Six reasons why Malaysia’s BN-led government held on to power in Sunday’s election


Malaysia’s incumbent government, headed by prime minister Najib Razak, has won Sunday’s landmark parliamentary elections, returning the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front) coalition and its largest party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), to power, extending the UMNO’s 55 consecutive years of rule.malaysia flag

The race was the most closely contested in Malaysian history, with the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR, People’s Alliance) waging the most tenacious and successful campaign to date.  If Pakatan Rakyat delivered a shock to Malaysia’s ruling elite in the March 2008 elections by depriving it of the two-thirds majority it had enjoyed (and with it, the power to amend Malaysia’s constitution), the May 2013 elections proved that the opposition can present a campaign with a genuine shot at winning.

The Pakatan Rakyat appears to have come up short — the Barisan Nasional will return to office, with Najib (pictured above) winning his first popular mandate since replacing his predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, in 2009 following the poor results of the 2008 elections.  According to official results, the Barisan Nasional will hold 133 seats (the UMNO holding 126 of them) to just 89 seats for the Pakatan Rakyat in the 222-member Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives).  That’s a 14-seat swing — seven seats less for the governing coalition and seven seats more for the opposition.

In one sense, it’s a win for the Pakatan Rakyat, which has had the best election result in Malaysian history, and it stands a good shot of building upon Sunday’s results to win power in the next elections.  Najib’s role as prime minister may even be in doubt following the Barisan Nasional‘s less-than-vigorous victory.  In another sense, it’s obviously a disappointment because the opposition failed to make sufficient inroads among ethnic Malays to win after a campaign that saw Malaysians divide largely on class, age and ethnic lines, with ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians supporting the Pakatan Rakyat and a majority of ethnic Malays supporting the Barisan Nasional, despite a growing mass of younger and more urban ethnic Malays supporting the opposition.

Indeed, the Barisan Nasional‘s two other major constituent groups, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), were nearly wiped out — the MCA won just six seats and the MIC none at all.  Ironically, that makes the UMNO itself even more dominant, even as the result confirms that the Barisan Nasional has lost nearly all of its support beyond ethnic Malays, which bodes precariously for its future.  Ethnic Malays constitute a little over 50% of the country’s population, while ethnic Chinese account for around 24% and ethnic Indians for 7%.

So what happened — what made the difference in Sunday’s election to push what was widely seen as a toss-up election to the incumbent?

Here are six reasons.

Rural power and the structure of Malaysia’s electoral system.  In the breakthrough 2008 elections, Pakatan Rakyat won 46.75% of the vote to just 50.27% of the vote for the Barisan Nasional, hardly a rout.  I can’t find the official breakdown for Sunday’s elections yet, but reports suggest that  Pakatan Rakyat actually won more total votes in the aggregate than the Barisan Nasional (by around 51% to 49%).  Nonetheless, the Barisan Nasional pulls much of its strength from Sabah and Sarawak, the two east Malaysian states on the island of Borneo, and other rural constituencies, which means that it needs fewer total votes to win a majority of seats in Malaysia’s parliament.  By contrast, Pakatan Rakyat can pile up lopsided victories in Kuala Lumpur and the more heavily-populated cities of Malaysia but win still fewer seats.

Institutional power of a 57-year incumbent.  The Barisan Nasional was always going to have an advantage — and in many cases, an unfair advantage — as the incumbent government.  It’s clear that the ‘1Malaysia’ campaign, and much of the government’s largesse in the past months have gone hand-in-hand with the Barisan Nasional‘s efforts to boost its own political viability.  Even today, there remain serious allegations of fraud, and some of the most troubling include the possibility that the BN enlisted foreigners to vote in today’s election.  Pakatan Rakyat‘s leader, Anwar Ibrahim, has refused to concede the election, and may contest up to 30 seats, which could theoretically reverse the election result.

Though today’s result indicates that Najib and the Barisan Nasional obviously retain a clear mandate and that the campaign has deepened the institutional norm of competitive two-party politics in Malaysia, Sunday’s elections obviously fell short of ‘free and fair’ election best-practices standards, and it will be imperative for the government to address Anwar’s allegations with the utmost seriousness.  Najib has already called for a period of reconciliation, but he’ll need to follow that up with real answers to the challenges of electoral fraud.

Najib Razak’s popularity.  Since taking office in 2009, Najib obviously understood that he needed to effect some amount of policy rejuvenation to forestall his party’s ossification, and he’s done so with measures, some more substantive and others more symbolic, that have made him significantly more popular as Malaysia’s prime minister than either the UNMO or the Barisan Nasional.  Beyond the more obvious effects of government handouts, Najib has taken steps to liberalize Malaysia’s long-standing policy preferences for ethnic Malays and he’s worked to revoke the hated Internal Security Act, though he replaced it with a statute that, to a troubling degree, retains the ability to detain Malaysian citizens without due process.

It’s the economy, stupid.  It’s boom time in Malaysia — it’s had 7% GDP growth in 2010, 5.1% growth in 2011 and 5.6% growth in 2012.  Although financial experts believe that Najib’s next government will move toward budgetary retrenchment after a period of heavier spending in advance of Sunday’s election, there’s no doubt that Malaysia’s economy is strong, widely on the basis of revenues from PETRONAS (Petroliam Nasional Berhad), the country’s state-owned energy company, despite concern over inflation, concern that Malaysia’s growth isn’t distributed equitably among ethnic groups and dismay over corruption that diverts too much wealth to the powerful elite in government.

Anwar Ibrahim.  It’s hard to write about Anwar because he’s one of the most complicated and complex figures to understanding in world politics.  Ultimately, I have always found it hard to believe that the dominant economic policymaker from the 1990s was ever going to be the best spokesperson for change, given that he was once the clear successor to longtime prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.  Anwar was deputy prime minister and the finance minister from 1991 to 1998 under Mahathir until a falling-out between the two led to Anwar’s imprisonment on corruption charges and additional (and outrageous) sodomy charges that he was fighting off until just last year.  Anwar and his politically motivated problems symbolize in many ways the problems with Malaysia’s electoral, political and legal institutions.  But it doesn’t change the fact that Anwar was once the UNMO’s heir apparent.

Anwar has said that the 2013 campaign will be his last, however, which graciously provides Pakatan Rakyat an opportunity to search for a new leader who can make what is likely to be the coalition’s final push from opposition into power in the future.  It might be Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar, whose Obama-esque language of hope has made her one of the country’s most popular politicians on either side or perhaps Liew Chin Tong, a key leader in the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a largely Chinese-based party that won the most seats among the three constituent parties of Pakatan Rakyat

Malays seem more scared of change than the corrupt status quo.  The key for Pakatan Rakyat was always going to be winning enough support from ethnic Malay voters, especially in Kuala Lumpur and throughout the rest of urban Malaysia to outweigh the considerable built-in advantage with  ethnic Malay voters that had been at the heart of the Barisan Nasional‘s political lock for decades.  Though many ethnic Malays, as well as ethnic Chinese and others, have grown weary of policies designed to provide positive discrimination for ethnic Malays, it appears even more Malays are scared of what might happen if Pakatan Rakyat actually took power.  The crucial puzzle for Pakatan Rakyat to solve, going forward, will be convincing enough ethnic Malays that change will be beneficial for everyone — the silver lining for the coalition’s future is that it’s a battle that Pakatan Rakyat is largely winning among younger Malay voters.

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