There has, of late, been much speculation about the date and timing of the upcoming 13th General Elections of Malaysia. For more than a year now, Malaysia-watchers have speculated about the date of the elections which will undoubtedly be one of the most important elections in Malaysia’s postcolonial history. Since the elections of March 2008 – where the opposition coalition known as the Pakatan Rakyat managed to gain control of five (later four) state assemblies – questions have been raised about the future of the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition that has helmed the state since the creation of the Federation of Malaya in 1957.

Two significant developments have ensued since March 2008: Firstly, the mantle of leadership of Malaysia has been passed from former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to his successor Prime Minister Najib Razak. Though Badawi failed to secure a similarly impressive mandate as he did at the elections of 2004, and was blamed for the decline of the BN’s fortunes in 2008, it cannot be denied that many of the reforms that were introduced during his brief tenure have changed the socio-political landscape of Malaysia, permanently. It was during Badawi’s period that the media was given relatively more freedom to operate, and Malaysia’s cyberspace witnessed an explosion of many new websites, newsites and blogs that have significantly expanded the public discursive domain in the country. Similarly, Prime Minister Najib has attempted his own series of market-friendly reforms; opening up several sectors of the economy that were hitherto protected, and bringing to an end some of the more contentious laws such as the Internal Security Act (ISA) that were seen as a bane to civil liberties in the country.

Secondly, the fact that five (later four) state assemblies had fallen into the hands of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat meant that for the second time – since the elections of 1969 – the country’s federal system is being tested by state governments that have, on occasion, chosen to go against the will of the centralised Federal government. During the past four years the economies of two of the states under opposition control – Penang and Selangor – have registered positive results in terms of investment and investor confidence, suggesting to the Malaysian electorate that the opposition is able to govern relatively well, albeit on the level of state governments at least.

Added to these two factors are other vital variables such as the emergence of the ‘youth vote’ bank, with millions of first-time voters going to the polls at the coming elections; and the rise of a new generation of first-time politicians (mainly from the opposition parties) who have considerably altered the complexion of Malaysia’s political scene.

There remain, however, lingering doubts as to what might happen at the next elections, whenever they may be called. Local surveys conducted in Malaysia suggest that the electorate is evenly divided into three camps: Hardcore BN supporters, hardcore PR supporters, and a substantial third bloc made up of fence-sitters. Complicating matters further is the apparent abandonment of the BN by the non-Malay voters of Malaysia, notably Malaysian Chinese, who seem to have thrown their weight behind the opposition coalition. The BN’s age-old formula of ethnic compromise and multicultural representation at both Federal and state level will be severely dented at the coming elections if the current trend does not change, for it implies that the non-Malay component parties of the BN will be virtually wiped out.

This complex scenario gives rise to a host of what-if questions: What if the BN wins with a slim majority but with almost no significant representation of non-Malays at the Federal government level? What if the opposition PR wins but without the overwhelming endorsement of the Malay-Muslim majority? What if there is a hung outcome in the Malaysian Peninsula and one (or both) of the states ofEast Malaysia decide to switch camps at the last minute? Can Malaysia be governed by an overwhelmingly Malay-Muslim government without visible non-Malay support? Will the parties of East Malaysia be the eventual king-makers in a last-minute settlement that concedes more representation to East Malaysian politicians at the Federal government level and the cabinet? And most pressing of all: If there is a transition of power – which will be unprecedented in Malaysian history – can it happen peacefully?

Malaysia and Malaysians are now faced, for the first time, with the possibility of radical contingency: the occurrence of an event that has no precedent and for which there are no established norms or modalities that may help them understand and anticipate what may happen next. Such occurrences are rare in the case of any country, but at this juncture it might be useful to look at some of the other countries in the ASEAN region that have likewise experienced unprecedented changes, and to consider how they coped with them. Two cases come to mind: The Philippines in 1986 and Indonesia in 1998.

Indonesia may be a better comparison for our purposes here due to the long-established and well-known cultural-social-political commonalities between the two countries. From the late 1960s to 1998 Indonesia effectively came under the control of General-turned-President Suharto who led the country with the support of the Golkar (Golongan Karya) party and the Indonesian Armed Forces.

From the 1970s to the late 1990s, Malaysia and Indonesia’s development trajectories were quite similar: Both countries were firmly allied in the war against Communism, tacitly partisan to the Western bloc, open to international capital investment, and keen to transform themselves into developing and industrialising economies. Urbanisation, mass education, the pumping of foreign capital into domestic infrastructural projects – were the hallmarks of the development model adopted by both countries then. By the late 1990s, the results of this top-down state-driven form of capital-friendly development were there for all to see: In both countries there emerged new, educated, professional and upwardly socially-mobile classes that wanted to be given a chance to enter the new market created by the state. However in the case of Indonesia, decades of elite-driven development also meant that the entrenched elites in the Golkar party and the armed forces were even more embedded in the network of political-business relations, and less inclined to share in the spoils of development with the newly emerging urban middle classes.

