Malaysia votes tomorrow in a general election for both the federal parliament and twelve of the 13 state parliaments (Sarawak is the exception – its dates are out of alignment). There’s not much doubt that it will be the most interesting election in the country’s 55-year history.
In form, Malaysia has always been a democracy, but in reality it has been run as a one-party state. The governing National Front, or Barisan Nasional, has never been defeated and has maintained its hold on power through a variety of shady practices. Freedom House’s report on the country is well worth a read.
In the last election, in 2008, the government for the first time since 1969 lost its two-thirds majority in parliament, winning 140 seats to 82 for the opposition People’s Alliance. If it were not for the gerrymandered electoral system it would have been much closer than that, since in votes cast the two sides were almost even: 51.4% for the government and 47.8% for the opposition. If the whole electoral process had been fair, there seems little doubt that the opposition would have won comfortably.
The opposition also won control of five state governments, although it subsequently lost one through defections.
The National Front’s poor performance led to a change in leadership, with Najib Tun Razak becoming prime minister. He promised reform and democratisation, but little seems to have changed, partly due to resistance within his own party; the Economist last year described him as “a well-intentioned man [who] has reformed just enough to alienate his own party and too little to convince the centre ground.”
But whether or not the prime minister is really a closet liberal, he needs to take responsibility for the fact that his government still behaves like an autocracy. Voters who are serious about reform have good reason not to trust the National Front. Its detention and expulsion of Australian senator Nick Xenophon earlier this year was just one more sign that this particular leopard has not changed its spots.
The Australian media seem to care only marginally more about democracy in Malaysia than the Australian government, but there have been a few good reports around. Start with Hari Raj’s story in yesterday’s Crikey, which provides an excellent summary with some very useful links. Fairfax’s Lindsay Murdoch has also filed some interesting reports, such as this one yesterday on one of the government’s vote-rigging strategies.
Also don’t miss a piece in On Line Opinion by Wai Kiong Chan and Shona Leppanen-Gibson; they observe that “The significant gains that the Opposition made at the  General Election completely reshaped the Malaysian psyche regarding the electoral system. There has been a fresh and renewed interest in all things political and a scrutiny and expectation of transparency that would have seemed unthinkable a decade ago.” Al-Jazeera’s report makes some similar points.
The most nagging question about the election is one that everyone hopes we won’t have to answer: what happens if the government declares itself the winner on the basis of obvious electoral fraud? Interviewed last Wednesday on Lateline, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was asked what would prevent him from winning and replied baldly “Massive fraud.” He went on to describe Australia’s failure to send observers as “baffling”: “Why do you make so much noise about Iraq or Afghanistan or Myanmar and mute it with regard to Malaysia?”
But of course that’s completely consistent with Australia’s record in the region. Our standard practice is to treat Malaysia and Singapore, and even Vietnam and China, as if they were just normal countries, with rarely a word of criticism for their lack of democratic process – just as we previously turned a blind eye to dictators like Ferdinand Marcos and General Suharto.
If fraud is not enough, and Anwar emerges tomorrow as prime minister of Malaysia, it will represent a sea change in the region. But if the regime tries to hold on by illicit means, Australia may once again be put on the spot.