The results of the general elections held on March 21 in Malaysia were as expected (see Crescent, March 2004): a return to the pre-Anwar-Ibrahim saga situation. Just as it muscled its way into power in the last elections (1999), the Islamic Party (PAS) this time took a heavy beating from the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), losing the east-coast state of Terengganu after only five years’ rule. For the first time, UMNO also made major inroads in Kelantan, PAS’s heartland, driving out half of its state representatives. As for the National Justice Party (Keadilan), formed after the crisis of 1998, its only winning candidate was Dr Wan Azizah Ismail, Anwar Ibrahim’s wife, who managed to cling to a narrow majority; all the other Keadilan candidates were wiped off the political map of Malaysia.
Although the tightly-controlled media were quick to claim that the "resounding comeback" of the ruling National Front, led by UMNO, was proof of Malaysians’ confidence in the administration of Abdullah Badawi, the new prime minister, the results were a foregone conclusion. Even PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, who lost his parliamentary seat and is now in opposition in the state he once led, had hinted his expectation of defeat for PAS.
There is some truth in the oft-repeated government media ‘analysis’ that the Malays, who in the last elections rejected UMNO, have more or less swung to UMNO this time. But in Malaysia’s perverse practice of electoral democracy, the opposition need not labour hard at a diagnosis of a reason for their losses. Because UMNO is backed by what is known as the ruling party’s "3M advantage" (machinery, money and media) and aided by vote-rigging in particular (as well as other fraudulent tactics), it is an almost impossible task to unseat (by means of democratic election) the party that has been ruling the country since independence in 1957. The only time there was a reasonable opportunity for the opposition was in 1999, in the aftermath of Anwar Ibrahim’s dramatic dismissal, which set off street protests and altered the Malay Muslims’ traditional party loyalties drastically. But even that could not ensure a large enough share of votes for the opposition, in spite of their being united as an alliance.
For the first time, however, both the ruling and opposition parties agree that the election this time has been very messy. Thousands were denied the right to vote, or found that their names were missing from the electoral rolls or transferred to other states. In Selangor state, thousands were turned away without having cast their ballots; in Terengganu, where PAS lost, scuffles broke out as thousands gathered at its administrative capital in protest against the presence of tens of thousands of ‘phantom voters’ (voters brought in from other states or whose identity cards do not exist), who ensured ‘victory’ for UMNO in many constituencies.
In this election both UMNO and PAS put Islam at the top of the agenda. This was because PAS has managed to bring Islam into the mainstream of Malaysian politics, and it would have been political suicide for UMNO to fail to take up the challenge. This competition provided ammunition for the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), an anti-Islam party, to play on non-Muslim fears that Islam will be implemented at the cost of non-Muslims. It worked: the DAP won almost all the major parliamentary seats in non-Muslim-majority constituencies: a great change from 1999, when the government media frightened non-Muslims into not voting for DAP. Then, they were told that a vote for DAP was a vote for PAS, which the media portrayed as a bunch of "power-crazed mullahs".
Some analysts say that the absence of ex-prime minister and former strongman Dr Mahathir Mohamad from the political scene this time was also a major factor in the large swing of voters back to UMNO, because it deprived the opposition of a hate-figure against whom support could be rallied in the Malay heartlands. The assessment that Mahathir was an asset to PAS may be accurate after all. Yet it is also true that the "Anwar Ibrahim factor" could not be exploited this time because the man at the top had changed. The results this time also confirm that PAS’s successes in the Malay heartland were not mainly due to Malay-Muslim support for either its brand of ‘political Islam’ or its ability to deliver an alternative leadership, but due instead to the explosion of anger about the way Anwar Ibrahim was treated. Some western thinktank’s observation that the mandate to UMNO this time means rejection of "political Islam" is also false. Such lofty ideas could not have affected most voters, who are in the rural areas and more worried about issues that affect their bread and butter.
PAS’s defeat in almost all states (except in Kelantan, where it now clings to power with a simple majority) may be a wake-up call to its leaders of the realities of working within the ‘democratic’ framework. The party’s love affair with electoral democracy now awaits a rethink. The party’s leaders must face local realities when working within a multi-religious society: 40 percent of Malaysians are non-Muslim, and it is these who control most of the economy.
Yet, in hindsight, from the Islamic-movement perspective, PAS may have one thing to be proud of: that it did not sacrifice its Islamic commitment at the ballot-boxes, despite the unlikelihood of its achieving any Islamic state objectives by such a method (whether or not an Islamic state is achievable so even in principle is another matter). Unlike the so-called ‘Islamist’ politicians in Turkey, who made ‘de-evolution’ to Kemalism a convenient tactic for every election, and thereby played safe within the secular set-up, the PAS leadership has managed to be courageous enough to accept defeat and come out, at least, without losing their Islamic aspirations.
In the mean time, Abdullah Badawi’s sweeping victory is a repeat of Mahathir’s landslide victory in 1982. But whether his rule will be a repeat of Mahathir’s colourful era Malaysians can only find out by waiting to see.