Malaysia’s election teeters on a knife edge

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Supporters of Malaysia's opposition Pakatan Harapan attend an election campaign rally in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 6, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

On the eve of Malaysia’s most hotly ever contested election, conventional wisdom suggests that Prime Minister Najib Razak will emerge the victor, extending the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition’s six-decade hold on power.

Momentum on the ground, however, appears to be with the Pakatan Harapan opposition pact led by ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad.

Massive crowds have greeted urban-based Harapan rallies since campaigning commenced on April 28. Several veteran ex-members of Najib’s ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) have come out in support of Mahathir, who previously led the country for 22 years under UMNO’s banner.

The opposition pact – an unlikely alliance of secular Chinese politicians, pro-democracy reformers, moderate Islamists and ex-UMNO supporters – appears closer than many imagined possible to capturing Putrajaya in what is shaping into a knife-edge contest.

Malaysia’s electoral machinery, critics and observers say, favors the ruling coalition through gerrymandered electoral boundaries. The Election Commission, though statutorily independent, has imposed various restrictions that have hobbled Harapan’s campaigning, raising questions about the legitimacy of the May 9 polls.

Mahathir has told local media he expects an unequivocal Harapan victory and has raised the specter of possible instability after the vote if the incumbent refuses to cede power. In turn, Najib has dismissed the large turnout at opposition rallies as “bussing in” supporters, rhetoric that has been par for the course in a highly divisive election season.

FILE PHOTO: Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks during an election campaign rally in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin/File Photo

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks during an election campaign rally in Kuala Lumpur, May 1, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

Najib, once the protégé of the man now leading the charge to topple his rule, took power in 2009. Since 2015, he has been mired by corruption allegations for his role in a multi-billion-dollar graft scandal at 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state investment arm he created and oversaw that is now at the center of ongoing international embezzlement probes.

Najib has continually denied wrongdoing and has since stabilized his position by sacking critics and entrenching UMNO rule. Portraying himself as an able custodian of the economy, he has pleased investors with market-friendly policies and growth, though living costs and household debt levels have ballooned under his watch.

Harapan’s pledge to scrap an unpopular goods and services tax (GST) has been music to the ears of disgruntled voters for whom economic frustrations are their primary gripe. All eyes are now on battleground states as the resurgent opposition pact hopes disillusionment with rising costs and corruption will sway heartland Malay voters and BN loyalists to break ranks.

Johor, the southern Malaysian state bordering Singapore, would be a major prize for the opposition, which is banking on personalities like Muhyiddin Yassin, who was previously the state’s chief minister, to draw support from UMNO and bring about a “Malay tsunami” capable of turning the tide in favor of Harapan.

Muhyiddin was Malaysia’s deputy premier until he was dismissed by Najib in 2016 for his critical stance on the 1MDB debacle. He is now president of Mahathir’s new party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) and is regarded as a widely respected figure in Johor.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister and candidate for opposition Alliance Of Hope, Mahathir Mohamad, shakes hands with his supporters after his nomination, on Langkawi island, Malaysia April 28, 2018. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on the campaign trail, Langkawi island, April 28, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

Johor, the country’s second most populous and third richest state, would be a stunning symbolic victory: UMNO was first established in the state.

Though some observers predict reduced support for BN in Johor, voters may be reluctant to throw their support behind the Mahathir-led opposition out of allegiance to Johor’s charismatic and revered monarch, Sultan Ibrahim Ismail, who is an open critic of the ex-premier for his past attempts to curb the legal immunity of Malaysia’s monarchs.

Kedah, Mahathir’s home state, represents another high-stakes contest that could swing the election result. The ex-premier will contest in Langkawi, an island that was developed into a major tourist destination during his tenure. Residents of the state are generally regarded by observers as staunch Mahathir supporters.

