the poor performance of the Malay hardliners in the election.

Oliver Meiler

© Süddeutsche Zeitung / Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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