Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, despite being at the center of the world’s biggest state financial scandal in recent years, known locally as 1MDB, is widely predicted by pundits to win the country’s upcoming election.
The gloomy prospects for the opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan, led by the nation’s once longest-reigning prime minister and Najib’s former backer, Mahathir Mohamad, would not be as downcast if voter turnout runs high. But exciting Malaysian voters is exactly Pakatan Harapan’s biggest challenge ahead of polls that must be held at the latest by August.
The last election, in 2013, saw the previous opposition coalition, known as Pakatan Rakyat and led by now jailed opposition stalwart Anwar Ibrahim, win a majority vote for the first time. Voters enthusiastically opted for an end to the rule of Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has governed uninterrupted since 1957.
However, excessive malapportionment and gerrymandering of constituencies over the last decade allowed the UMNO-led ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), to cling to power with a 60% parliamentary majority despite winning only 47% of the vote.
The government-controlled Election Commission (EC) is now rushing to complete a new round of delineation to give Najib and his UMNO party an even greater advantage, with some suggesting it could win a two-thirds super-majority in parliament with even less than 47% of the vote.
If that’s not enough, Najib has another card to play. Three years ago, he successfully dismantled the 2013 opposition coalition by enticing the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) with an offer to expand the imposition of Sharia law.
PAS, a hardline Islamist party with sway amongst conservative Muslims, has vowed to contest in more than 60% of parliamentary constituencies to split Malay Muslim votes from Pakatan Harapan.
Still, it’s not clear if gerrymandering and multi-cornered fights can save Najib if turnout is high. If fence-sitting voters turn out in large numbers, it seems almost certain they would vote against rather than for Najib, whose popularity rating is plummeting.
It is also unlikely that the bulk of protest votes go to PAS, whose hardline agenda has a very narrow appeal in multicultural Malaysia and was a small-scale provincial party until a decade ago.
The opposition is now fiercely attacking Najib, linking 1MDB and other financial scandals to him and his wife Rosmah’s famously lavish lifestyle. Najib is also being blamed for soaring inflation due to a Goods and Service Tax (GST) his government introduced.
Only 44% of ethnic majority Malays think the country is headed in the right direction, and only 40% are satisfied with the government’s economic management, according to a recent opinion poll. When ethnic minority groups are included, the figures drop to 34% and 35%.
The survey was conducted by independent pollster Merdeka Center at the end of 2017, just before the opposition coalition nominated Najib’s long-time foe Mahathir as its prime ministerial designate.
The bad news for Mahathir is that Najib’s unpopularity has not yet translated into popular support for his opposition coalition. While only 39% of those polled by the Merdeka Center were “happy” with the government, even less were pleased with the opposition parties, with only 31% “happy” with Pakatan Harapan and 27% with PAS.
Pakatan Harapan’s low popularity is partly structural, as UMNO has consistently framed the opposition as an existential threat to Muslim Malays who now enjoy extensive ethnic privileges.
UMNO’s message is simple and intuitive – its pro-Malay affirmative action policies are inseparable from UMNO’s party state; vote UMNO out and Malays will be dominated by the minority Chinese and Indians.
Beyond this age-old propaganda popularized during Mahathir’s 1981-2003 tenure, the low rating also reflects the limited success of Pakatan Harapan to manage and profit from the largest party realignment in Malaysia’s history.
Since 1990, Malaysia’s opposition parties have tried to put forward a multiethnic coalition mirroring BN. The formula had three key features: a top UMNO breakaway rebel as the supreme leader, with PAS attracting pious Muslims and the secularist Democratic Action Party (DAP) attracting non-Muslim minorities.
In a cyclical pattern, PAS would tone down its Sharia law agenda when the opposition’s prospect of winning power was on the rise and return to its hardline position when that prospect diminished.
Soon after UMNO’s poor 2013 election showing, Najib worked to undo the opposition coalition. Within a year, the opposition’s prime ministerial designate and once Mahathir’s deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, was sent to jail on politicized charges. This left Anwar’s centrist Justice Party fragmented and unable to lead PAS and DAP.
Enticing PAS to pursue the expansion of Sharia law punishments further fragmented the opposition coalition, leaving it a tough choice between alienating ethnic minorities and liberals and losing Muslim nationalists.
But the 1MDB scandal, accounting for billions of dollars worth of allegedly pilfered state funds, also led to the split of UMNO and the formation of Mahathir’s splinter Malaysia United Indigenous Party (PPBM) to compete as a rival defender of Malay interests.
With Mahathir reconciling with Anwar, whom he first sent to jail in 1998 and now leading Pakatan Harapan, the opposition has a potentially more powerful but untested formula: Two top UMNO rebels and a Malay rightwing party which appeals to economic nationalism rather than religious sensitivities as an answer to UMNO.
If Pakatan Harapan can quash PAS’ spoiler game, even without defeating Najib outright, it would fundamentally change Malaysian politics by providing a more viable alternative to BN for multicultural Malaysia than one beholden to PAS.
With Mahathir, the opposition coalition represents a delicate balance between change and continuity for a viable transition from UMNO’s one-party rule. But its strength is also its weakness, with old political faces colored by compromises, horse-trading and perceived hypocrisy.
This sentiment has given rise to a spoiled vote campaign among the youth constituency, with many training their sights on Mahathir, who the opposition had in the past attacked for authoritarianism, corruption and racism.
The impact of such a campaign is unlikely an election-throwing number of spoiled votes, but rather a dampening of voter enthusiasm. More than lowering actual voter turnout, it may also reduce the number of polling agents and election observers, making more room for electoral fraud to tip the outcome.
In 2013, voter enthusiasm led to both a high turnout and high numbers of opposition polling agents and election observers, which blocked or deterred electoral fraud from bribery or impersonation of voters or miscounting votes.
This coming election, however, the number of such volunteers may be low due to a lack of equal enthusiasm for the opposition, making it easier for electoral spoilers to potentially tip the balance.
Pakatan Harapan is responding to the perceived lack of pizzazz in its campaign by recruiting new fresh faces. Last week, a prominent libertarian think-tanker, Wan Saiful Wan Jan, joined Mahathir’s economic-nationalist PPBM. There are now rumors swirling he will be followed by a handful of prominent Malay scholars and professionals.
Maria Chin Abdullah, chairperson of electoral reform lobby Bersih, or Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, announced this week her resignation from the vocal civil society umbrella group to join Pakatan Harapan as a candidate without a party affiliation.
But skeptical eyes are still set on how Pakatan Harapan can reconcile the ideological differences between its member parties and on what sincere election promises it can make and honor.
The coalition plans to launch its manifesto on March 8, an opportunity to galvanize and convince so far unexcited voters that it can credibly campaign as a coalition of the future in light of its past.