My father, Michael Leigh, is a political scientist who specialises in Malaysian politics. He’s there at present, and emails the following commentary (note to opinion editors: feel free to get in touch via me if you’re interested in an op-ed from him).
Yesterday Malaysians voted for change, shocking the leadership of a coalition that has governed Malaysia without a break ever since independence, for half a century.
The benchmark for National Government success was its maintenance of a 2/3 majority of seats in Parliament. With that majority, the Constitution may been amended at will. Using its untrammeled power, over the past 40 years the Government has fundamentally re-shaped the polity, suspended opposition state governments, abolished the independence of the Electoral Commission and declared states of emergency when its political power has been challenged. Since federation, some 650 single and 42 multiple amendments have been made to the Malaysian Constitution.
The electoral system is a first-past-the-post, winner take all, system, which serves to exaggerate the winning margin of a leading party or coalition. In 2004 the National Front reaped 91% of Parliamentary seats from 64% of the vote, in 1990 70% of seats from 53% of the national vote. In the absence of an independent electoral commission, gerrymandering has become an established art form. After removal of a constitutional requirement for equity between the size of constituencies, the discrepancy between the largest [112,224] and smallest [6,608] electorates has blown out to beyond 17:1, i.e. the value of one individualâ€™s vote can be 17 times more than another. [One of the latest constitutional amendments specified that no election result could be challenged based upon the validity of the electoral roll.]
The political landscape has changed overnight, now that the National Front Government has lost its 2/3 majority. As of the time of writing the Government has won 137 of the 222 seats in the National Parliament, the opposition has 82, with 3 yet to be decided. The combined opposition parties have also won a majority of seats in five of the state legislatures: Penang, Kelantan, Kedah, Perak and Selangor, giving those parties a real power base across the north and down the west coast of the Peninsula. The ruling party now derives its strongest support from the Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah [where it will take 51 or 52 of the 54 Parliamentary seats] and the south of the Malay Peninsula, especially the state of Johore.
Credit goes to the Peopleâ€™s Justice Party [PKR], led by Anwar Ibrahim. It was his persistence in hammering out agreements between the three major opposition parties that only one of their representatives would contest each constituency, which is absolutely essential for any hope of success in a first past the post voting system. Crucially, PKR won 30 extra parliamentary seats and was able to draw upon a multi-racial support base, and to attract urban Malay voters in a swathe of constituencies where no one race dominated the electoral arithmetic. Malaysia had been caught in a time warp of ethnicized politicking, that had always worked to the benefit of the ruling coalition.Â The National Front blanketed the electronic and printed media, stressing that it was only their coalition that could successfully protect the interests of each component race. Dissatisfied Malays could just not bring themselves to vote for the â€˜Chineseâ€™ DAP, unhappy Chinese would not vote for Party Islam [PAS], given its commitment to an Islamic state. PKR broke through that logjam by leading a loose opposition grouping, with no one of those three parties â€“ PKR, DAP and PAS â€“ itself fielding enough candidates to possibly win in their own right. Indian, Chinese and Malay voters on the Peninsula embraced the opportunity to send a strong message to the National Front Government, by voting for opposition candidates, and clearly doing so across ethnic boundaries. PKR, DAP and PAS have secured 31, 28 and 23 parliamentary seats. In 2004 those parties only won 1, 12 and 6 federal seats, respectively.
How will the National Front respond? Historical precedents worry Malaysians. They are concerned about the threat of a repeat of violence on the streets, which last happened when the ruling party lost control of the state legislature of Selangor,Â and that every possible inducement will be offered to elected legislators to leave the opposition party on which they were elected and join the National Front.
Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi will be under pressure to hand over the top leadership to his Deputy, though the latter has other clouds over his head. One month hence, as soon as he is no longer barred, Anwar Ibrahim is sure to contest a by-election in the Parliamentary seat won by his wife. As a newly invigorated Member of Parliament, he will be a thorn in the flesh to the Federal Government.
That Government, facing rising inflation, must cut the fuel subsidies that have kept the price of petrol at AUD 65 cents per litre, and are said to be costing three times total federal expenditure on health and education.Â
~ Michael Leigh, 9 March 2008