Mukhriz Mahathir, the ex-premier’s son, was formerly Kedah’s chief minister under the BN. He resigned in 2016 to head off a political crisis as Kedah UMNO leaders attempted to oust him over comments critical of Najib’s 1MDB dealings. Should the opposition win the state, Mukhriz would likely reclaim his previous chief minister post.

In the northeastern state of Kelantan, waning support for the long-ruling Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) could see a major political shakeup. Observers believe discontent with inefficient public services and lagging development under the Islamist party’s nearly three-decade rule have created an opening for BN to pry the state back.

PAS, a proponent of harsh Islamic penal code, has distanced itself from and campaigned against the Harapan opposition coalition while nurturing new ties with UMNO.

Members of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) listen to a speech by Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak during its general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin

United Malays National Organization (UMNO) members during its general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia December 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

The party is fielding a record number of candidates in 158 of parliament’s 222 seats, up from in the 2013 election, a move that will force an unprecedented 192 multi-cornered fights, likely to the detriment of Harapan.

The move is all the more suspect since PAS downsized in 2015 following defections of moderate Islamists who splintered to form Parti Amanah Negara, a Harapan component party. Nik Omar Nik Abdul Aziz, the eldest son of PAS’ admired late spiritual leader, is the latest defector to join Amanah’s ranks.

Selangor, Malaysia’s richest and most industrialized state, fell to the opposition in 2008. BN has since made its recapture a strategic priority, though it has so far fallen short. BBPM and Amanah must deliver strong results in ethnic Malay areas to ensure continued opposition rule in the state.

Further afield, rural communities and remote villages in Borneo faithfully support the BN, which provides residents with cash handouts, generous subsidies and development support. Long-regarded as a BN “fixed deposit” of votes, the island’s states of Sabah and Sarawak have delivered consistent coalition victories that have helped it to absorb waning support among peninsular voters.

The two sparsely populated eastern states, usually tipped as less-competitive fights, represent nearly 60% of Malaysia’s land mass and through aggressive gerrymandering are given representation in parliament to reflect their geographical size rather than number of voters.

However, some observers believe the campaign in Sabah could be more closely fought this time around, with ex-UMNO heavyweight Shafie Apdal leading the opposition push with his newly formed Parti Warisan Sabah. The senior defector broke with Najib over the 1MDB scandal and is campaigning for higher petroleum royalties and greater state autonomy for Sabah.

A woman passes a live telecast of Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak addressing the nation on the dissolution of Parliament at an electronics shop in Port Klang, Malaysia April 6, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

A woman passes television screens of premier Najib Razk annoucing the dissolution of Parliament on April 6, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

Under Malaysia’s simple majority system, the coalition which clinches the most seats in parliament wins even if it loses the popular vote. BN lost the popular vote to the now-defunct Pakatan Rakyat coalition at the 2013 general election but still maintained power with 133 of parliament’s 222 seats.

Election result projections don’t paint a clear picture. Reuters cited a Eurasia Group report that posited Harapan had a mere 15% of victory. While BN would extend its rule, the political risk advisory group predicts the BN would fare even worse than in 2013, a scenario that could bring pressure on Najib to step aside.

A recent survey by Merdeka Center, an independent polling agency, projected Harapan would win the popular vote in peninsular Malaysia and make parliamentary gains, though not enough to secure a needed majority.

Invoke Malaysia, a campaign analysis group headed by Harapan lawmaker Rafizi Ramli, sees it differently.

Citing a recent voter inclination modelling and survey results drawn from nearly 12,000 respondents across Malaysia, the organization predicted Harapan would capture most of the 90 mixed-ethnicity parliamentary constituencies and 35 non-Malay majority constituencies up for grabs, allowing it to form a federal government with a simple majority.

While the advantages of incumbency still tilt the playing field in favor of BN, there is a chance that Malaysia’s most divisive and closely fought election ever could trigger a political earthquake, a scenario not to be dismissed in an era where conventional wisdom has more than once been turned on its head.

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