Malaysia elections: what happened and what it means

Barisan Nasional (BN), the political coalition led by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak that has ruled Malaysia for over five decades, won both the national and state elections this past Sunday, May 5. But for the first time in more than four decades, they lost the popular vote. The opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) won 52% of all votes cast, compared to BN’s 46.5%.

Both the number of voters and the turnout rate of 85% were the highest in the nation’s history, a reflection of the strong interest in this year’s elections. For the first time in history, Malaysia’s voters had a real choice between two strong political forces, with two distinct visions of Malaysia’s future. (See

Malaysia’s election commission announced that BN won 133 out of 222 seats in the national Parliament, a drop of seven seats since the 2008 elections. The government also failed to attain the two-thirds majority that is needed to amend Malaysia’s constitution. However, BN’s victory means that it will hold 60% of the seats in Parliament, despite receiving less than half of the national vote. That is the result of the gerrymandering of electoral districts and also the gross imbalance in the size of those districts, which can range from less than 25,000 to over 100,000 voters. That tends to benefit rural districts, where the BN is strong, at the expense of urban voters, who favor the opposition.

In every election there are reports of voter fraud, “phantom voters,” and vote buying. The general consensus among political experts is that in past years it did not affect the ultimate outcome. This year, however, the picture is more confused. There are numerous and well-documented reports of vote buying and illegal voting. The indelible ink that the Election Commission used turned out to be easily removable.

As a consequence, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has refused so far to accept the results and says he will address the nation at a rally on Wednesday evening. The civic group Bersih, which has been leading the call for free and fair elections for several years, announced that it also is withholding recognition of the new government until its fact-finding mission is completed and public hearings are held. The group’s leader, attorney Ambiga Sreenevasan, said that the election commission “has failed to ensure a clean, free and fair election process.”

The ruling coalition’s victory was not good news for all its constituent parties, however. In years past the BN was seen as a multi-racial political grouping, composed of ethnic Malay, Chinese, and Indian parties. But that is no longer true. The United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, now clearly dominates the coalition. Of BN’s 122 seats, UMNO can claim 109 of them, up from 79 in the last elections, which were held in 2008. Meanwhile MCA, the Chinese ethnic party, won only six seats; in the 2004 and 2008 elections, it won 31 and 15 seats, respectively. Gerakan, another Chinese party, fell from 10 seats in 2004 to just one seat on Sunday. The ethnic Indian party MIC won only four seats. UMNO’s Chinese and Indian partners basically are disappearing as major political forces in Malaysia.

As for UMNO, its gains came primarily in the rural areas. As before, it took a major drubbing in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur and in Malaysia’s most important and economically advanced states, Selangor and Penang. For the first time, it lost seats in the State of Johor, another important economic center next to Singapore.

Although Najib and others say that they lost votes because of a Chinese “tsunami” and “racial polarization,” that is not the whole story. They also lost the urban Malay vote, just as they did in 2008. Kadir Jasin, who was the longtime editor-in-chief of the New Straits Times (which is owned by UMNO), wrote that it is not just a Chinese tsunami; it is also a Malaysian tsunami “that is centered on the aspirations and a new reality, especially among young voters.”

The opposition picked up 22 seats from the government coalition and made inroads for the first time into the states of Johor, Sabah, and Sarawak. But UMNO was able to wrest 15 seats back from the opposition, all in rural Malay areas. Rural Malaysian voters generally are seen as less sophisticated than their urban cousins, and they are less likely to have access to the internet and alternative media that the opposition used. Instead they rely on television, radio, and newspapers — all of which are under control of the government and the ruling party. They were barraged continuously with pro-government, anti-opposition propaganda and told that Malay privileges would be taken away if the opposition came to power, that Islam would be abolished as the official religion, and that a Chinese would become Prime Minister. With low income levels, they were vulnerable to the cash handouts that Najib’s government made to them, using public monies.

What happens now?

Najib was sworn in as Prime Minister on Monday, May 6 and will form his government shortly. Anwar will address the nation on Wednesday, and stories of electoral fraud will continue to swirl.

Before the elections, Anwar said that if the opposition loses, he will step down from politics. But Anwar personally was reelected to Parliament, and he is likely to continue as leader of the opposition. If he quits now, it would be a major setback to the opposition.

As for Najib, his leadership of his party likely will come under challenge. Although he and the government “won,” it was their worst showing in history. The number of seats held by the governing coalition in Parliament and the state houses went down. They lost the popular vote at both the national and the state levels. Najib’s opponents within the party no doubt already are thinking about how to bring him down by the time of the party elections later this year. Behind the scenes, that could involve leaking details of the various allegations of corruption that surround Najib and his wife.

Najib’s likely successor is the current Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who famously said, “I am a Malay first and a Malaysian second.” Muhyiddin is not seen as a reformer; to the contrary, he is seen as a product of the “UMNO system.”

Because BN achieved its support this year primarily from the Malays and especially the rural Malay community, Muhyiddin and his associates are likely to resist any attempt by Najib to reach out to other ethnic communities or to ease the special privileges that so many Malays have come to see as their birth right. Utusan, the Malay-language daily that serves as UMNO’s mouthpiece, had a two page headline on Tuesday, screaming in red ink, “What More Do the Chinese Want?” Najib, who had promised national reconciliation the day before, defended the paper.

Because these same politicians have benefited from their close relationships to certain businessmen (and the businessmen in turn have benefited from their relations with the politicians), they also are likely to resist any serious efforts at economic reform. The markets clearly signaled this the day after the elections, when the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange’s composite index (KLCI) hit a record high. The KLCI is composed of just 31 stocks, most of which are the companies of the so-called “cronies.” Rather than a vote of confidence in the prospects for reform, it just as easily could be seen as a signal that the markets expect “business as usual” to continue in Malaysia, so buying stock in those companies therefore is a good investment.

Therein lies the irony and the difficulty for UMNO. If it wants to appeal to the “new Malaysia” — the Malaysia that voted against it and for the opposition last Sunday — then it has to change the very nature of its being. But if it does that, then it risks losing the support of those who have kept it in power.

All this provides yet another chance for the opposition. The demographics of Malaysia are changing in its favor. The nation is becoming younger and more urban, and more aware of what is happening in the outside world. The opposition may yet have its day in Malaysia.

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  • About the autor
    Ambassador John Malott

    John R. Malott was the United States Ambassador to Malaysia, 1995-1998. He has written analyses on Malaysia for the Wall Street Journal, Malaysiakini, and the East-West Center.

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