A dubious victory for Malaysia’s government

Malaysia’s National Front made it 13 in a row, with the government of prime minister Najib Tun Razak being returned in yesterday’s election. But it was the ruling coalition’s second-worst result ever, and it exposes a deeply divided country. (See Saturday’s preview here.)

The government has won 133 seats to the opposition’s 89, a net gain of seven seats for the opposition People’s Alliance, or Pakatan Rakyat. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim last night refused to concede defeat, citing electoral fraud on the part of the government. The allegations are highly plausible – persistent reports say the ruling party was issuing fake IDs to enable non-citizens to vote – but the winning margin is sufficiently large that it’s unlikely to be attributable just to election-day malpractice.

Whether a genuinely democratic system would have given a different result is quite another question; we’ll come back to that shortly.

The election has seen an increased polarisation between rural (mostly ethnic Malay) and urban (largely Chinese) voters. The opposition gained further ground in urban areas, entrenching itself in power in the two most urbanised states, Penang and Selangor, with better than two-thirds majorities (it also held government in Kelantan but lost Kedah). But it went backwards in some of the poorer rural areas.

It’s in the government’s interests to portray this as purely an ethnic phenomenon, since the Malays have the largest share of the population: it can try to retain their allegiance while dismissing the opposition as only serving Chinese interests. It also strengthens the position of the specifically Malay part of the ruling coalition, as its non-Malay partners dwindle in support. But how much of the result is explained by ethnicity will have to wait for analysis of more detailed figures.

It does highlight the somewhat precarious nature of a government that is seriously unpopular in its major cities. When people lose faith that government can be changed by constitutional means they take to the streets, and those in the cities then carry disproportionate weight (the role of Paris in French politics through the centuries is the most obvious example). Malaysia has not reached that point, but it might be giving the government some unpleasant thoughts.

Conversely, the conservative bent of rural voters is well established. Among many instances, one might cite the 2009 presidential election in Iran, where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected – probably with fraud, but also with widespread rural support. As I put it at the time, the urban middle-class opposition supporters “were the ones who showed up on the evening news,” but the rural poor rallied to the government as they have in Malaysia.

It’s not just numbers, however, that matter. Malaysia’s electoral system is seriously gerrymandered, so the rural vote has a disproportionate weighting. We need to wait on final counting to see who actually won the most votes, but it is quite likely that, despite all the ruling party’s shenanigans, the majority of votes cast were for the opposition. (One estimate this morning gave them 50% to the government’s 49%.)

But one wonders how much we care about that. It happens regularly in Australia, both federally and at state level (most recently three years ago in South Australia), and no-one ever seems to treat those governments as less legitimate. Ditto for the current Canadian government, which was clearly rejected by the majority of voters at the last election. The tolerance for undemocratic electoral systems in the so-called democratic world (especially in the “anglosphere”) is a remarkable thing.

Add the gerrymander and the fraudulent practices to the government’s domination of the media and the campaigning rules, not to mention a tame electoral commission, and it’s a striking achievement for the opposition to get this close. It’s impossible yet to say whether it will push the government towards further democratisation or frighten it into reaction, but Malaysia’s future may well depend upon that choice.


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