Saturday February 28, 2004

Malaysia braces for snap election

By Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia - Election fever is in the air in Malaysia. Many analysts expect parliament to be dissolved in early March, with the general election to be held by the end of the month. Though the government's current term does not expire until November, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is expected to call for a snap general election ahead of party elections of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
Malaysian prime ministers have traditionally preferred to keep the general election date a closely guarded secret. In the past, this used to be an advantage. When they suddenly dissolved parliament, opposition parties would invariably be caught off guard. With a short campaign period - usually not more than 10 days - the ruling coalition would be assured of victory, especially since it controlled most of the electronic and print mainstream media, while the opposition parties would be grappling with limited campaign finances and severely limited media coverage.
But over the years, opposition politicians have wised up to the hints and signs of impending polls. So when Abdullah canceled his trip to the Group of 15 summit in Venezuela this week, speculation mounted that he would be calling for snap elections soon.
He is expected to dissolve parliament before it meets again on March 8 and elections are likely to be held a couple of weeks later. A ruling-coalition politician told Asia Times Online that once the candidates' list is finalized in the next few days, parliament could be dissolved by the end of next week.
Thursday night, Abdullah held meetings lasting 10 hours with leaders of the main component parties of the ruling coalition. The meeting was to discuss the ruling coalition's seat allocations among the various component parties and to finalize the candidates' list.
Critics point out that Abdullah is carrying on the tradition - seen in very few other democratic nations - of keeping the country guessing as to when the polls will be held until the very last moment. Guessing the date of the polls has become something of a national obsession in Malaysia and shifts the focus of the polls from the real issues.
Not that there are any real issues, if the mainstream media in Malaysia are to be believed. Nearly all the mainstream print and electronic media in Malaysia are controlled by the ruling coalition or parties friendly to it. The media have been actively infusing their readers and viewers with "feel-good" ahead of the polls.
The 5.2 percent gross domestic product growth last year was splashed across the front page in at least three major dailies. The media have also highlighted positive news from the newly launched national service scheme for school-leavers, which officials say is aimed at promoting national unity. Badawi has been portrayed as the new man in charge who is working to improve the system by wiping out inefficiency and stamping out corruption.
What's more, the top-selling English-language daily newspaper, The Star, has been flashing the ruling coalition's logo - a pair of scales - in photos in its first few pages at every opportunity it gets. Nothing has changed in terms of the mainstream media's news coverage slanted heavily in favor of the ruling coalition.
The opposition alliance's manifesto is expected to call for a repeal of repressive laws, to stipulation of a reasonable minimum wage, adequate and affordable health care, and improved personal security in the wake of a spate of violent crimes. But its demands are expected to receive little publicity in the media.
Instead, the mainstream media have been playing up cases of dozens of "prominent" members of the opposition Keadilan party defecting to UMNO. This tactic aimed at demoralizing opposition party members has been used in Malaysian election campaigns as far back as people can remember.
Angry Keadilan activists, in turn, claim that some of these defectors are virtually unknown within Keadilan and could be no longer party members. They retort that more UMNO members have joined Keadilan than vice versa - but such views never make it to the media.
The mainstream media have avoided mentioning the one person who is likely to remain a major factor in the polls: jailed ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim.
In the last general election, Anwar's ouster, which sparked reformasi, helped the opposition Barisan Alternatif alliance, especially Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), to make sharp inroads into traditional UMNO strongholds. PAS captured the east-coast state of Terengganu and easily retained power in neighboring Kelantan. The opposition alliance also gave the ruling coalition a fright in Kedah, the northern home state of then premier Mahathir Mohamad, winning close to a third of the seats there.
This time the outrage over Anwar's humiliation has eased somewhat, but lingering restlessness still prevails in the Malay heartland. Many of them feel cut off from the mainstream of development while others live barely on the poverty line.
PAS is expected to retain Kelantan easily, whereas the ruling coalition could put up some resistance in Terengganu. The PAS-led opposition state government in Terengganu is likely to remind voters that Kuala Lumpur has stopped royalty payments to the state based on offshore oil extraction and instead has been channeling some of the funds through friendly agencies to the people as "goodwill" money.
The real battles will be fought in Kedah, where PAS and Keadilan are fielding their big guns - prominent personalities - against ruling Barisan Nasional coalition figures. Keadilan will be boosted by the presence of several veteran politicians from the former Parti Rakyat, which has merged into the party - although official recognition of the merger has been withheld.
In a commentary in Friday's issue of the The Star, a columnist candidly admitted that gerrymandering of constituencies had occurred since the last general election. The Star is controlled by the Malaysian Chinese Association, the second-largest component party in the Barisan Nasional after UMNO.
"The Barisan is putting in extra efforts to win back the lost seats because gerrymandering, common in all democracies, has always benefited the ruling parties," said the writer. Such redrawing of the constituencies, along with the lopsided media coverage, is likely to hurt several opposition politicians and damage their chances.
He cited two cases involving the constituencies of the PAS secretary general and the party's former youth chief, who rely heavily on Muslim voters. In both these seats, their boundaries had been redrawn to include a sizable number of non-Muslim voters, who were previously in other constituencies.
Over in Sarawak in northern Borneo, disunity in the ranks of the ruling coalition could undermine the near total dominance of the ruling coalition in the state. Sarawak contributes a huge chunk of the ruling coalition's parliamentary seats.
The media are likely to help Abdullah to paper over the cracks in the ranks of his ruling coalition. In the final week of campaigning, the media have traditionally announced startling revelations to boost the ruling coalition's chances and undermine the opposition.
This time, some analysts predict that there will be announcements of more anti-corruption arrests of a few prominent personalities as the polls draw near. For a while now, there has been a lull, although one minister recently said that 18 high-profile cases are being investigated.
All said, the ruling coalition, using a combination of media, machinery (state apparatus) and money (via development allocations) are likely to steamroll their way to a two-thirds majority. But the real question is whether the opposition can make inroads, especially in Kedah, while retaining the two states on the east coast.
Abdullah badly needs a decisive mandate to legitimize his position as prime minister and UMNO leader ahead of the UMNO polls in the middle of the year. How strong Abdullah's position is after the polls will be determined to a large extent on how well the ruling coalition performs, especially in these three states in the Malay heartland.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"