Opposition aiming for seismic shift at the polls

AFP | Feb 17, 08
As Malaysia heads for elections dominated by seething ethnic tensions, an invigorated opposition is hopeful of making unprecedented gains against the coalition that has ruled for half a century.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi scored a thumping victory in 2004, a year after taking over from long-time leader Dr Mahathir Mohamad, but since then he has been criticised as weak and ineffective.
His government has been rocked by a series of public protests – unthinkable during Mahathir’s era – accusing the government of discriminating against Indians, electoral fraud and failing to cap rising prices of food and fuel.
In the latest protests Saturday police fired teargas and water cannons to disperse ethnic Indians who had defied a ban and attempted to gather in downtown Kuala Lumpur to protest alleged discrimination.
Support from Malaysia’s ethnic Indian and Chinese minorities is thought to be melting away due to anger over the system of positive discrimination for Muslim Malays, who control government and dominate the population.
The Malay factor
Lim Kit Siang from the Chinese-based DAP, who leads the opposition in Parliament, sees chinks in the armour of the Umno, which leads the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
“I think there is a glimmer of hope that we can try to break the Umno political hegemony and deny the Barisan Nasional its parliamentary two-thirds majority which has always been the unreachable holy grail in Malaysian politics,” he told AFP.
Such a development in the March 8 polls would prevent the government from amending the constitution at will, giving the opposition more say in policy and delivering an enormous morale boost.
“For the first time the Indians are prepared for change. For the past 50 years they were a vote-bank for the government,” Lim said, adding that ethnic Chinese also feel they “want to have an equal place under the Malaysian sun.
“But are the Malays prepared for change? Unless we can bring all that together in the next three weeks before polling then we will not be able to bring the change that we all desire.”
Malaysia’s opposition is a disparate collection including the DAP with 12 seats in parliament, the fundamentalist Islamic party PAS with six and dissident former premier Anwar Ibrahim, whose PKR party has one seat.
They are trying to put aside their differences and field just one candidate against the government in each constituency instead of creating the three-cornered contests that have scuppered their chances in the past.
Formidable barriers
Anwar, who was sacked and jailed in 1998 on corruption and sodomy charges that were widely seen as politically motivated, has emerged as an opposition figurehead even though he is barred from standing for office until April.
He has condemned the timing of the elections as a “shameful” attempt to sideline him. But he plans to campaign energetically in the next few weeks and enter parliament shortly after by holding a by-election in a PKR seat.
“The elections will be defining in the sense it will shake the very foundations of this government,” he told AFP.
However, the opposition faces formidable barriers including a government-friendly media that gives it virtually no airtime and an electoral process it says is rigged and fraudulent.
Key battlegrounds will be urban areas where the pain of rising prices is most keenly felt, the island state of Penang with its large Chinese population, and PAS-held Kelantan, the only state not in government hands.
Khoo Kay Peng from the think-tank Sedar Institute tips the opposition to win just 5-10 new seats, with the government losing the support of the ethnic minorities but retaining Malays, who make up 60 percent of the population.
He said there is a risk the outcome would emphasise the ethnic divide in Malaysia, which is desperate to avoid a repeat of past bloody racial conflict.
“The election results could project a very polarised Malaysia because the non-Malay communities are dissatisfied. Some of them will vote against the government and that swing will be interpreted as anti-Malay sentiment towards a Malay-led government,” he said.
A sense of purpose seen
Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at John Hopkins University in the United States, said that even relatively modest gains by a more professional and less quarrelsome opposition will boost its important watchdog role.
“We all know the BN is going to win because the system is structured that way,” she said, noting that in 2004 the coalition seized 90 percent of the seats with just 64 percent of the vote.
“But this is not necessarily going to be about the result, it’s going to be the process,” she said, adding that the campaign could see small parties’ profiles boosted and their grievances highlighted.
“Things are very optimistic, more than the last election by far, and there is a sense of purpose among the opposition to illustrate to the government the real concerns about where the country is going.”