This was the real outcome of FDI-driven development across Southeast Asiain the 1980s and 1990s: the emergence of new social groupings that were educated, better networked, able to mobilise and were driven by middle-class aspirations. The contradictions of the Indonesian model that were summed up by the slogan ‘cronyism, nepotism and corruption’ became the battle-cry for a new generation of socially and politically ambitious new aspiring elites who led the student revolts of 1998 and which brought the Suharto era to a graceless end.

The fall of Suharto did not, however, lead to a neat and simple transition of power: Indonesia, that had been under virtual one-party rule and military control for three decades, first experienced more than half a decade of instability and chaos. From 1998 to 2004 Indonesia’s international image was largely poor, with incidents such as the anti-Chinese riots of 1998, the Bali bombings, Muslim-Christian conflict in the Moluccas and the rise of both hyper-nationalist and religiously conservative mass movements hogging the headlines. A succession of civilian politicians – Habibie, Megawati and Gus Dur – attempted to govern the country, but some semblance of unity was only restored in 2004 when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – and ex-General himself and the dark horse of the elections whose party won only around 9 per cent of the popular vote – was made President. Yudhoyono’s second – and more convincing – victory at the polls of 2009 was a landmark in the history of post-Suharto Indonesia for it means that for the first time since 1998 some sort of political continuity has been introduced to the country.

As Indonesia braces itself for the polls of 2014, it is interesting to note that several other Presidential contenders were themselves former senior army commanders: Prabowo Subianto of the Gerindra party, who was formerly head of the Indonesian army’s Strategic Command (Konstrad) and Wiranto who heads the Hanura party. What does this say about the Indonesian public’s perception of power, politics and governance today, and how can we account for the appeal of these ex-generals who have now become politicians: Yudhoyono, Prabowo, Wiranto? It could be argued that the rise of these new generals-turned-politicians points to a wider sense of political fatigue among ordinary Indonesians – 60 per cent of whom remain rural and bound to the agrarian economy – who simply want to see some form of order restored to their lives. It is telling that since the Suharto era,Indonesia’s political landscape has remained largely monotone, and even after the fall of Suharto in 1998 there has not been a significant revival of Indonesia’s political left. Summed up retrospectively, it could be said that in the wake of Suharto’s demise Indonesia went through a period of turbulence as it grappled to find its balance again. That balance came about through a restoration of personalised charismatic politics, a ‘soft’ version of the older sort of strongman politics that the ASEAN region had witnessed during the era of Suharto and Ferdinand Marcos. Radical contingency was met, at first hesitantly, but eventually domesticated by a return to the familiar and normalised.

As Malaysia and Malaysians look to the coming 13th General Elections soon, it might be useful to consider the Indonesian case again. Even in the event of a slim victory by the opposition at the Federal level, it is unlikely that radical changes can and will be instituted immediately. As in the case of Indonesia, long-serving state institutions such as the bureaucracy, police and army, will remain as stabilising elements, but also in the sense that they may throw up institutional inertia to delay or scuttle any ambitious reforms that may be attempted. As in the case of Indonesia where the bureaucracy, judiciary, army and police had been so closely bound together during the three decades of Suharto’s rule, it would be difficult to transform the normalised political and institutional culture of the country overnight.

Then there is the problem of the inherent instability of Malaysia’s political coalitions – both BN and PR – which may fragment, shift allegiances, engage in horse-trading, etc which as been the norm in Malaysian politics for decades too. The past decade has witnessed many attempts by both BN and PR to lure members of Parliament and State Assemblies to defect and change sides, and should no overwhelming victory be secured by either coalition, this tactic is more likely to continue rather than subside.

Much therefore depends on the final outcome of the 13th General Elections in Malaysia: A clear and decisive victory for the BN would give a much-needed mandate for Prime Minister Najib Razak, and may well spell the end of the career of his nemesis Anwar Ibrahim. Conversely a clear victory for the PR would severely weaken the standing of Prime Minister Najib Razak in his own party, and may well mark the extinction of some of the non-Malay parties of the BN such as the MCA, MIC and Gerakan. Many local commentators, however, do not see an impending major shift on either side, and Malaysia may well be in store for another term of weak, indecisive government. Yet the country cannot afford to flounder in the waters of the international politics at the moment, and in the coming years there will be many vital issues that will have to be tackled by a government that has a clear vision of what and where Malaysia is to be and go in the future, such as the ASEAN charter of 2015.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies RSIS, Nanyang Technological University Singapore, where is he part of the research cluster on Contemporary Islamic Movements in Southeast Asia.