Election preview: Malaysia

Malaysia goes to the polls today in an election, or perhaps “election”, that is expected to return the ruling party to power – just like the last 13 have.

In our currently bleak geopolitical outlook, it’s just one more piece of dispiriting news to note how the tone of coverage on Malaysia has shifted. Two or three years ago, the travails of prime minister Najib Razak were driving hopes that change might finally be on the way. But as the election approached, that optimism seemed to give way to a sense of resignation.

To see why, start with my analysis of the last election, in 2013. It explains how the opposition, with a clear if narrow majority of the popular vote, could nonetheless only manage 89 seats out of 222. If you didn’t know that Malaysia was a former British colony, you would probably still guess from its awful electoral system.

Since then, Najib has been subject to ever more credible charges of corruption, to the extent that his predecessor, the 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, has emerged from retirement to lead the opposition Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope. His deputy, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, is the wife of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who would no doubt be freed in the event of an opposition victory.

For a time, it seemed as if this union of old enemies was set to upend Malaysian politics. And it still might. Opinion polls have the opposition very much within striking distance.

But the governing National Front, or Barisan Nasional, has not been idle. Its usual pork-barrelling and appeals to ethnic chauvinism have been reinforced by two favorable developments: the main Islamist party, the PAS, has deserted the opposition alliance and is standing on its own as a third force; and a redistribution has made the existing gerrymander even worse, with suggestions that the government could retain its majority with as little as a third of the vote.

It’s not just the boundaries, either. The government-controlled electoral commission has used a variety of dirty tricks to prevent opposition candidates from standing and to put others at a disadvantage. And the novel move of holding the election on a Wednesday is designed to depress turnout and make the opposition’s task harder.

So while an upset is still possible, Najib seems to be well placed. At best, the opposition may do well enough to give the PAS the balance of power – and while for now the Islamists seem willing to support the government, it’s quite likely they would be as unreliable an ally for Najib as they have been for the opposition.

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