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Tuesday, February 21, 2017
- It has been over a fortnight since Malaysia held its 13th general election that saw the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition returning to power and continuing its 56-year rule. However, instead of joyous celebration, there are widespread protests on the street.
Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak may have won another electoral battle on May 5, but he is fast losing the war.
The wave of demonstrations is led by Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance, who disputes the election results and claims wholesale fraud. “If not for the electoral fraud on May 5, we would be in Putrajaya today,” he said, referring to the federal administrative centre, 25 km south of capital Kuala Lumpur.
He alleges that “planeloads of Bangladeshis” voted illegally, accounting for the reported record turnout at the elections in this Southeast Asian constitutional monarchy.
Vowing to reclaim the democracy that he says has been denied to the people, Ibrahim has been holding rallies around the country. People are turning up in the tens of thousands at these rallies, a testament to how deep popular disenchantment with the election runs. It is too early to say if this will lead to an Arab Spring in Malaysia, but there is no denying the overwhelming desire for change.
The first such rally, dubbed ‘Black 505’, kicked off in the west peninsular state of Selangor. Held at night at the Kelana Jaya stadium outside Kuala Lumpur, it attracted a crowd of nearly 120,000, comprised mostly of urban youth gathered through social media networks.
It has been followed by several others, the latest being on Friday May 17 at Seremban, capital of the neighbouring state of Negeri Sembilan.
The atmosphere at these rallies is almost festive. The dress code is the black of mourning, broken often by colourful umbrellas as people gather despite the rain. Cries of ‘reformasi’ or reform rend the air, reinforced by the honking of vuvuzelas.
“My family and I had hoped and prayed that all the young people had come out and voted to topple this oppressive government, but instead we were cheated of our victory,” Angelina Tan told IPS at the rally in Seremban, 60 km from Kuala Lumpur.
The 34-year old graphic designer was at the venue with her three-year-old son. “I am here for my son, it is his future we are fighting for,” she said, visibly angry at what she called a “sham democracy”.
Prime Minister Razak and the Election Commission have denied any fraud. The BN, a coalition of 13 parties, won 133 of the 222 seats in the bicameral Malaysian parliament.
The PR emerged the winner in the popular vote, cornering 52 per cent of the total, but ended up the loser given the country’s first-past-the-post system of voting. A legacy of British colonial rule, it ensures that the party with the largest number of seats forms the government.
Hopes had been riding high this election. The BN’s grip over the country seemed to have come loose in the last election in 2008, when it won just 140 seats. For the first time since the 1969 elections, the coalition had failed to win a two-thirds majority – a weapon with which the BN had long been running roughshod over people, according to government critics.
The opposition parties – the secular Democratic Action Party (DAP), the Islamic PAS party and the nominally secular Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), led by Ibrahim’s wife Wan Azizah Ismail – had won 82 seats in 2008.
It was an achievement they were hoping to consolidate this election, for which the three dissimilar parties had come together under the umbrella of the Pakatan Rakyat, which loosely means “people’s alliance”.
However, the opposition managed to increase its tally only by seven more seats, as the BN retained much of the rural vote. It became the deciding factor since the rural-urban weightage in seat distribution is skewed in favour of the former: there are three to four rural seats to each urban seat. And given the BN machinery in rural Malaysia – money, patronage and affirmative action policies – rural voters stayed with the party unlike many of their urban counterparts.
The BN thus won the mostly rural eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak. Together these two states account for 56 seats in parliament, of which the BN won 45. It also did well in the big peninsular states of Johor, Pahang and Kedah and bagged a smattering of seats in other smaller states. It also managed to recapture, with slim majorities, the two states of Perak and Kedah, which had gone to the opposition in 2008.
The marginalised, disillusioned, angry urban voter, however, stayed with the PR. While some of this urban vote went to DAP, a mostly Chinese-based political party with multi-racial representation, urban Malays disenchanted with the BN’s long rule delivered their votes to the PR.
Yet it did not prove enough for the BN to be voted out, something urban Malaysians tired of rising crime, drug culture and corruption were desperately hoping for. Many people are convinced that the May 5 poll was hijacked and there was widespread fraud.
It is this continuing urban discontent that Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister and finance minister, is hoping to tap into.
“I would have reduced fuel prices, ordered free education and abolished road tolls,” he told the rally at Seremban. These were the promises the PR coalition had made in its election manifesto.
“We will not suffer under the escalating cost of living,” he thundered, to lusty cheers from the crowd.
PAS leader Rosli Yaakob, who was also present at the Seremban rally, told IPS that voters firmly believed that were it not for fraud, the PR would have won the elections. The PAS itself has done poorly compared to the other PR member parties.
He also wanted the Election Commission disbanded because he believes they were party to the alleged electoral fraud. (One prominent charge against the Election Commission is that the indelible blue ink it provided to ensure that no one voted twice was found to rub off quite easily.)
“We also want a royal commission of inquiry, as there was blatant abuse in some of the areas,” Yaakob said, referring to the allegations of vote-buying and use of government machinery for campaigning.
However, despite people’s misgivings, there is thin evidence of outright cheating or ballot box stuffing so far. Dr Jeyakumar Deveraj, MP for the Sungai Siput constituency in Perak state and the only socialist in parliament, conceded as much.
“We were not able to find conclusive evidence of significant cheating during the political process,” he told IPS.
But the “sheer volume of complaints” from the public goes to show how little trust they have in the Election Commission, he added.
He sees hope in the churn that has come in the wake of the election results. “There is a much higher level of citizen activism to preserve the sanctity of the polling process,” he said. It is good for democracy, he added.
And Ibrahim is wasting no time in harnessing this resentment.