Breathless build-up to Malaysia elections

Billed as the closest contest in Malaysia's history, the country's general election is due to take place on May the 5th.

Billed as the closest contest in Malaysia's history, the country's general election is due to take place on May the 5th.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

For decades, the United Malays National Organisation - known as UMNO - has controlled Malaysia through coalition governments.

But in recent years the country's opposition has been making up ground with promises to end corruption, cronyism and authoritarian rule.

In 2008, the opposition had its best ever electoral result which saw the UMNO-controlled National Front coalition lose its two-thirds majority for the first time.

Five years later, next month's election is rated as the biggest test of the governing party since Malaysia gained independence from Britain more than five decades ago.

The winds of change have been blowing in Malaysia, a country that's been ruled by the same governing party for more than 50 years.

Known as the United Malays National Organisation, or UNMO, it's the main party in the National Front ruling coalition and its leader is Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak.

He's had that job since March 2009, taking over as Prime Minister just months after his party lost its two-thirds majority for the first time in the 2008 election.

That was when the opposition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, secured 82 of the 222 seats in parliament and won five of Malaysia's 13 states.

The opposition has since lost control of one of those states but now has 86 seats in the parliament.

In the lead up to this year's general election, Mr Najib is trying to reverse the opposition's gains by spending his way out of trouble.

As Malaysia analyst Clive Kessler from the University of New South Wales puts it, the Prime Minister has been playing Santa Claus politics.

"Giving out goodies left, right and centre for the last six months at least but he's been playing Santa Claus, the reason being that, in a sense, the writing has been on the wall for a long time and at least since the previous elections, the last election in 2008 that the UMNO have lost all confidence and trust among non-Malay voters, largely, and at the same time their ability to command and control a large part of the Malay vote is also declining."

Liam Hanlon is a political analyst at Cascade Asia Advisors, a United States-based research firm focused on southeast Asia.

Mr Hanlon says this year the Malaysian government's budget provided bonuses to 1.3 million civil servants, cash for low-income families, rebates for smartphones and a cut in the income tax rate.

"They're really feeling the heat from the opposition's resurgence so, you know, it's almost worse off this time with these kind of subsidies and cash handouts because both coalitions are so keen on maintaining these kind of populist policies that lure voters in, but really skate around necessary fiscal reform and long-term fiscal management."

Malaysia is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society with ethnic Malays making about 60 per cent of its population, the Chinese about 26 per cent and the remainder are Indians and indigenous peoples.

While they're a minority, the Chinese are generally the most wealthy while the majority Malays are the dominant grouping in politics.

Since the early 1970s, the Malays have been the beneficiaries of positive discrimination in a range of areas, something the opposition wants to change.

Political analyst Liam Hanlon says Malaysia has a long history of fiscal imprudence and putting an end to this quota system which favours Malays would be good for Malaysia's economy.

"This would have clear benefits. Public contracts would now be awarded on the basis of their usefulness and potential to yield larger returns rather than any kind of racial preferences or ties to the government. I think it would open up the domestic economy, reinvigorate its competitiveness, and more importantly it would send in an important signal to international investors and businesses that Malaysia will, in theory, now longer run on cronyism and these kind of race-based preferences."

In the 2008 election, the opposition managed to win over a large number of Malaysia's ethnic minorities.

Clive Kessler says that put UMNO on notice and saw the party realise it had to become a centrist party of ethnic cooperation and conciliation if it was to recover the electoral gains made by its opponents.

But rather than work towards being moderate and centrist, Clive Kessler says UMNO has spent the past few years trying to shore up its position in its primary support base among what he says is the old-style, largely rural Malay electorate.

"That has meant that Najib wanted to go to an election to get his own personal mandate for three or four years now and has not been able to because the underlying momentum has not been there, the support for UMNO in general and for Najib in particular has been contracting and becoming far more lukewarm, rather than growing."

Post 2008, Prime Minister Najib promised a series of reforms and a more open and transparent government with free and fair elections.

He set up a parliamentary select committee to do this but Malaysia's opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, says one of the major recommendations regarding the electoral rolls has not been observed.

He told the ABC that failure, along with the challenges of trying to campaign in a country where the mainstream media is controlled by the state, makes the job of opposition difficult.

"That is the key point in the recommendations. How do you proceed with an election without ascertaining a credible list of voters, not bring in foreigners, not bringing in phantom voters. Number two: there is no - absolutely no - access to the media, it is atrocious, how can you defend Malaysia as a democracy when you don't allow one minute of air time for any opposition leader?"

Anwar Ibrahim once served as Malaysia's deputy prime minister in a National Front government and was close to the then-Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad.

But in 1998 relations soured and Anwar Ibrahim became a vocal critic of Doctor Mahathir's administration.

In the years since, he's spent six years in prison for corruption and has been convicted and then acquitted of sodomy on two occasions.

Mr Anwar says the charges were politically motivated.

Anwar Ibrahim's opposition is a broad coalition consisting of an Islamic party, a party with a Chinese and Indian support base and Mr Anwar's Justice Party.

Clive Kessler says Anwar Ibrahim's political masterstroke has been to convince these groups to agree to a 'no competing on election day' pact.

He says it's a clever tactic in a country with a 'first past the post' electoral system, which in the past has enabled UMNO to win seats, sometimes by narrow margins when the opposition parties competed against each other.

"So in some areas the pork sellers will vote for Islamic political party candidates, as a way of opposing the government, and in other areas the good Muslims will vote for Chinese pork sellers as a way of expressing their opposition to the government. But the opposition that Anwar has brought together is primarily - it began as that and it's not got much beyond that - it's primarily an agreement among all the opposition parties to present a united front and a single slate of candidates against the government on election day."

Political analyst Liam Hanlon says the fact that the election race is so tight has left some Malaysians feeling nervous as to what will happen before and after the poll.

"It's never been this close so I think there is a real potential for interfering with what's going on and, you know, I don't want to talk about problems that are not there but people are talking about what happened in 1969, these *race riots, and we've never seen a political transition in Malaysia. This has been the same government who's ruled for almost 60 years. It's new territory and I think everybody is waiting to see how this transpires, your guess is as good as mine in that regard, I don't think people really know."

* at least 196 deaths during Sino Malay race riots in Kuala Lumpur between May 13, 1969 and July 31, 1969

Source SBS

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