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An “Arab Spring” for Malaysia? May 5, 2013

Posted by Sverre in : Malaysia, World politics , trackback

Yes, I know. Malaysia isn’t an Arabic country, and the current Malaysian regime is far from the former regimes of Libya and Egypt. Nevertheless, today’s general election in this Muslim majority South-East Asian country could possibly be a pivotal point with several similarities to the Arab Spring, and with a peaceful transfer of power, could possibly make it a beacon for the fledgling regimes further west.

When Malaysia gained independence from Great Britain in 1957, one of the conditions for the transfer of power was that power had to be shared between the major ethnic groups: The Malays, the Chinese and the Indians. The Party Perikatan (Alliance Party), later to become the Barisan Nasional (National Alliance), was the response – a coalition of the main political organization of each of the three groups, namely United Malays National Organization (UMNO), Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). This nationalist conservative alliance, led by the UMNO has ruled the country since, with fifty years of consecutive two-third majorities in parliament until 2008, when the newly formed Pakatan Rakyat (PR) opposition alliance under the leadership of former UMNO deputy head Anwar Ibrahim seized almost half the votes (but far less than half the seats due to a first-past-the-post electoral system).

The maximum term length for the Malaysian parliament is 5 years, so the Prime Minister finally had to dissolve parliament and call for new general elections now. To name an election “historic” is an abused trope, but in this case it has all the makings for becoming a pivotal moment in Malaysian history. Either as the election where BN lost its marjority for the first time, the election where PR lost its momentum and failed to gain the majority, or something else entirely.

An “Arab Spring”?

In the heading for this post, I use the word “arab spring”, and despite all the obvious differences. My main reason for doing so is that the lines of conflict are similar, although the battleground is somewhat different, and that the forces on both sides are more moderate than what we have seen in the Middle East.

1. A long standing rather authoritarian, predominantly muslim, regime with long ties to the west stands in peril of being overthrown by the disgruntled masses.
As I said before, BN is no Ba’ath Party or Gadafi regime, but it is certainly no vanguard of liberal democracy either. There are no shortage of authoritarian traces to be found, if one dips below the surface, even if it is all wrapped in a democratic rhetoric. The press is severely censored, nepotism is rampant, draconic internal security legislation was in place until very recently and a racial “affirmative action” scheme gone haywire has given a majority ethnic group official preference both economically and socially. Anwar Ibrahim himself is the most

2. An opposition alliance of liberals, socialists and islamists have banded together with the purpose of overthrowing the sitting regime.
The PKR is an interesting mix of three parties. Anwar Ibrahim’s Party Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the People’s Justice Party has grown out of anti-government protests as a popular protest movement against nepotism, corruption and abuse of power mixed with aspects of a personality cult surrounding its leader. Policy-wise economic liberalism and a promise to abolish the “Bumiputra” affirmative action programme are the clearest contrasts to UMNO.

Next we have the democratically socialist Democratic Action Party (DAP) under the leadership of its grand old man Lim Kit Siang, a predominantly Chinese party with its root in Chinese-dominated communities like the island of Penang on the west coast.

Mixed with these two is the islamist Party Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), or the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party. Even though they may be moderate compared to the Salafists of the Middle East, they are a party working to establish their version of Sharia legislation as the basis for the judicial system, and generally work for Islamic preeminence, having much influence on the more religiously conservative and ethnically Malay-dominated east coast.

Interesting questions for the foreign observer

We of the west should be very interested in what is happening in Malaysia right now. Long have we ignored the less positive aspects of Malaysian government since it was at least somewhat democratic, and considered better than most of its neighbours and friends. I don’t think anyone should dare make a prediction about the outcome of these elections. Particularly since even a significant majority of the votes for PR won’t necessarily mean gaining a parliamentary majority. With a first-past-the-post electoral systems with single mandate districts modelled after the British system, distribution among districts can make a big difference, as we saw in the 2008 election. Rather than trying to predict the result, it would be more interesting to think about a few hypothetical scenarios, giving rise to questions like:

  1. If PR should fail to win a parliamentary majority, or BN even regain a 2/3 majority – will the democratic reform movement lose its momentum and crumble away?
    The movement was born in public protests on the streets in 1998, cracked down harshly by the sitting regime. Does the movement have enough staying power to survive a setback, or even a slow down of progress?
  2. If PR should win the election, will the sitting regime allow a peaceful transfer of power?
    This is perhaps the main test of whether Malaysia has matured to a proper democracy. Will a ruling coalition that has stayed in power for more than 60 years be willing to hand over the reins? And if they do hand over the keys to the cabinet, will government institutions and BN appointees try to cripple the new government?
  3. If PR does manage to take power, will a coalition of islamists, socialists and market liberals be able to hold, or will they collapse over policy issues?
    What has kept them together so far has been opposition to the sitting regime more than anything else. Reforming the institutions of state might keep them together, but what will happen when they need to get down to the gritty details of policy-making?
  4. If PR does win – what will happen to BN?
    Barisan Nasional is more than anything built upon the sharing of power and preserving the status quo. Will they be able to keep their supporter once they have no more power to distribute? And will a opening and liberalization of the country make lasting changes that permanently weaken them?
  5. If BN were to regain a stable majority, will we see a return to more authoritarian rule, or will the ruling coalition adapt to the reform pressure from below?
    It could tip either way, and if Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak should strengthen his position, it is difficult to tell which direction he will choose.

I won’t try to answer these questions now, but my interest in Malaysian politics has certainly been renewed, and I’ll be following what happens a lot more closely from now on. Perhaps I’ll even be able to return to updating this blog a bit more.

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