Malaysian politics went into overdrive last month, after prime minister Mahathir Mohammed finally called the country’s long-awaited elections on November 10. The polls were scheduled for November 29 (after Crescent press time).
The announcement caused intense political activity, as political groups launched their final campaigns. The political activity was characterised by mud-slinging and dirty tricks (or rumours of dirty tricks, as the country’s already-busy rumour-mill was further cranked up). Mahathir’s government is unlikely to fall, but it is desperate to maintain its two-thirds majority in parliament, and so ensure that its vice-like grip on Malaysian politics is not challenged. It presently has 166 of the 192 seats in parliament, while the opposition alliance controls just 22.
Mahathir’s strategy has been to portray his United Malay National Organization (UMNO), which has had a near-unbreakable grip on Malaysian government since the country’s ‘independence’ from Britain in 1946, as the only party capable of maintaining civil order. UMNO has portrayed the four-party opposition alliance as an opportunistic alliance which will not actually be able to govern the country, and which would result in lawlessness and clashes between the country’s Malay and Chinese communities.
Attempts to discredit Anwar Ibrahim ï the opposition’s charismatic leader, although he is in prison and not running for office ï have also increased. It is known that after Anwar’s arrest last year, some UMNO officials had been shown a faked video purporting to show Anwar in immoral sexual acts. Although fears that this video, or others like it, would be widely distributed before the election have not been realised as Crescent goes to press, copies of it are known to have been shown in some areas. The video is thought to have been falsified in the US and brought in from there for use if necessary. The opposition’s prediction that it would be used may have convinced the government that its use would be counter-productive. Even so, other attempts to smear Anwar and the opposition-movement inspired by him have increased.
The elections, which Mahathir was legally bound to call before next spring, will be the culmination of a period of increasing political tension that began - or at least came into the open - when Mahathir decided to dismiss Anwar Ibrahim, his popular deputy, last year. He was subsequently convicted on charges of corruption, and is presently under trial for sexual misconduct (the trial has been suspended until after the elections). However, many Malays believe that these charges against Anwar to have been fabricated by Mahathir in order either to prevent Anwar from exposing corruption at the top levels of the government, or simply to prevent Anwar from challenging Mahathir’s leadership of the party.
Anwar Ibrahim, who was popular even during his UMNO days, has subsequently become a focus for dissatisfaction with UMNO rule; since his arrest, there have been massive demonstrations in his support. A popular mood for change has emerged among students, young people generally and other key sectors of the community.
This movement has been helped by an increasing perception of Mahathir’s personal arrogance, and the impression that he is trying to consolidate UMNO (with himself in sole charge) as Malaysia’s only political force. Mahathir’s handling of the Anwar controversy ï in particular, the feeling that he has pursued a personal vendetta of lies and slanderous allegations against Anwar, and that this is reflective of failings in his own character ï has exacerbated this perception of arrogance.
The result has been the emergence of an anti-Mahathir alliance consisting of four parties: the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which - led by political veteran Lim Kit Siang - has been the country’s leading parliamentary opposition for years, although it held only 7 seats in parliament; the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), which has strong support among Malaysian Muslims and students; the newly-established National Justice Party (Keadilan), led by Wan Azizah Ismail, the wife of Anwar Ibrahim; and the Malaysian People’s Party (PRM).
This alliance has support from many people committed to change, and inspired by the campaign against Anwar Ibrahim, but its members have little else in common, a fact reflected in their announcement that they would pardon Anwar and then appoint his prime minister if they win the election, even though Anwar himself has decided not to stand in the elections.
This fractured alliance is ill-equipped to take on the UMNO political machine, which has dominated all aspects of Malaysian collective life for so long that in some respects its bodies are almost indistinguishable from the institutions of state. Malaysia may not officially be a one-party system, but the links of patronage and quid pro quo that UMNO has developed with the media, banks, major companies and other institutions during its years in government give it a massive advantage. It is also accustomed to using the power of the judiciary and the state for its political ends, another factor vividly illustrated during the persecution of Anwar Ibrahim.
This has been reflected in the nature of campaigning since the elections were called. The media has been full of UMNO news, with other parties hardly able to get a look in. Opposition campaigning has had to be based on the popular PAS newspaper Harakah, samizdat publications, the Internet and word of mouth. The opposition has also proved unable to book public halls for meetings, and has had to campaign largely through open-air rallies. This has proved an enormous disadvantage in taking its message to ordinary people - particularly outside the major urban centres - who are so used to seeing UMNO in office that persuading them to vote for anyone else is a gigantic task.
Under the circumstances, severely denting the UMNO predominance - and depriving it of the two-thirds majority which presently enables it to do literally anything it pleases - would represent a major victory for the opposition, even without winning a majority of seats and taking government. Such a result would be another severe blow to UMNO and Mahathir. The elections may not break Mahathir’s grip on power, but any result short of a convioncing UMNO victory will be yet another blow to Mahathir’s foundations. A weakend UMNO regime may also give the opposition alliance more valuable time in opposition before it - or elements of it - have to face the real task of governing the country.
Muslimedia: November 16-30, 1999