The world pays little attention to Malaysia. But on May 5, it should. That is the day that Malaysia’s 13 million voters, of whom 20% are casting ballots for the first time, will choose a new parliament and decide their nation’s future.
Without question, these will be the most important elections in Malaysia’s history, as well as the closest and most hard-fought. For the first time, there is a strong and united opposition, and Malaysia’s voters have a genuine choice. Voter enthusiasm is high, and both government and especially opposition rallies are attracting people in the tens of thousands.
A Clear Choice
The policy differences between Barisan Nasional (BN), the coalition that has ruled the nation for an unbroken 55 years, and the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR), are clear.
In Malaysia’s early years, BN served the nation well. It brought economic progress, stability, and a certain level of democracy. But like other political parties around the world that stayed in power for decades on end, it lost its sense of purpose and national service. Too many of its leaders became concerned primarily with jockeying for power and using their positions to help themselves and their family and friends get rich.
After 55 years in power, BN leaders, starting with Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, now speak of reforming the system that they created and from which they have benefited. While there have been some modest steps, there is strong resistance to change, especially within BN’s dominant party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). UMNO’s professed goal for decades was to help the majority Malay population through race-based affirmative action programs. But the results have fallen short of the promises: after four decades of effort, the Malay majority still earns less and is less educated than the Chinese minority. Income inequality among the Malays actually has increased in recent years, as the benefits go primarily to the chosen few.
The opposition Pakatan Rakyat is led by Anwar Ibrahim, who is known around the world as a moderate Islamic democrat. PR has a long list of changes it says it will make. It promises to end corruption; restore the neutrality of the police, public service, and information media; and expand political freedom. Perhaps the most important pledge — and to many Malays, the most controversial — is to change from a race-based to a needs-based affirmative action program.
The opposition is an unlikely coalition of Malay, Indian, and Chinese Malaysians and includes an Islamist party that advocates sharia law. But the opposition coalition as a whole represents Anwar’s view of Islam — tolerant, moderate, and willing to grant freedom to others to practice their religions. Anwar truly believes that Malaysia can be a global model for an Islamic democracy that brings prosperity and justice to all its citizens, regardless of race or religion. Indeed, he believes that as a Muslim, it is his duty to do so.
The political momentum clearly is with the opposition, and the ruling party is on the defensive for the first time. The Government, however, has many advantages, including control of the media and the election commission. There also is a major imbalance in the size of electoral districts, which favors the BN. The government is not expected to go easily, and there are major concerns about electoral fraud.
If the opposition comes to power, it will face a difficult challenge in learning to govern a system that has known only one set of rules and leaders. There are other examples around the world, from Taiwan to Japan to Mexico, of opposition parties that finally come to power but have difficulty governing. So even if the opposition wins, the road ahead will be a tough one.