Is this latest defeat the end of the road for Anwar Ibrahim, ask Hamish Mcdonald and James Giggacher.
It was billed as the closest election race in Malaysia’s history. A battle royale between the world’s longest-ruling elected coalition, Barisan Nasional, and reformist great hope – Anwar Ibrahim and his three-party Pakatan Rakyat alliance.
Six years of political agitation from the ‘Bersih’ movement, calling for free and fair elections, as well as newly engaged youth, pan-ethnic coalitions, 50-50 splits in the polls, and the chatter from Twitter and other social media, all gave the sense that finally it was Anwar’s time.
But, what was the hope of millions in the late hours of Sunday night faded in the early hours of Monday morning. While eroded, the immovable mountain of Malaysian politics, Barisan, was still standing – or at least its core party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
With Barisan Nasional winning 133 seats to Pakatan’s 89, Anwar and the push for change were once again sidelined. Questions are now being asked about his and the opposition’s future.
“The most important question is what Anwar Ibrahim should do” says Greg Lopez, a Malaysia analyst from the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. “He promised that this would be his last election, and he would leave after contesting it.
“But there is no one in the opposition coalition who matches his stature. The second most senior leader would be Abdul Hadi Awang, leader of the Islamist party PAS. Whether he is acceptable [to the other Pakatan Rakyat parties] is unknown.”
Lopez also points out that there is no senior member in the coalition’s third member, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), based on ethnic Chinese support, who can straddle the divide.
“So it may be a case that Anwar remains to have one last go at the next election. He is, unfortunately for Malaysia, irreplaceable,” Lopez says.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that Anwar’s party, PKR, won only 30 seats, compared to coalition partners DAP and PAS’s 38 and 21 seats.
But the fight is not quite over. Citing blatant cases of electoral fraud in Sunday’s election, Anwar is trying to take the fight from the booths to the courts and the streets, calling for mass demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur. Thousands of Malaysians dressed in black gathered overnight.
DAP leader Kit Liang has also called into question the validity of 30 seats won by Barisan Nasional.
The election winner, Prime Minister Najib Razak, is also at risk. Although he led Barisan Nasional to overall victory, for the first time in the coalition’s history it failed to secure a majority of the popular vote. He also failed to regain the two-thirds majority in parliament lost in the previous election; a margin which allows constitutional changes to be made.
“Since he has failed the only honourable thing for him to do is resign,” says Lopez. “He has never had any legitimacy, because he took over from (predecessor) Adbullah Ahmad Badawi mid-term.
“He has used his personal popularity to lead Barisan Nasional, so the strategy that he has taken was presidential style. And if this reduced majority is any indication it means that Malaysians have not welcomed him, because the [UMNO] expectation was that he would deliver a two-third majority.”
Razak’s fate will most likely be decided in November, when UMNO holds its annual meeting.
In the meantime, widespread claims of fraud have cast a stain – more permanent than the indelible ink used to mark voters’ fingers on Sunday – on Barisan’s win.
Anwar’s assertions that the election was the “worst electoral fraud in our history” have unsurprisingly been backed by Bersih [the name means “clean”], which described the 13th general election since independence from Britain in 1957 “as the dirtiest ever”.
Reports from the ground back up the claims. Meredith Weiss, a researcher from the State University of New York at Albany, was monitoring the election campaign as part of a research project funded by the Australian National University. “The 13th general election has been fraught not just with the usual misdemeanours, but also with allegations that suggest a deeper than ‘normal’ malaise and real cause for concern with the system,” wrote Weiss on the ANU blog New Mandala.
“Today—election day— has been punctuated most notably by calls of Bangladeshis, Indonesians, Filipinos, and other migrant workers, allegedly gifted with identity cards, then transported by the plane load to wherever their votes (for Barisan Nasional of course) are most needed.”
In addition to fly-in voters, Weiss also points to instances of vote-buying, campaign spending by Barisan well above the limits set by Malaysia’s Election Commission, and gifts in the forms of laptops, wheelchairs, bags of rice and even diapers.
But among reformist Malaysians there is a sense that while it didn’t happen this time around, change is coming. “No matter what the final outcome of this election, things [in Malaysia] will never be the same again,” says Josh Neoh, a Malaysian-born law academic based at ANU. “For the first time, Malaysians can imagine a different way in which Malaysia can be run. That possibility is sufficient to inspire and excite Malaysians.”
Teckwah Tan, an ANU master’s student, says that while Barisan’s victory is “more of the same, it is the death of the status quo”. With voter turnout reaching 80 per cent, there is a growing political consciousness in Malaysia. In his mind, elections are very real political contests that all Malaysian are engaged in.
“For opposition-supporting Malaysians, there remains hope in their quest to end Barisan Nasional’s grip on the Malaysian state,” Tan says. “Without reinvention after this victory, the government’s mandate will be a shaky one. The price of victory may be more than it can afford.
“As Malaysia’s last ethnic based party and the dominant member of the governing coalition, the United Malays National Organisation will have to justify its own existence in the next election.”
Hamish McDonald is Journalist in Residence and James Giggacher is Asia Pacific Editor at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.