Civil Society Leaders Enter Election Fray

Analysis by Baradan Kuppusamy
KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 13 (IPS) – Malaysia’s Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi had parliament dissolved Wednesday, paving the way for snap elections that political analysts say will see the opposition gain ground thanks to voter discontent over rising prices, crime and ethnic tension.
The government held over 90 percent of seats in the just dissolved 222-member parliament.
While the ruling 14-party National Front (Barisan Nasional)coalition government led by Badawi is in no danger of losing power, the results are expected to reflect unhappiness over a multiplicity of issues by sensitised voters.
Badawi’s popularity had soared to over 90 percent in 2004, the year he won his first mandate on a populist platform of curbing corruption and ensuring government transparency and accountability. But that popularity has taken a beating in recent months.
According to recent opinion polls, his popularity has slid down to about 60 percent, low by Malaysian standards, analysts said.
”There are now multiple voices in society contesting Badawi’s official version,” said political analyst James Wong. “There is the traditional opposition which has been now joined by civil society, students, independent journalists and non-government organisations (NGOs).”
The changes are reflected in the fact that a dozen prominent NGO activists who are also experts in water, health and human rights are contesting in the election, adding their voices and giving alternatives to the voters.
Some of them are standing as independents, while others are contesting on the tickets of opposition political parties.
While the activists may not win this round, their articulation of core issues during the campaigning — often ignored by mainstream media — will add a new dimension to political discourse in the country.
Several activists are contesting under the banner of the Democratic Action party or DAP, the country’s biggest opposition party and among them is Charles Santiago, the coordinator of the Coalition against Privatisation.
“There are many bread and butter issues that need to be raised and offered to the voters as alternatives,” said Santiago, an economist by training. “Given the current conditions where information flow is controlled and restricted, we have to make an important decision and join a political party to articulate the people’s concerns,” he told IPS.
Santiago is also the director of Monitoring Sustainability of Globalisation that had fought tooth and nail to prevent privatisation of water and stop big business from raising the prices of a natural resource.
“I will bring that experience and perspective to opposition politics,” he said. “We want to give people more choices and candidates to choose from.”
Another activist who is supported by civil rights groups, under the umbrella Civil Society Initiative for Parliamentary Reform, is Zaitun Kassim who first stood in the 1999 general election.
”We can’t leave politics to politicians…it is too important,” Kassim said. “We campaign on issues that the mainstream political parties will not touch like detention without trial which is a great blight on democracy,” she added.
Other issues the civil rights candidates will raise are human rights, freedom of media and freedom of assembly — issues that are important in a rules-based society.
Human rights leaders see the NGO participation in the general election as “pivotal” and which adds a new dimension to participatory politics.
“The general election is the time for NGOs to push the civil society agenda and make their voice heard,” said Yap Swee Seng, executive director of SUARAM, a prominent rights NGO. “It is important to give alternative views to the people not just the one, official version dished out by the mainstream media,” he told IPS.
“The ultimate objective is to ensure a strong, multi-party opposition that can better safeguard the constitution and people’s interest,” he said, adding the huge majority the government held had been misused.
The National Front coalition of Badawi had 200 of the 219 seats in the parliament, which was often used to rubber stamp numerous amendments to the constitution. The weak opposition was often overwhelmed by the government which used its overwhelming majority to browbeat the opposition into submission.
The main opposition Democratic Action Party held only 12 seats and the Islamic PAS party had six, followed by Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party which held one seat. But the opposition expects to do better this time because people have woken up to Badawi’s failure to deliver on the election promises he made in 2004.
Additionally, minority Indians and Chinese, who together form about 38 percent of the voters, are unhappy with Badawi’s performance in defending the secular constitution and promoting minority welfare.
In 2004, the government rode a wave of optimism surrounding Badawi, who had taken over a year before from veteran leader Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled with an iron fist for 22 years.
Since then, however, the premier has been criticised as weak, indecisive and unable to make the tough decisions the country needs to curb corruption, clean up the government and police force and restore investor confidence.
Opposition and civil society leaders are also disappointed that Ibrahim would be unable participate because of a five-year ban on contesting, arising out of a corruption conviction that expires on Apr.14.
“The government’s term only expires in May 2009 but they are rushing into an election to ensure that Ibrahim cannot contest,” said opposition leader Tian Chua. “This is unfair and unjust.”
Ibrahim, who maintains his innocence, was sacked as deputy prime minister and jailed in 1998. He was freed by the court in 2004 but only after serving a six-year term for corruption.
Badawi has admitted that the traditionally staunch support from ethnic Indians, who accuse him of being pro-Malay in his policies and marginalising their community, will likely go to the opposition. “We are making amends for our lapses, we are helping all races. The Indians are better off staying with the government than voting opposition,” deputy prime minister Najib Razak told local media last month, promising a spate of new measures to help Indians gain access to jobs, scholarships and places in the university.
Five Indian leaders who organised an anti-government rally on Nov. 25 have been jailed under a draconian internal security legislation which allows for indefinite detention without trial.