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No change for Malaysia? January 27, 2009

Posted by Sverre in : Malaysia, World politics , trackback

badawianwarThere is a mood of anticipation over the world as Barack H. Obama (as I now understand we should call him) has taken his seat in the Oval Office. This mood of anticipation and great expectation of change is not unlike what had the opposition movement in Malaysia whipped up last year when Anwar Ibrahim made his comeback into Malaysian politics. But did change never come?

September 16 2008, the opposition movement’s new national day, was announced to be the day the roots of the Malaysian establishment would shake and mass defections from the government coalition would be announced. The blogging community and opposition coalition leaks had the tally at more than 30 MPs ready to jump sides, and the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition ready to sweep in and take power. But the day came and went with out much of the announced ruckus. Certainly no mass defections.

Within the UMNO ruling party change appeared to be brewing with a struggle for future leadership as the unpopular Abdullah Badawi reluctantly announced he would hand over power. But the great power struggle died in round 1, as the nomination process showed overwhelming support for the favourite, and no other candidate was able to get the required nominations. No surprises, no great change.

So did no change ever come, and has the opposition movement lost its momentum? I’m not so sure. Change might not come as fast as what many people had hoped and Anwar seemed to promise. The boldness of the first months might have needed to be tempered somewhat. I don’t think we’ll see anything like the colour revolutions just yet. That option passed with the September 16 deadline.

There has however been some movement. 2008 did see some important events that didn’t go in favour of the political establishment. The great landmark was the general election in which the Barisan Nasional ruling coalition lost its 2/3 parliament majority for the first time in the history of the young country. Then two much publicized by-elections have turned out in the favour of the opposition. A few defections there has been as well, most recently last week in Perak where a key parliament member switched sides.

Also, Abdullah Badawi has not been the defence player Mahathir once was. His feeble efforts at stopping Anwar from reentering the parliament, censoring online criticism and other issues have not been charactericed by the same decisiveness with which Mahathir cracked down on Anwar in 1998. He has simply not been able to apply the authoritarian measures of his predecessor with the same effectiveness. Election results and other signs seem to indicate that public support is slipping, and UMNO’s efforts to regain it just don’t have the punch they need to.

These are all among the things adding credibility to the opposition, and it looks like Anwar and his compatriots have been able to build the most credible opposition block Malaysia has yet seen. Not fulfilling outrageous promises of seizing power right away doesn’t seem to have killed the movement at the outset, but will they be able to avoid disilusionment and apathy as the months go?

It will also be interesting to see what happens when Abdullah Badawi steps down from power. Can the new UMNO leadership under Najib Razak bring the initiative back to the Barisan Nasional coalition, or will the game be kept on their half of the court?

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