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16 February 2008


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Malaysia’s Vote to Test
New Era of Democracy
February 15, 2008

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Buffeted by a surge in ethnic tensions and a spate of scandals, Malaysia’s government dissolved Parliament on Wednesday, opening the way for a general election.

The vote, expected to be held next month, is likely to test the degree of democratic change that has occurred in the predominantly Muslim nation since the authoritarian leader Mahathir Mohamad stepped down in 2003 after 22 years in office. Opposition parties hope to capitalize on discontent with Dr. Mahathir’s successor, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, to weaken the ruling National Front coalition’s decades-long monopoly on power.

Nobody expects Mr. Abdullah’s government to be ousted as a result of the vote: It is all but impossible that the ruling coalition, in power since independence in 1957, will fail to secure a parliamentary majority. The real goal for opposition parties is to obtain at least one-third of federal Parliament seats, depriving the government of the authority to amend the constitution at will and to alter electoral constituencies.

Such a feat in the election could, for the first time, give Malaysia’s opposition a say in how this multiethnic nation of 26 million people is governed. The National Front, an alliance of ethnic-based parties dominated by Mr. Abdullah’s United Malays National Organization, holds more than 90% of federal Parliament seats and controls all but one of Malaysia’s 13 state governments.

“Malaysia is a strange country. You don’t need to win to create an earthquake — you just need to deny them two-thirds, and the one-party state will crumble,” contends opposition politician and UMNO defector Anwar Ibrahim, once deputy prime minister from UMNO and Dr. Mahathir’s heir-apparent before the two had a falling out. While Dr. Mahathir was premier, Mr. Anwar was tried and convicted on sodomy and corruption charges. Malaysia’s Federal Court overturned the sodomy conviction, saying it was flawed by a shoddy prosecution case.

Mr. Anwar’s centrist, multiethnic People’s Justice Party, or PKR, will contest the election in concert with two other opposition groups — the ethnic-Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, a conservative Islamist movement that appeals to rural Malays.

“If these elections are fair and we can get access to the media, we’ll create history. Getting one-third of the seats [for the opposition] is almost a certain thing,” Mr. Anwar predicts.

That may be an overly optimistic forecast, given UMNO’s formidable strength among the country’s ethnic Malay majority, who accounts for about 60% of the population. Prime Minister Abdullah said Wednesday that the ruling coalition hopes to secure “at least a two-thirds” majority in the election.

“I don’t think we are standing at the precipice of defeat,” says Khairy Jamaluddin, deputy chief of UMNO’s youth wing and Mr. Abdullah’s son-in-law. He forecast that the National Front will retain at least 80% of Parliament’s seats.

Still, the election is likely to be one of the most hotly contested in Malaysia’s recent history, in part because Mr. Abdullah has been relatively more tolerant of media criticism and political dissent than his predecessor. His critics — including Dr. Mahathir — have called him an ineffectual leader with no compelling vision for the resource-rich country, whose export-driven economy faces stiff competition from India, China and regional upstarts like Vietnam.

Often held up as a model for economic development across the Muslim world, Malaysia under Mr. Abdullah has maintained generally good relations with the U.S., a contrast with Dr. Mahathir’s frequent anti-Western outbursts. Malaysia is a major exporter of palm oil — now in demand for biofuel — as well as natural gas and oil. It is also home to a significant electronics-components industry, with foreign investors such as Intel Corp. and Motorola Inc.

The timing of the election signals the government’s nervousness, some analysts say. The Parliament’s mandate doesn’t expire until mid-2009. But in addition to fears about an economic downturn, the ruling coalition is facing a crucial deadline related to Mr. Anwar. The opposition politician, who retains popularity among many UMNO voters, is barred from standing for elected office until April 14 because of his conviction on corruption charges under Dr. Mahathir. Going to the polls before that deadline prevents his return to Parliament, at least for now.


Snap! It’s an election

Feb 14th 2008 | BANGKOK
From The Economist print edition
The ruling coalition will win; but maybe not by enough for the prime minister

ETHNIC strife, rising prices and sagging approval ratings are poor portents of electoral success. So this week’s dissolution of parliament by Malaysia’s prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, more than a year before its term expires, suggests his strategists have some tricks up their sleeves. Or perhaps they reckon the going is unlikely to improve, and may worsen if America suffers a recession. The Election Commission has set March 8th as the date of the ballot.

No one expects Mr Badawi to repeat his storming debut in 2004, when he led the ruling coalition to a 90% sweep of 219 seats in Parliament. Defeat is unthinkable: the coalition has won every election since independence in 1957. But party officials are braced for a dip in support, and the opposition smells blood. Mr Badawi, who replaced long-time leader Mahathir Mohamad, said this week that he would be content with a two-thirds majority. Anything less, say analysts, and party rivals might pounce.
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As with so much in Malaysia, the calculus comes down to race and patronage. Members of parliament from the ethnic-Malay coalition will court their rural heartlands with handouts, while junior partners deliver votes from Chinese, Indian and other minorities. The opposition, whatever its secularist aspirations, tends to play the same game (minus the goodies). If the Malay majority stays loyal, the government stays in.

But young, urban Malays may not play ball. Many joined a mass rally in November for electoral reform, defying a government ban, and glean their news from feisty blogs, not Malaysia’s toadying press. Even harder to corral into the coalition will be ethnic Indians, who are seething over economic hardship and recent demolitions of Hindu temples. Disgruntled Chinese voters might also shun the scandal-ridden pro-government Malaysian Chinese Association.

Mr Badawi took office vowing a cleaner, more efficient administration, but has struggled to show results. His sedate, courtly style came as a welcome relief after the abrasive Dr Mahathir, but is now ridiculed as lethargic. Nobody can say the same of Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister turned opposition firebrand. But a 1999 corruption case bars him from public office. That ban expires in April, perhaps another reason for a snap election.

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