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Malaysia: it was never about the election

By Murray Hunter - posted Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Almost 11 million voters in the largest turnout in the history of Malaysian elections gave their verdict in what was effectively a five year campaign since the so called "tsunami" of 2008. There has been a general aspiration for change within the country, reflected in the fact that the Pakatan Rakyat opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim won the popular vote. But through the electoral system of "first past the post" voting, this didn't translate into a Federal parliamentary majority, with the election being won by an eroded Barisan National (BN) led by NajibTun Razak.

It is extremely difficult to find any real winners in the results which dripped out from Malaysia’s Electoral Commission late Sunday night and early Monday morning. However, somewhat surprisingly, one could be Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. Najib ran ahead of his party and managed to hold the state of  Perak, preserve a majority in Negeri Sembilan, Terengganu and Pahang against an opposition onslaught. He also managed to win back Kedah through the clever tactic of sending Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of the long-serving Prime Minister into the fray.

The United Malays National Organization, the biggest ethic party in the Barisan, needs reform and there is no one in sight who can drive it. Failing to reform will lead UMNO to inevitable extinction within two general elections. The biggest problem is that the party may not want to reform itself. It is evident that Najib over the last few years hasn't been able to firmly steer UMNO into the directions he wanted to go, and his agenda has been hijacked by the likes of the Malay nationalist NGO Perkasa, doing great damage. For these reasons perhaps he should not take total blame


In this light, Najib could be saved from a sudden political death, as there is really nobody within close range to the current leadership who has the necessary charisma, innovation and goodwill to make the necessary reforms. Going against all pundits, Najib may survive. Toppling him now for his deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, could lead to very costly rifts in UMNO, which the party may not be able to afford. Any change in the current leadership would most probably signal that UMNO will steer to the conservative right, counterintuitive to what the electorate might be saying.  It was UMNO moderates such as Khairy Jamaluddin and Shahrir Samad who profited in the election.

Federally, the opposition won 22 new seats, but with loses only gained a net seven seats, with the new Parliament comprising 133 Barisan Nasional to 89 Pakatan Rakyat seats. Pakatan also lost ground, losing the state government of Kedah.

Notably Parti Islam se-Malaysia Vice President Mohamad Sabu, considered to be a modernizer for PAS, lost the Pendang parliamentary seat in Kedah. Pakatan Rakyat also failed to make any gains in neighboring Perlis, even though it believed it had a chance of doing so. The opposition coalition narrowly failed to regain the Perak state government which it lost through defections in 2009, with the Barisan winning 31 to Pakatan 28 seats. In addition the opposition just failed to win the state government in Terengganu where many commentators believed that Pakatan would have to win if it had any chance of winning the Federal government. Pakatan Rakyat also failed to wrest Negri Sembilan from the BN, with PAS losing all of the 10 seats it contested.

The Barisan had a number of casualties. DAP veteran Lim Kit Siang trounced Johor Chief Minister Abdul Ghani Othman in Johor, and the Melaka Chief Minister Mohd Ali Rustam, trying to move to the federal parliament was defeated. Federal Territories Minister Raja Nong Chik Zainal Abidin failed in his bid to win the urban seat of Lembah Pantai in Kuala Lumpur from the PKR incumbent Nurual Izzah Anwar. A cabinet minister in Sabah Bernard Dompok, and VK Liew in Sandakan both lost. Yong Koon Seng in Sarawak also lost his seat of Stampin. This has given Pakatan Rakyat a new front in East Malaysia where they now hold three parliamentary seats and 11 state seats in Sabah, and picked up six parliamentary seats in Sarawak.

The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) went from 15 seats to 6 federally, and to only 10 state seats, although they contested 37 parliamentary and 90 state seats. Gerakan now only has one seat in the parliament. The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) won only four out the nine seats it contested. The Barisan is effectively a bumiputera government with little Chinese or Indian representation.

The two ultra Malay Perkasa candidates, Ibrahim Ali in Pasir Mas Kelantan and Zulkifli Noordin in Shah Alam, Selangor both lost to Pakatan Rakyat candidates, indicating that the electorate is not in favor of extreme politics.


The Democratic Action Party (DAP) is probably the exception. It has made massive gains both state and federally, making great inroads and winning many seats in the urban areas of Penang, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, Seremban, Melaka and in Johor. It has consolidated its position in holding Penang, and is now the biggest party in the opposition with 38 seats. This is in contrast to both PAS and PKR, which both lost federal seats.

From the Pakatan perspective, winning government from the 2008 base was probably too ambitious. Rarely can any opposition in a Westminster system make such gains in one election, and it is easy to forget the dissatisfactions back in 2008 with the Barisan that led to that result. Therefore making further electoral gains was not going to be easy, except perhaps in areas like Johor, Sabah, and Sarawak, which hadn't been focused upon before.

From this reasoning perhaps Pakatan lost the election back in 2008 by not choosing to consolidate what it had won, and to pursue gaining government so vigorously. Where Pakatan ran effective and efficient governments they gained, in Kedah, where internal problems were perceived, the state was lost, just as Pakatan lost Terengganu back in 1999.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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