It was the biggest turnout in Malaysian electoral history – 80 per cent of voters made their way to election booths all over Malaysia on 5th May. For the first time the Electoral Commission organised “postal voting” for Malaysian citizens overseas, previously only allowed for Government employees or government-sponsored scholars. It was not easy for overseas voters to cast their ballot – they had to register by the end of 2012, five months before the election date was even known, and many had to travel to specific diplomatic posts (in some cases more than 1000 kms). Many overseas Malaysians who missed the postal vote deadline decided to travel back to Malaysia to cast their votes, and within Malaysia many took the trouble to travel to their home towns to vote where they were registered.
The 13th General Election was round two of an ongoing battle by the Opposition (a coalition of PKR – the justice party, DAP – Democratic Action Party, and PAS – the Islamic party, known collectively as Pakatan Rakyat, or PR) to wrest control from the Barisan Nasional Government (BN), one of the longest serving governments in the world, having lasted more than 55 years of continuous rule. During the 12th General Election the Opposition lead by the charismatic Anwar Ibrahim made a political breakthrough, winning more than one third of parliamentary seats.
This strong result had raised expectations for the 13th General Election for many voters, as did a growing sense of frustration with BN. In the lead up to the election there were countless media items about electoral fraud and harassment including registered voters disappearing from the electoral roll, threats to deregister the DAP opposition, a mysterious invasion by a private army from the southern Philippines, fake sex videos purporting to feature Opposition figures and numerous other tactics. There were even allegations that the Malaysian Government flew in planes full of illegal voters, citizens of Bangladesh, Burma, Pakistan and other neighbours, who were given identity cards and voting rights illegally and bussed to election booths. It was as if the Government was throwing everything it had at this election, legitimate and illegitimate, in a desperate bid to stay in power.
The result was very clear before the end of the night. Although BN had lost the popular vote, winning 46 per cent of the vote compared to 51 per cent won by PR, the BN Government clearly won a majority in Parliament, 133 seats to 89. This great discrepancy is due to rampant gerrymandering. The factor of difference between some seats in the Malaysian Parliament is twenty fold – for instance, in the previous election there were some seats of only around 5,000 voters, while others may be over 100,000.
Ever more disturbing stories of fraud coloured the election night, including complaints in many areas that electricity blackouts were orchestrated during counting to allow BN to bring in boxes of votes and alter the outcome of several Federal and State seats. This happened in several states where PR had been clearly leading. In Lembah Pantai, the seat of Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter Nurul Izzah, residents took to the street to blockade police cars allegedly delivering fraudulent ballots to the counting booth, long after the polls had closed.
Alarmingly, despite winning back Government, the returned Prime Minister Najib Razak complained about a “Chinese Tsunami”, and others also suggested that Chinese voters had been ungrateful or disloyal to the Government. Although Malaysia is a fairly peaceful multi-racial country, an underlying sense of fear haunts the electorate due to deadly anti-Chinese and anti-Indian racial riots which broke out following the May 1969 elections. Prime Minister Najib’s comments allude to the fact that DAP, a multi-racial but largely Chinese party, made the biggest gains in the Parliament, while PKR and PAS support dropped in favour of BN. The Prime Minister’s comments are a provocative and troubling reminder of the country’s racial politics, and the tendency of some leaders to play races off against each other using fear, in stark conflict with the BN Government’s own official “1 Malaysia” policy for racial harmony.
It is true that Chinese (who are predominantly urban-based) voters deserted BN, but it is also true of many urban Malay voters and Malaysians of all races, indicating a divide between the urban and the rural voter, not the Chinese and the Malay voter as the BN is so desperate to claim. BN put fewer resources into contesting urban areas except for a few key ones, and specifically targeted a number of PAS and PKR seats, such as Lembah Pantai, the seat held by Nurul Izzah. It is clear that BN identified PKR and PAS as the most serious threat to BN’s natural constituency, Malay voters, and therefore continued rule. It is also worth wondering if the Malay vote for BN was as high as perceived, or whether there were significant numbers of foreign illegal voters holding identity cards fraudulently inflating those numbers as well as phantom voters.
The outcome is deeply distressing for those Malaysian voters (50 per cent of the population at least) who were anticipating a change in Government, or at least more significant gains by the Opposition. Indeed most independent polling suggested an imminent opposition win. The results of the previous election, the 12th General Elections, had excited many Malaysians and helped voters to become more engaged in the political process. It would be natural to expect many Malaysians to become disillusioned and once again “check out” of the political process with the next election five years away and the Electoral Commission deaf to allegations of electoral irregularities. A number of commentators have suggested that the PR Opposition will not win while gerrymandering is so rife. But many Malaysians seem more determined than ever to work towards change.
There is a danger for Malaysia that it will slip behind its neighbours. Not long ago, Malaysia seemed like a beacon of democracy when compared to Indonesia. Ten years later and Indonesia’s fledgling democracy has far surpassed Malaysia’s established system. It might not take long for Burma to do the same. There is every chance that due to the unprecedented levels of electoral irregularities, the perceptions of the Government’s lack of legitimacy may end up in more massive street rallies and protests, once again bringing together Malaysian of all races and all backgrounds towards one cause.