With a possible, some say probable, watershed and regime change for Malaysia’s increasingly competitive political system in the pipeline, it is useful to look into the election system and its mechanisms. The media, fascinated with personality clashes, campaign highlights and the outcome of elections, don’t look too often into details of the electoral law. And most voters don’t care much whether the ruling governments tweak the rules in their own favour, most often by changing the boundaries of precincts more or less unnoticed – the old, widespread, and popular gerrymandering. Malaysia is not alone here, but the discrepancies in the electoral size of constituencies in favour of Malay and against Chinese areas have been “adjusted” frequently and helped the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to safeguard its dominance over the last decades.
One of the special features in Malaysia’s multi-ethnic society is the still predominantly race-based party system. UMNO, the long term dominant ruling party was founded in 1946 as a reaction against the granting of citizenship to Chinese and Indian immigrants upon independence. The defensive attitude of the Malay (then shaky) majority, understandably insisting on political dominance in their own homeland, led to the formation of other ethnic-based political parties. UMNO, in a successful move to broaden its support base since 1974, managed to co-opt the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), the Malaysian People’s Movement Party (GERAKAN) and a number of parties in Sabah and Sarawak into the National Front (Barisan Nasional / BN) coalition (now altogether 13 parties), which enjoyed a huge majority in Parliament until 2008.
Irregularities in most general elections until now have been reported quite regularly. The long list reaches from vote buying, stuffing of ballot boxes, bussing of voters to other constituencies and multiple voting, “phantom voters”, “imported voters”, “missing voters”, manipulated voters lists, to granting citizenship to illegal immigrants (mainly from Indonesia and the Philippines). The latter is now one of the major arguments to attack UMNO and Prime Minister Najib Razak for this citizenship for votes trick. Najib, who has promised his followers to win back the coalition’s two-thirds majority, seems to struggle for political survival now, if rumours and polls are a reliable indicator.
The Barisan Nasional has been only nominally multi-racial but cemented in reality the Malay dominance and privileges (with quite a number of affirmative action measures), which nearly guaranteed so called “safe deposit” constituencies especially in rural areas. Pretending that the Malay political dominance was under threat has always rallied Malay voters behind the ruling coalition. And to make things even more difficult, the competition of the Islamic Party PAS often forced UMNO to demonstrate its religious credentials. With the resentment against this concept among non-Malay minorities (at least about 30%) growing with the frustration about strings of prominent corruption-scandals, it was a logical strategic move for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to form a multi-racial party, the Peoples’ Justice Party or Parti Keadilan Rakyat in 2003. Anwar, after being sacked from UMNO and his post as Deputy Prime Minister in 1998, accused under dubious circumstances of corruption and sodomy and imprisoned, is back on the political scene since 2008 and the probable Prime Minister if his opposition “Peoples’ Pact” (Pakatan Rakyat / PR) wins the upcoming election. The Pakatan Rakyat is not without internal problems given the diversity of its members, namely the Malay Islamic rival of UMNO, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and the Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP). However, given the erosion of the Barisan Nasional component parties Gerakan (officially multi-racial but predominantly Chinese and the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Pakatan Rakyat seems to be a very strong challenger to the ruling coalition.
Inherited from the British colonial master, Malaysia has adopted a clear-cut first-past-the-post majoritarian election system which has helped to keep UMNO and its BN component parties in power so far. The Barisan-coalition contesting the elections practically as one single party gave few choices to the voters and made it more than difficult for opposition parties to make inroads… until 2008 when more voters were fed up with arrogance of power and all too visible corruption. The majority of the BN in 2008 was clear, with 140 seats against 82 for the opposition, which is four times their previous share. But in relative vote shares it was as narrow as 50.27% against 46.75%. And nota bene: in the first-past-the-post electoral system relatively small changes in voter preferences can change the outcome dramatically.
One of the other flaws of the election system in a comparative view is the strong position of the Prime Minister who, as the British model, does not only have the right and discretion to dissolve parliament and call for elections when the time looks promising, but who also “hosts” the Election Commission in the Prime Minister’s Department. Its independence, therefore, cannot be assumed, its members being appointed by the king after consultation with the conference of rulers (sultans) and certainly co-ordinated with the government. Among the reforms initiated under PM Najib, who seems to be fighting with his back to the wall, is the introduction of indelible ink for the upcoming election. The move reacts to the very vocal opposition and civil society criticisms of major election irregularities in the past and may further reduce the chances of the Barisan National to secure victory, not to speak of regaining the two-thirds majority. Since former PM Mahathir Mohamad emasculated the Malaysian judiciary in the late 1980s, the executive decides at the end about admission and regulation of political parties. With the reduced role of judiciary and Election Commission in ensuring free and fair elections and the government’s control of press and TV, the playing field is anything but even for the opposition. But with the widespread use of social media and the amount of frustration about political corruption and mismanagement, the Pakatan Rakyat seems to have a realistic chance to end more than half a century of UMNO rule in the country.
When will the election (GE 2013) be held? Rumours, guesses, and expectations that PM Najib would call them are filling the media for much more than a year already. But the PM hesitates and distributes goodies. Mega infrastructure projects, cash hand-outs for the poor and salary increases for army and civil service among others are topped up by promises, the latter being as well made by the opposition, of course. If the PM does not act, the parliament will be dissolved automatically on 28 April and the GE 2013 has to be organised by June 2013 the latest.
Being rated by the Freedom House 2013 report as “partly free” with 4 each on a scale of 1 (best) to 7 for civil liberties and political rights and a not free press, there is room for improvement in Malaysia. Useful reforms would encompass independence for the election commission, a review of all election related laws and regulations that prevent a level playing field, transparency of the administration of voters lists and supervision of the voting and counting procedures. On-going training for electoral observers by civil society organisations highlights the mistrust among many voters.
Dr. Wolfgang Sachsenröder is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) and is the Editor-in-Chief of the Political Party Forum Southeast Asia.