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POLITICS-MALAYSIA: Election Year Fraught With Multiple Troubles

Analysis by Anil Netto

PENANG, Jan 2 2008 (IPS) - Malaysia enters what is widely expected to be an election year with its ruling coalition looking its frailest in recent times. Economic grievances, inter-religious disputes and unfulfilled pledges have spawned growing disillusionment with the administration of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi that could erode popular support for the ruling coalition.

Abdullah took over the reins of power in 2003 after 22 years of autocratic rule under Mahathir Mohamad. After pledging sweeping reforms, he cruised to a landslide victory in a general election the following year. In the process, he briefly halted a pro-reform movement in its tracks.

But critics say he has failed to live up to the heightened expectations – and the calls for reform have re-surfaced.

Several trends during the Mahathir era continued into the Abdullah administration.

The old blueprint for national development based on a policy of affirmative action that favours the majority ethnic Malays and other indigenous groups since the 1970s appears to be falling apart as wealth is concentrated among the elite. &#39&#39The New Economic Policy was predicated on Malay political primacy,&#39&#39 said one Kuala Lumpur-based political commentator.

During the second half of Mahathir&#39s reign, however, the emphasis shifted from primacy to Malay political dominance as the well-connected elite scrambled for contracts and licences, he observed. &#39&#39No longer was it a priority to eradicate poverty, including Malay poverty; Mahathir wanted to create a select group of Malay billionaires.&#39&#39

That, he said, resulted in a massive misallocation of resources for projects that critics say were of little value to the masses such as the lavish administrative capital Putrajaya and the gleaming Petronas Twin Towers, once the tallest in the world. Parts of the public service were also privatised to well-connected firms while ailing firms were bailed out – a trend that some economists describe as the "privatisation of profits and socialisation of losses".

Analysts believe the ruling coalition&#39s legitimacy and ability to entrench its position depends on a robust economy, abundant powers of patronage, and a dominant leader who can hold together the coalition.

These conditions may not be as strong as they once were. Even though the economy grew six percent in 2007, for many Malaysians, the &#39&#39trickle-down effect&#39&#39 has not been enough to ease the pain of higher food and fuel prices. Neo-liberal policies and the import of cheap migrant labour to depress local wages have widened the gap between the rich and the poor. The richest 10 percent of the population earns 22 times the income of the poorest 10 percent.

Economic pains for the working class after heightened expectations have spawned a season of discontent. A series of small protests along with a couple of huge demonstrations over the last two months have called for greater social justice and accountability and revealed just how much the political landscape has changed.

Political analysts have observed that the political dominance of the United Malays National Organisation within the ruling coalition and its access to enormous patronage have resulted in factionalism within the party.

Every decade since the mid-1970s, UMNO has erupted in factional strife in varying degrees. "The fuel for internecine strife in the party is economic stringency when there is insufficient patronage to go around," says the political commentator mentioned earlier.

Some observers are now predicting that conditions are now ripe for another convulsion – perhaps over the increasingly influential role played by the Prime Minister&#39s ambitious son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, now the deputy UMNO youth head.

Analysts say UMNO’s dominance has relegated other ruling coalition parties representing minority interests to insignificance, fuelling discontent over ethnic, religious and economic marginalisation. This was evident when 30,000 Indian Malaysians rallied in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 25 to highlight their grievances.

The disillusionment has also been fuelled by a series of allegations of corruption and abuse of power in the main institutions of government including the judiciary, the Anti-Corruption Agency and the police force. A major scandal involved the land and construction costs of the Port Klang Free Zone.

Critics says these scandals reflect poorly on the premier and his three-prong reform programme of eradicating corruption, police reforms and a civil service revamp. The latest failure was the withdrawal of a bill to set up a Special Complaints Commission to oversee the police after widespread criticism that it fell short of a royal commission&#39s main recommendation for a powerful Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission to be set up.

Abdullah has also been seen as weak on freedom of religion issues, disappointing those who once saw him as a &#39moderate&#39 leader. A string of inter-religious disputes has surfaced and been allowed to simmer. These disputes range from competing civil-Shariah jurisdictions to a controversy over the construction of a 36 metre-high Chinese "Goddess of the Sea" statute in the north Borneo state of Sabah.

&#39&#39Unless the ruling political leadership gives due attention to democratic institution building, we are not going to have the systems and processes to deal with the dialogue that is critical and the accountability that is essential if justice and fairness are to prevail,&#39&#39 said social activist K. Haridas, in a recent commentary.

Meanwhile, opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim has been hitting the hustings, trying to draw the disparate opposition parties together into a more cohesive force. His task is apparently made easier now that the opposition Islamic party PAS’ long-term goal of setting up an Islamic state, once a stumbling block to closer opposition ties, has faded into the background.

Although the opposition&#39s economic platform has not been widely publicised, Anwar himself wants the NEP scrapped. In its place, he favours a growth-oriented market economy balanced by &#39&#39humane considerations and distributive justice&#39&#39.

There is now growing confidence among opposition parties of a significantly improved performance in the coming general election – despite complaints of gerrymandering of constituencies, vote-buying and abuse of the media and government agencies for campaign purposes.

What makes it even more challenging for the ruling coalition is its loss of a near monopoly over information flow – though it retains a stranglehold over television and radio.

The proliferation of independent websites and blogs such as Malaysia Today and Malaysiakini means the ruling coalition&#39s propaganda machinery now faces agile and resourceful opponents in cyberspace.

Controversial or embarrassing incident that once could be swept under the carpet are now being posted on YouTube, blogs and websites. &#39&#39Nowadays, it is difficult not only to lie but also to conceal effectively,&#39&#39 media analyst Mustafa Kamal Anuar told IPS.

Last week, for instance, the senior cabinet minister who heads the ethnic Indian party in the ruling coalition was jeered when he officiated at a regional dance competition here. It would have passed unnoticed if a video-clip of that incident had not been quickly posted on YouTube.

&#39&#39So the monopoly on truth has been cracked by bloggers and others,&#39&#39 said Mustafa. &#39&#39A lot more people have become more discerning especially after recent demonstrations revealed the stark contrast between the mainstream media&#39s coverage and the bloggers&#39.&#39&#39

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