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The Great Divide

Date: 06 Dec 1999
Time: 02:42:12


The Great Divide For the first time, a Malay government faces a Malay opposition By SANGWON SUH and ARJUNA RANAWANA Kuala Lumpur

Muslim voters line up to cast their ballots. The Nov. 29 polls pitted a well- organized government against a unified opposition.

At first glance, it looks like a clear-cut victory for Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. His ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition won 148 seats in the 193- member Parliament. The opposition Barisan Alternatif (BA) managed just 42, far fewer than the 65 needed to break BN's two-thirds majority. As the numbers came in on the night of the vote, the mood at Mahathir's election headquarters in Kuala Lumpur quickly became celebratory. The jubilant PM told his cheering supporters: "Clearly, Barisan Nasional is the party of choice for the people of Malaysia."

Except that it is not so simple. From the outset, the Nov. 29 polls - Malaysia's 10th general elections - were eagerly watched and analyzed. Compared with 1995 , when BN romped home by a landslide, there were a few more factors to consider this time, including Asia's financial crisis and the political fallout from the ouster and jailing of former deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim. The added complexity of the equation is apparent when one digs deeper into the results. It's not just that BN saw its majority trimmed or that the opposition took the state of Trengganu or that a number of prominent BN candidates lost their races. What is really significant about the various outcomes of the elections is that they collectively mark a major shift in the country's political landscape.

But first, the raw facts and figures. BN reaffirmed its grip on power with it s 148-seat haul - a smaller figure than the 166 it held before Parliament was dissolved but still enough to retain the two-thirds majority necessary for amending the Constitution. In terms of actual votes, BN won 57%, down from 65% in 1995. The coalition's key component, Mahathir's United Malays National Organization (UMNO), saw its share of seats fall from 94 to 72. Its Chinese partners, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Gerakan, delivered a healthy portion of the Chinese vote, with the former winning 27 out of the 35 seats it contested. BN's biggest success came in the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, where it won 45 out of 48 seats.

On the BA side, the biggest winner was Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas), which accounted for 27 of the 42 seats won by the alliance and is now the leading opposition party. The former holder of the title, the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), won 10 seats, while Parti Keadilan Nasional grabbed five. Pas was also successful in the state elections, which were held simultaneously in 11 states in peninsular Malaysia. It not only retained control of Kelantan, previously the only state under opposition rule, but wrested Trengganu from BN hands.

Mahathir was easily re-elected to his Kubang Pasu seat in Kedah, though his winning margin shrunk from 17,226 in the 1995 elections to 10,138. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, wife of Anwar and leader of Keadilan, won in her husband's constituency of Permatang Pauh, Penang. But DAP secretary-general Lim Kit Siang and his deputy Karpal Singh both lost their races. On the government side, the big casualties were four cabinet members, including Domestic Trade Minister Megat Junid Megat Ayob, plus Trengganu chief minister Wan Mokhtar Ahmad. Potential future PM Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who was charged with winning Kelantan back for BN, failed to deliver and was the only BN candidate to win his seat in that state. Najib Tun Razak, another possible successor to Mahathir, came through in his Pekan constituency in Pahang - but only barely, with a razor-thin majority of 241.

What do all these results mean? One interpretation might be that they represent a "win some, lose some" outcome for both sides, but with BN coming off better. Indeed, while BN supporters were celebrating, opposition members - with perhaps the exception of Pas - were hardly in a jubilant mood, even though they had doubled their share of parliamentary seats. "With a united opposition, for Mahathir to win two-thirds is a feat," says Ramon Navaratnam, director of the Asia Strategy and Leadership Institute. "This will give him the mandate to carry on with his economic program and debunks the theories of many foreign observers who said that Mahathir was bad for the country."

It might be, however, a little simplistic to view the results as a resounding endorsement of Mahathir's policies. While BN's solid track record in promoting economic development no doubt played a role, the government had another card up its sleeve: its huge propaganda machine. In the run-up to the polls, Malaysians were treated to all sorts of pro-BN, anti-BA messages in the state-controlled media, including newspaper ads equating Anwar supporters with violence and instability and a TV commercial saying that Wan Azizah herself did not trust her husband. There were even videotapes in circulation that made Anwar out as having multiple bisexual affairs. The tapes showed "confessions" by several men with whom Anwar allegedly had sex. (BN wasn't the only one slinging mud, of course. Oppositionists likened Mahathir to, among others, Satan, and Anwar hinted that the PM had a mistress hidden in Singapore. But BA had no answer to the sheer omnipresence of BN's messages.) "This sort of personal attack has been used before," comments media analyst Zaharom Nain. "However, the level of the attacks, the saturation of the media and the language used have never been so base."

