After Disputed Election, Tensions Rise in Malaysia

By Simon Roughneen 9 May 2013

GEORGETOWN, Malaysia — Tens of thousands of black-garbed Malaysians gathered in a football stadium on Wednesday night to hear opposition leaders denounce the outcome of Sunday’s election, which extended the Barisan Nasional’s 56 year run in office.

The vote was marred by cheating, say supporters of the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) opposition, clad in black as a protest against the result.

Seeking a recount for 29 seats that he contends were won by dubious means, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim told the crowd in the opposition stronghold of Selangor—a business and industry hub near Kuala Lumpur—that “I will not quit until we reach Putrajaya [the administrative capital], until we expose all [fraud] and claim Putrajaya for the rakyat [people].”

Malaysia’s newly re-elected Prime Minister Najib Razak dismissed Anwar’s claims, saying the vote was above-board.

“The election was free and fair, and passed off peacefully without major incident. Yet the opposition has spent three days hunting for instances of alleged malpractice to tie together to support their preconceived theory that the election was unfair,” said a spokesperson for Najib, whose coalition is also known as the National Front or simply BN.

Nonetheless the opposition seems set on campaigning against the result, planning additional rallies in the coming days, with gatherings scheduled for the Perak state capital Ipoh—a region won by the BN—and in Penang, where opposition parties routed the BN.

Overall, the BN won on a reduced majority from the last election in 2008—133 seats to 89 this time versus 140-82 five years ago. This year, however, the BN lost the popular vote on a 51 percent to 47 percent margin, heightening opposition supporters’ concerns about a flawed electoral system.

The opposition believes that Malaysia’s first-past-the-post voting system, together with the mix of varying-sized constituencies, has stacked the deck against the opposition, given the disproportion between votes and seats in its favor. Anwar said he has specific allegations of cheating that he wants the country’s electoral commission to investigate.

Dzukefly Ahmad, a senior figure in the opposition who narrowly lost his own seat on Sunday, told The Irrawaddy that “we think the irregularities warrant an investigation.”

There have long been calls for reform of Malaysia’s electoral system, with central Kuala Lumpur shut down in 2011 and 2012 as two massive street protests calling for electoral reform were met with tear gas and water cannon fire from police. The BN government implemented some political reforms in the almost two years since the July 2011 protest, but those changes, alongside an economy growing at 5 percent, were not enough to regain the BN’s two-thirds majority lost in 2008.

The platform was enough, however, to return the BN to office with a reduced, and now contested, majority.

And while the opposition supporters—a mix of urban, middle-class Malaysians of all ethnic groups, as well as backers of Malaysia’s Islamist party—have expressed dissatisfaction with the election outcome, the days since the vote have seen a rise in tensions between Chinese-Malaysian leaders of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) and ethnic Malay BN politicians. Of particular controversy has been BN’s United National Malays Organization (UMNO), which emerged as the country’s biggest party by far after Sunday’s election, winning 88 seats, up from 79 in 2008.

UMNO-owned newspaper Utusan sparking anger with a headline asking, “What more do the Chinese want?” while former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, still an overweening figure in Malaysian politics, told media that Malaysia’s Chinese community—a quarter of the country’s population—had been taken in by the DAP’s “propaganda” to topple a “corrupt Malay” government.

Najib said on Wednesday that “the DAP had stoked racial sentiments to gain their support and used the mantra ‘Ubah’ [Malay for ‘change’] to turn a large segment of the Chinese against us,” referring to BN.

It is thought that Najib is likely to face a leadership challenge later this year, from elements within UMNO unhappy at his failure to regain the two-thirds majority lost in 2008.

The DAP emerged as the second-biggest party in Malaysia after the election, winning 38 seats, while BN-linked Chinese parties saw their representation halved. DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng criticized BN attempts to portray ethnic Chinese as “scapegoats” and frame the election results as a “Chinese-versus-Malay” vote.

Dzukefly Ahmad’s Islamist PAS party competed with Najib’s UMNO for rural Malay votes in Sunday’s election, losing two of the 23 seats it won in 2008. PAS believes that the governing parties played a part in heightening ethnic tensions in the run-up to the vote.

“They were instilling fear in the heartland that a vote for PAS would mean a vote for DAP and therefore a vote against Malay interests,” Ahmad told The Irrawaddy. The re-elected BN says it campaigned on a solid economic record and, contrary to opposition claims, on a message of ethnic harmony.

In some regions, local issues played a part in the election outcome. In Kuantan, local concerns about the environmental impact of a rare-earths processing plant outside the city prompted the opposition to say that if it won the election, it would move to close the US$800 million plant, the largest such facility outside China, and run by Australia’s Lynas.

Rare earths are a set of 17 minerals needed for high-tech industries and domestic electronic goods. In 2010, China, which currently dominates global rare-earths production, squeezed its supply of the minerals to Japan during tensions over disputed islands in the East China Sea, prompting concerns elsewhere about finding alternative sources for rare earths.

The Lynas facility could contribute 20 percent of the world’s supply of rare earths, proponents say. However, Bun Teet Tan, head of the Save Malaysia Stop Lynas campaign, told The Irrawaddy that the local election results showed that city residents remained opposed to the rare-earths plant, which looks set to continue operations after the BN win.

“We have successfully captured all parliamentary and state seats in and around Kuantan. This speaks volumes about how the residents feel about the Lynas issue,” he said.