Malaysia’s Long-Ruling Coalition Hangs on to Power

By Sean Yoong 6 May 2013

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—Malaysia’s long-governing coalition won national elections with a weakened majority to extend its unbroken, 56-year rule, fending off the strongest opposition it has ever faced but exposing vulnerabilities in the process.

The Election Commission reported that Prime Minister Najib Razak’s National Front coalition captured 133 of Malaysia’s 222 parliamentary seats Sunday, down slightly from the 135 it held before Parliament was dissolved.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s three-party alliance seized the remaining 89 seats. It even edged the National Front in the popular vote by more than 200,000 of at least 10.5 million ballots cast, according to several initial independent estimates. Opposition activists have long complained of gerrymandering.

It was the National Front’s 13th consecutive victory in general elections since independence from Britain in 1957. It faced its most unified challenge ever from an opposition that hoped to capitalize on allegations of arrogance, abuse of public funds and racial discrimination against the government.

Najib urged all Malaysians to accept his coalition’s victory. “We have to show to the world that we are a mature democracy,” he said.

“Despite the extent of the swing against us, [the National Front] did not fall,” he said in a nationally televised news conference.

Anwar signaled the opposition might dispute the results, saying “irregularities” cost his alliance numerous seats with narrow margins.

Within minutes of the National Front’s declaration of victory, thousands of Malaysian opposition supporters replaced their Facebook profile photos with black boxes in a coordinated sign of dismay.

The Election Commission estimated more than 10 million voted for a record turnout of over 80 percent of 13 million registered voters.

They were also voting to fill vacancies in 12 of Malaysia’s 13 state legislatures.

Though it retained power, the National Front is weaker than it was at its peak in 2004, when it won 90 percent of Parliament’s seats. Its hopes were dashed of regaining the two-thirds legislative majority that it held for years but lost in 2008.

Four Cabinet ministers and two state chief ministers also lost their parliamentary seats. The Malaysian Chinese Association, the second-biggest party in the ruling coalition, saw many of its candidates defeated as Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese minority community continued to abandon the National Front.

The National Front regained control of one opposition-governed state, but Anwar’s alliance retained three, including two of Malaysia’s wealthiest, most urbanized ones.

Among the major differences between the National Front and Anwar’s alliance are coalition affirmative-action policies that benefit the majority but often poor Malay population. Malay leaders in the National Front say those policies are still needed to help poorer Malays, but opposition critics say they’ve been abused to benefit mainly well-connected Malays, and that all underprivileged Malaysians should get help regardless of race.

“I am really fed up,” said Andrew Charles, who works in Australia and flew home to vote for the opposition in a suburb outside Kuala Lumpur. “There are more abuses in the system and there is no equality among the races. After 56 years, it is time to give others a chance to change this country.”

Others saw the National Front as the path of stability. “The government has made some mistakes but the prime minister has made changes and I believe they [the National Front] will do their best to take care of the people’s welfare,” said Mohamed Rafiq Idris, a car business owner who waited in a long line at a central Selangor state voting center with his wife and son.

Some voters lined up for more than an hour at schools and other polling places, showing off fingers marked with ink to prevent multiple voting after they had finished.

Najib said one of his priorities would be a “national reconciliation” plan to ease what he called a worrying trend of political polarization. He did not give details, but noted that ethnic Chinese, who comprise about a quarter of Malaysia’s population, turned away from the National Front in what he called a “Chinese tsunami.”

An opposition win would have represented a remarkable comeback for Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who was fired in 1998 and subsequently jailed on corruption and sodomy charges that he says were fabricated by his political enemies. He was released from jail in 2004.

Anwar and other opposition leaders voiced suspicions Sunday about electoral fraud. Claims of bogus ballots and an apparent ease in which some voters cleaned the ink stains off their fingers dominated social media.
Opposition leaders said the National Front used migrants from Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia to vote unlawfully.

Government and electoral authorities denied the allegations, saying private donors had paid for legitimate voters to fly home.

The National Front’s held firm in many traditional rural strongholds, especially in Borneo, where Anwar’s alliance had been hoping to make major inroads to bolster its chances of victory.

The National Front’s aura of invincibility has been under threat since three of Malaysia’s main opposition parties combined forces five years ago. In recent years the National Front has been increasingly accused of complacency and heavy-handed rule.

Najib, who took office in 2009, embarked on a major campaign to restore his coalition’s luster. In recent months, authorities have provided cash handouts to low-income families and used government-linked newspapers and TV stations to criticize the opposition’s ability to rule.