Malaysia's Leaders Suffer Setback

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The outcome of Malaysia's general election on Saturday was expected to be the usual landslide for the country's ruling political bloc. After all, for as long as the Southeast Asian nation has been independent, the National Front alliance has been in power. Even opposition leaders admitted they wouldn't win control of the federal government. Instead, most viewed the voting as a referendum on the leadership of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, whose popularity has been hurt by higher living costs and rising racial tensions in this multiethnic nation.

Voters did send Abdullah a message—a strongly worded one. While the National Front maintained a simple majority in parliament, it lost the crucial two-thirds control Abdullah had promised in pre-election campaigning that his coalition would maintain. Even more stunning: the ruling alliance lost power in four of Malaysia's 13 states. Before the polls, only one state, Kelantan, was controlled by the opposition. By the time the dust settled on Saturday, three heartland states—Kedah, Perak and Kelantan—along with manufacturing-based states Selangor and Penang were all in the hands of the opposition. All of these states will now be ruled not by the National Front but, in most cases, by coalitions between the Islamist PAS party, the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the multiethnic People's Justice Party.

The outcome was so devastating for the National Front that Abdullah's future as Prime Minister is now in doubt. "This is a new dawn for Malaysia," said Anwar Ibrahim, a former Deputy Prime Minister, who is the spiritual head of the People's Justice Party and the opposition's most charismatic figure. "The people have voted decisively for a new era."

What a difference four years makes. In 2004, Abdullah's party won a record mandate, capturing 64% of the popular vote and 91% of seats in parliament. The overwhelming victory was due, in part, to the attraction of a fresh face—after 22 years in power, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad handed over the reigns to Abdullah in 2003. Abdullah also scored points by positioning himself as a progressive reformer; he promised to clean up widespread graft and strengthen civil liberties.

But his popularity clearly hasn't lasted. Many of the country's ethnic Chinese and Indians are angry about the continuation of a national affirmative-action plan that favors Malays, the country's largest ethnic group, in everything from education to government contracts. Saturday's results showed ethnic minorities made good on their vows to defect from the National Front, with many switching to the DAP camp. "People can only put up with so much," says DAP Secretary-General Lim Guan Eng, who is set to become Penang's new Chief Minister. "Dissatisfaction has reached a boiling point."

But it wasn't just ethnic minorities who abandoned Abdullah's coalition. The P.M. heads the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a Malay-based party that dominates the 14-party National Front. In a clear sign that UMNO can no longer automatically count on Malay votes, two of Abdullah's former cabinet members lost their parliamentary seats. One beneficiary was PAS, some of whose leaders have previously advocated instituting Islamic Shari'a law nationwide. With crime rates rising, PAS candidates struck a chord by preaching that their spiritual values would be more successful in managing society than UMNO's policies.

Unusually for a country that places a premium on stability, clashes between police and voters marred the polling. In the northern state of Terengganu, which the National Front held, police sprayed tear gas on hundreds of PAS demonstrators who had gathered to protest what they believed was electoral fraud committed by the National Front.

Vote-rigging claims are hardly uncommon, although the National Front flatly rejects them. On March 5, Human Rights Watch, the New York-based NGO, issued a report criticizing the way in which it believes the National Front has maintained its grip on power. In a public statement, Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Elaine Pearson said: "Once again, elections in Malaysia are grossly unfair to the opposition. Malaysia’s ruling coalition is too comfortable with the status quo to allow reforms that would level the playing field." Among the watchdog's claims were accusations that the ruling coalition received a disproportionate amount of media coverage; that repeated attempts by opposition parties to organize rallies had been stymied; and that voting irregularities were rampant. In the state of Selangor, for instance, opposition party PAS says it found two 128-year-old citizens registered to vote.

Nevertheless, the opposition's unprecedented showing on Saturday proved that their voices had been heard. In a brief statement on Saturday evening, Abdullah said that the poll results proved that democracy did work in Malaysia—and that defeat was part of the democratic process. But he quickly rejected any calls for his resignation. On Monday, he will meet with Malaysia's king to ask for permission to form a new federal government. But whether he will survive as party leader at UMNO’s convention later this year is still up in the air. He could even be ousted as Prime Minister by the National Front. Unlike many aspects of Malaysian democracy, that script is still unwritten.