Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamed was returned to office in the general elections late last month, as widely predicted, but was severely bruised in the process and faces a difficult and uncertain future. The National Front - the ruling coalition of 14 parties dominated by Mahathir’s party, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) - achieved its two-thirds majority in Parliament by winning 148 seats, but this is 20 seats fewer than it held before.
While the opposition Alternative Front had not been expected to win, it succeeded in seizing the initiative in Malaysia’s Malay-Muslim heartlands, with the PAS Islamic Party the biggest winner in the elections. Instead of losing control of Kelantan state, the only state it had previously ruled, PAS also won control of the oil-rich Terengganu state, and shook UMNO’s dominance in northern Perlis, Kedah and Pahang. This was despite PAS being particularly attacked by Mahathir’s campaign, as he clearly recognised it as the main threat to an UMNO victory. PAS leader Ustad Fazil Nur was also chosen as head of the official Parliamentary opposition by the Alternative Front.
In Mahathir’s own constituency, Kubang Pasu in the north of the country, his majority was reduced by 7,000 votes by a political lightweight representing PAS. Some commentators suggested that he would have lost his seat were it not for Malaysia’s controversial system of îpostal votes’, most of which ï funnily enough ï tend to go to the National Front. However, other senior UMNO and government figures were less fortunate, with four cabinet ministers, six deputy ministers, one minister-in-waiting, one chief minister and several state executive councillors losing their seats.
Elsewhere, many ministers escaped bruised and battered. The current deputy prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, can be expected to continue, especially with his other challenger, Najib Tun Razak, near fatally wounded by being returned with a minuscule majority. In another UMNO stronghold, Pahang, the National Front lost of eight state assembly constituencies to the opposition; three state executive councillors were among them.
The results indicate the government’s total alienation in Malaysia’s Muslim-Malay heartlands, where disillusion with Mahathir’s treatment of his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, has been the greatest. Mahathir’s survival was based largely on the support of the ethnic Chinese population, particularly in Eastern Sabah and Sarawak. This support gave the opposition had no chance.
This was clearly a deliberate strategy by Mahathir, but one which is likely to come back to haunt him in the not-too-distant future. Mahathir was so convinced that he could not woo back the angry Malays that he used his tightly-controlled media to launch a campaign of fear targeted at non-Muslim voters. During the short 9-day campaign period, television advertisements, news bulletins and full-page advertisements in newspapers branded the Alternative Front - the four-party alliance dominated by PAS and the newly launched Anwar-inspired National Justice Party (Keadilan) - as rioters and looters who were out to destroy public properties and cause instability. Photographs from Indonesia’s recent racial riots were also splashed almost hourly by the country’s television channels ï all controlled by Mahathir either through ownership or press laws which are some of the most restrictive in the region.
Mahathir did not disguise his threat: vote National Front for continued perceived “stability”, or the opposition for chaos. With the opposition denied the media and heavily reliant upon the Internet and PAS’s popular bi-weekly, Al-Harakah, there was not much that could be done to launch counter campaigns. The Chinese were caught in the trap. So complete was the Chinese swing towards Mahathir’s Front that even the influential Chinese opposition Democratic Action Party’s key leaders lost both their parliament and state constituencies.
This loss of the Malay support is likely to cause great difficulties for Mahathir in the future. The sharply reduced majorities for Mahathir amidst the runaway victories is not about to go away. Just about every other seat is now a marginal seat, and all depend on Chinese support. Without the Malay ground, if UMNO does not reform, Mahathir’s days are numbered. This election confirms that Malaysia’s îsilent majority’ - the same evocative phrase Richard Nixon used to justify his continuance in power - no longer supports with Mahathir or UMNO.
What must be particularly worrying for Mahathir is that the largest gains among the opposition were made by PAS, which has increased its profile and credibility in recent years, and has more substantial roots in the Muslim Malay community than the newly-formed Keadilan, which may prove to be based more on the political martyrdom of Anwar Ibrahim than any positive program.
PAS has a record of government in Kelantan, and will now have the opportunity to show what an Islamic state administration can do in the prosperous and important Terengganu state, with Abdul Hadi Awang as its Chief Minister. In Kelantan, despite the daily orgy of anti-Islamic propaganda and so-called “development” promises, Mahathir’s UMNO was wiped out because of the voters’ experience of and satisfaction with PAS rule.
Writing in Al-Harakah, one analyst suggested that the political and cultural polarisation with the Chinese backing Mahathir and the Malays PAS and other opposition parties, is similar to what happened in Iran in the early 1960s after the Shah of Iran exiled Imam Khomeini to Iraq. The ground between the two extremes has all but disappeared. Now, Malaysia sees a Chinese-based Malay-controlled government pitting against the Malay-backed PAS, with no gradations in between. As a highly multiracial society (almost 50 percent of Malaysia’s population are non-Muslims), it does not augur well if this confrontation proceeds along these lines.
“Mahathir’s problems have an added factor: how to protect the Chinese support by giving the contracts it once reserved for its cronies, courtiers and siblings. Like the Shah did in Iran, Mahathir Mohamed would have to act to please his backers amidst Malay anger, this time within a theocratic framework,” the analyst said.
“Mahathir’s unenviable task, therefore, is to tighten the hatches, cold-bloodedly and brutally prune his cabinet to prepare himself for the pressures ahead. For too long, key leaders were chosen by osmosis and musical chairs, a patronising reward than commitment. In this context, he debased and devalued the institutions of administration and governance so much so that when the Anwar imbroglio skewered the Malay ground last year, he could not respond at will,” he added.
Meanwhile, Anwar’s “sodomy trial” is set to resume after a mysterious delay during the elections. Mahathir must now appear as a witness. He cannot afford to appear before the UMNO branch and division elections due in February, and the UMNO supreme council elections in June. He is caught with having to buy his way with irresponsible expenditures while trying to keep such institutions as the IMF and the World Bank from stepping in and destroying his rationale for governance once and for all, especially as his Malay support has disappeared.
Mahathir’s many miscalculations ï his dismissal of Anwar, his ridiculing of Shari’ah laws that PAS wants to introduce, and his anti-ulama diatribes ï transformed Malaysian politics into a contest between Islam and secularism, with the non-Muslims, especially the Chinese, having no supporting role in any capacity.
Muslimedia: December 1-15, 1999