Associate Professor Lily Zubaidah Rahim, from the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, is an affiliate of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre.
Malaysia's thirteenth election, held last Sunday, was fiercely contested and controversial. The 80% voter turnout, the highest in the country's history, is indicative of the public perception of the high stakes.
The PR (Pakatan Rakyat) opposition coalition recognised that if regime change was to occur under a skewed electoral system, it had to win by a sizeable margin. In Malaysia's electoral authoritarian regime, the electoral playing field is anything but level. With the benefit of state resources, gerrymandering and vote-buying, the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition managed to win a majority of federal parliamentary seats but failed to win the popular vote.
By the narrowest of margins, the BN maintained its control of nine states and managed to wrest control of the state of Kedah from the opposition. However, it failed to recapture the prized state of Selangor, the economic powerhouse of the country. The BN has also failed to win back the coveted two-thirds control of federal parliament.
Prime Minister Najib Razak (pictured) may have extended the BN's 56-year hold on government but he has now led the coalition to its worst electoral performance. His leadership of the UMNO-led BN coalition is now tenuous and is likely to be challenged at the UMNO general assembly later this year.
Much has been made about the role of electoral fraud and other irregularities in facilitating the BN's electoral win. But when the dust settles, the significance of long-standing class and communal divides is likely to stand out. The entrenched gerrymandering, weighted in favour of rural constituencies, meant the PR needed to win over both urban and rural Malay support, collectively making up 60% of the population.
Other than the state of Kelantan, which is the stronghold of the PAS (Parti Islam Malaysia; part of the PR opposition coalition), the generally less educated and socially conservative rural Malays voted strongly in favour of UMNO and the ruling BN. It would appear that the PR's call for good governance, social justice, transparency, rule of law and citizenship rights did not resonate with rural Malays. Moreover, PAS's Islamic agenda may well have been overshadowed by the stronger concern for preserving Malay special rights.
What did resonate were UMNO's generous financial handouts and promises of ongoing material support during the racially charged election campaign. The Malay community were repeatedly reminded that a PR Government would spell the end of Malay special rights and eventual Chinese political hegemony by way of the Chinese-based DAP's (Democratic Action Party) supposed domination of the PR coalition. These claims were bolstered by the rhetorical stunts of Malay supremacist organisations linked to UMNO. Pedaling these racially charged assertions was none other than former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who despite his 80-plus years, campaigned energetically on behalf of the BN.
The DAP's strategy of denting UMNO's historic stronghold in the state of Johor and its ability to galvanise the Chinese community solidly against the BN only served to deepen rural Malay insecurities. The DAP's race-based electioneering, whilst claiming to reject race-based politics, not only strongly resembled UMNO communal politicking but also spooked the insecure rural Malay electorate, the very community that needed to be swayed towards the virtues of a non-racial Malaysian identity.
The PR coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim has refused to accept the election result, claiming it was marred by unprecedented electoral fraud: 'My heart is with every Malaysian who does not accept the results'. The country's electoral reform movement Bersih has also withheld recognition of the result claiming that it is examining reports of electoral fraud.
The anger of PR and its supporters at what they believe to be a 'stolen election' will no doubt be displayed at a protest rally to be held in Kuala Lumpur today, and raises questions about Prime Minister Najib Razak's future in Malaysian politics.
Photo by Flickr user World Economic Forum.