Malaysia's Election May Be Done Deal

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Lai Seng Sin/ AP

A man holds the portrait of Malaysian King Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin during a Feb. 16 rally in Kuala Lumpur

It is a Saturday and nearly noon in Bidor, Malaysia, a small rural town about 160 km north of the nation’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. The coffee shops are filling up with people, mostly rubber and oil palm farmers, many of whom roar into town in new Toyota and Ford pickup trucks. These small farmers are in a jolly mood. With commodities prices at highs not seen in generations, many are prospering to a degree that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. The incomes of small landowners almost tripled between 2004 and 2007, according to government data. Some farmers say they have just returned from group holidays in Thailand and China. "I never had this much money in my life," say Ah Yew, a 58-year-old rubber-plantation worker.

An upbeat mood is washing over rural Malaysia—and Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi hopes to ride it to victory in the country's March 8 parliamentary election. Rising prices have put hard cash into the pockets of hundreds of thousands of small farmers across the country. The boom should translate into votes for Abdullah's government and for the National Front, a coalition of more than a dozen political parties that has held a majority in parliament since the country became independent in 1957. "Vast stretches of rural Malaysia are backing Mr. Abdullah," says political scientist Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, professor of politics at the National University of Malaysia. "A two-thirds majority seems assured."

Yet cracks are appearing within Malaysia's dominant political machine. Recent racial tensions between the country's majority Malays and minority Chinese and Indian populations could undercut support for coalition candidates in the elections. The Chinese and Indians are increasingly fed up with the government’s longstanding affirmative-action policy that favors Malays in everything from university education to government contracts. Many Indians, the country's poorest ethnic group, accuse the government of persistent racial discrimination and have over the past few months taken to the streets in rare protests. On Saturday, hundreds of Indians marched through Kuala Lumpur carrying roses they say symbolized their peaceful intent. Malaysian police responded with water cannons and tear gas.

Rural voters may be doing well, but inflation is eroding the purchasing power of urban Malaysians—and generating support for the political opposition, whose spiritual leader is Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy Prime Minister who is temporarily barred from holding political office because of a 1999 corruption conviction. Anwar's promise to reform the country’s pro-Malay programs, under the slogan of 'We Are All Equal,' appeals to many Chinese, who make up 30% of the country's 10.9 million voters. "Life is more then just economic success," says opposition leader Lim Kit Siang. "Justice, equality and humanity are important components."

No matter how attractive that message may be to those who feel politically and economically marginalized, it won’t be enough to bring down the government. Still, there are signs Abdullah may be trying to adapt. In the upcoming elections, Abdullah's ruling UMNO party is running a younger crop of candidates with fewer ties to Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the architect of the country's affirmative-action policies. Abdullah says he needs "one or two more terms" to successfully complete various economic projects he has started. One more term seems certain. But how long his administration lasts after that may depend upon how effectively the government addresses the concerns of Malaysia's increasingly restive minorities.