The polls may have been dirty in more ways than one. Pemantau, a grassroots election watchdog, has reported receiving complaints from the public regarding the electoral roll. Some complainants claimed to have found names of long-dead relatives on the list, while others reported seeing their ID numbers with another person's name. Bangkok-based Asian Network for Free Election also reported evidence of "phantom voters," though it refrained from rejecting the results outright. "What we can infer is, there was a systematic attempt to organize the voter registration in a way it will favor the victory of certain parties," said group member Sunai Phasuk. Wan Ahmad Wan Omar of the Election Commission admits there were problems with the electoral roll but denies any dark motives: "Most of the mistakes that appear are data entry errors."

Oppositionists have complained about the irregularities, but Lim, for one, refuses to blame his party's relatively poor showing solely on alleged electoral fraud. "While phantom voters were one cause, they were not the single most important reason for the result," he says. "Throughout the country, we failed to convince the Chinese population that the DAP's involvement with BA was not to bring about an Islamic state but to further the cause of justice and to deny BN its two-thirds majority, the basis for its political hegemony. "

It is a point well made, for it brings up a crucial element in BN's victory: the Chinese vote. In the past, the Chinese - Malaysia's second-largest ethnic group - have tended toward the opposition. But this time many were clearly spooked by the DAP's alliance with Pas, whose conservative Muslim agenda, which includes introducing Islamic hudud laws, are a turn-off for non-Muslims . Coupled with dire government warnings on opposition-inspired unrest, this steered the majority of Chinese voters toward BN's message of political and economic and racial stability.

Which is just as well for the government. Had it not been for the huge Chinese swing, which exceeded BN's most optimistic forecasts, the ruling coalition's goose would have been truly cooked. The Anwar saga had divided the majority Malay community, and this manifested itself in the elections. Traditionally the bedrock of UMNO support, Malay Muslims went over to the opposition in droves, as seen in Pas's takeover of Trengganu and its inroads in other northern Malay-belt states. In areas around Kuala Lumpur, where pro-Anwar sentiments are strong, political analyst Charles Santiago estimates that up to 70% of Malays voted for the opposition.

Keadilan was another beneficiary of the Malay split. It may have won just five seats, but it received 11% of the total vote and came close to defeating BN in a number of seats. In constituencies near the capital, "they lost to BN on a margin that is less than 5%," says political scientist A.B. Shamsul. UMNO leaders now predict Pas will dump Keadilan - "Pas used Keadilan only to gain seats," says Deputy PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi - but Pas officials insist they will not break up the alliance. Despite Pas's success, Shamsul thinks that Keadilan will emerge as the more credible rival to UMNO: "Pas is not a long-term credible alternative for the Malays, because they need a secular party to vote for."

BN may have won for now, but it is not out of the woods just yet. Mahathir's reliance on the Chinese will change the political equation within the coalition. The MCA and Gerakan, given their role in attracting the Chinese vote, are likely to demand a bigger say in the way the government is run. "It is clear that the MCA has delivered the votes and the Chinese have voted this government into power," says Ng Yen Yen, head of the MCA's women's wing. "I hope this is considered and given political expression when the government is formed." Mahathir thus faces two choices: give the Chinese more clout in the cabinet (which means a corresponding loss of UMNO's own influence and a possible backlash from Malay members) or don't (which will likely anger the Chinese and give the DAP an issue to exploit).

Then there is the uncertainty over who will succeed Mahathir. Abdullah, Razaleigh and Najib were seen as possible heirs apparent. But Razaleigh's failure to deliver Kelantan and Najib's own close-call re-election have weakened their positions. Abdullah has fared best, successfully holding off the DAP in Penang. Shamsul thinks the PM might appoint two deputies as he slowly relinquishes his duties: "Abdullah to handle the social issues and Razaleigh to take over matters close to his heart - that is, financial management and the entrepreneurial side of the government." That, however, could open the door to a bruising succession battle once Mahathir retires.

The ramifications of the Malay split go beyond BN and UMNO's internal politicking. Previously, the government-opposition divide was one between Malay-dominated UMNO and the Chinese-dominated DAP. But now that Pas is the main opposition party, "we have a situation where for the first time we have a Malay-dominated government and a Malay-dominated opposition," notes political columnist James Wong Wing On. Says Abdul Azim Zabidi, a member of UMNO Youth's executive council: "We now see a strong emergence of Islamic fundamentalism," which could rattle investors.

A day after the vote, The Sun newspaper, which is owned by Chinese business interests, editorialized: "Pas's comprehensive victory in Kelantan and Trengganu and the significant inroads it has made in Kedah and elsewhere are signs of a dissatisfied, protesting Malay multitude." It added: "A divided Malay community is a confused community, and a confused community cannot be a confident community. Therein lies the threat to our national unity." The point of the editorial might have been to simply point to the potential dangers lying ahead. Or it might have been to castigate those who voted opposition for bringing about a destabilizing situation. It might even have been to use the specter of divided Malays to give BN's Chinese components more bargaining clout when the new government is being formed.

Whatever its purpose, the editorial underlined a new reality: the Malay divide has changed - perhaps irrevocably - the political landscape. And with both the government and the opposition laying claim to the allegiance of the same majority, the fight for Malaysia's future looks to become more intense in the days ahead.

Last changed: December 06, 1999