Bittersweet Victory

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Like a crusty prizefighter who refuses to give up, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad rarely declines a scrap--or, even at age 73, the political equivalent of a full 12-rounder. That's what he set in motion last year when he took on Anwar Ibrahim, his former friend and designated successor. Anwar had made a premature bid to replace his boss as head of their political party. Mahathir responded by sacking his deputy, after which Anwar was arrested, severely beaten, convicted of abuse of power, sentenced to six years in jail and then put on trial for sodomy.But to clinch such a dramatic and divisive political fight in a democracy, Mahathir had to let the crowd decide the victor. Judging by the results of last week's general election, he won hands-down. His National Front coalition not only came in first but also maintained its two-thirds majority in parliament, a margin long considered proof of the voters' trust. The country's three main opposition parties managed to coalesce into a group, including political novice Wan Azizah Ismail, Anwar's wife, and contested on an anti-Mahathir platform. But voters didn't warm to that combination, and the fight was never really that close. Anwar himself was almost totally sidelined, stuck in a bleak, solitary hospital cell in Kuala Lumpur's Sungai Buloh Prison, apparently ineligible to contest because of his six-year sentence. He wasn't even allowed to use the courtroom as a soap box: his sodomy trial was suspended for the entire campaign, the judge being too sick to attend court.
But a closer look at the results of the most bruising battle in the country's post-independence history suggests that Mahathir--and perhaps Malaysia--have suffered considerable, unexpected damage. The elections were the nastiest in decades, with plentiful reports of voting fraud, like ballot papers being daubed with wax so votes for opposition candidates wouldn't register. The ruling National Front's campaign ads suggested that the opposition would drag the country down into violence. The opposition had virtually no access to the print and electronic mass media, which are heavily pro-government. And during the campaign, Mahathir mocked Muslims who wear goatees--as Anwar does--a tactic that hardly went down well with the pious.

As a result, Mahathir's United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the biggest component of the National Front, didn't do as well as it had in previous elections. It ended up with 72 of parliament's 193 seats, 16 fewer than last time, and four sitting cabinet ministers got bounced by their constituents. Even my second finance minister, a good man, was defeated, says a shocked Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin. I don't understand it.

In local assembly elections, the ruling coalition suffered even bigger losses, where the Islamic Party of Malaysia, known by its Malay acronym PAS, consolidated its grip on Kelantan and gained control of the state assembly of neighboring Terranganu. And even in Mahathir's home state of Kedah, the opposition took 12 of 36 parliamentary seats and lost an additional seven by only slim margins. I call this defeat in victory, says Abdul Razak Baginda, executive director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Centre, a publicly oriented institute. UMNO has lost the trust of the Malays, and if nothing is done about it you will see Malaysia divided along racial lines.

Mahathir's riskiest decision was to hold an election at a time when the Malays, who comprise 58% of the population, are politically roiled. The Prime Minister has always been scrupulously secular, but his partnership with the more religious-minded Anwar pulled many traditional Malays onto the UMNO bandwagon. Mahathir's treatment of Anwar turned many off--and pushed them into the camp of PAS, which advocates Islamic rule in Malaysia. The opposition also stumbled: though it hoped that a grand coalition campaign on issues of justice and liberality would appeal to a national cross-section, the votes actually broke down largely along the old ethnic and religious lines.

Malays angry with UMNO voted for PAS, which now has 27 MPs, up from seven in the last parliament. The Democratic Action Party, which draws its strength from the country's ethnic Chinese minority, won 10 seats, up from seven. But some prominent DAP leaders were ousted, including opposition stalwart Lim Kit Siang, apparently as punishment for entering the coalition with PAS, whose Islamic agenda is anathema to Chinese voters. Wan Azizah's newly formed National Justice Party won five seats, including her own victory in Penang's Permatang Pauh, Anwar's old constituency. (Mahathir, with typical vinegar, characterized her campaign as going around with her child and crying a lot.) And after 18 years as Prime Minister, Mahathir held onto his job by a wide margin. He need not call another election until 2004. But his duel with Anwar has altered Malaysian politics in ways that may have repercussions well before then.