Malaysia’s dire democratic crisis

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in February 2018. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Malaysia’s dire democratic crisis

Malaysia is gearing up for its 14th general elections, to be held by Aug. 24, 2018. Its parliament is expected to be dissolved within weeks.

Prime Minister Najib Razak and his ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), are pulling out all the stops to tilt the level playing field, making them likely to win despite a strong opposition coalition led by former strongman prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Malaysia’s ruling party, the United Malays National Organization Party (UMNO), has ruled through a coalition alliance under BN for 60 uninterrupted years since the country declared independence from the British Empire.

Embattled by the 1Malaysia Development BHd (1MBD) corruption scandals and protests since 2015, Najib has managed to cling on to power by removing or buying off anyone investigating the scandal.

Najib has consistently denied channelling nearly US$700 million from 1MDB state funds to his personal bank accounts. He sacked his deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, and replaced the attorney general over critical comments both made about the scandals.

Will his coalition, BN, hold on to its majority seat shares in this general election?

The last election, in 2013, was the closest fought in the country’s history. The BN coalition’s share of the popular vote slipped to 47 per cent, but it’s holding on to 60 per cent of Malaysia’s 222 parliamentary seats.

The euphoria for liberalization in Malaysia following the 2013 election has dwindled since the leader of the opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan’s Anwar Ibrahim, was jailed for sodomy in 2014. With Anwar behind bars, Pakatan Harapan has put forward the most unlikely candidate, Anwar’s former boss and nemesis, the 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, to run against Najib for prime minister.

In this March 2015 photo, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, left, and current Prime Minister Najib Razak attend an event in downtown Kuala Lumpur. (AP Photo/Hafzi Mohamad)

What’s at stake?

Opposition forces staged protests in the capital of Kuala Lumpur in 2016 and lobbied for stronger rule of law to end impunity and corruption in Malaysia. The opposition’s support is typically concentrated in urban areas, while the BN’s support is spread across rural areas.

In this election, Malaysian states Selangor, Johor and Kedah are emerging as key battlegrounds for the opposition coalition.

Johor, once a haven for BN supporters, has seen segments of Malay voters turn against the ruling party due to rising costs of living and corruption. If the BN loses these key states, it will follow in the footsteps of former longstanding hegemonic parties such as Taiwan’s Kuomintang Party and Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party to lose dominance as the Malaysian system becomes more competitive and multi-party.

Malaysia’s elections are now among the most manipulated in the world.

Aside from restrictions on media freedom and the blocking of political blogs, the BN has used a range of tactics in the menu of manipulation such as gerrymandering, malapportionment, pork-barreling, opposition intimidation and jailing opponents to repress electoral competition.

Gerrymandering, Malaysian-style

The redrawing of electoral districts through “packing” opposition voters into a few seats or the “cracking” of opposition strongholds and absorbing them into adjoining constituencies — in the case of Beruas in Perak state —has benefitted the BN.

The gerrymandering by Malaysia’s Election Commission has also exacerbated malapportionment — meaning one electoral district has fewer voters than another but both get equal representation — and the separation of constituencies into highly populated urban areas and large, less populated rural areas.

Despite constitutional provisions that constituency sizes should be “approximately equal and not vary in size by more than 15 per cent,” this was amended to 33 per cent.

This redrawing of boundaries has led to large pro-opposition constituencies with more than 100,000 voters, while pro-BN constituencies are disproportionately small with 30 having fewer than 18,000 voters.

This means that the value of each vote changes dramatically across the country. Opposition candidates now need more votes than their BN counterparts to get elected.

Malaysia’s opposition movement, Bersih — the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections — is a civil society movement that launched in 2006. It’s submitted more than 30,000 objections to the “unconstitutional” boundary changes.

In this November 2016 photo, activists from the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH) show a placard reading Clean Election BERSIH during a rally against corruption in Kuala Lumpur. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian, File)

It has also highlighted many unfair rules and practices, such as the inclusion of “phantom voters” in the electoral rolls and allegations of indelible ink, used to prevent voter fraud, that washed off too easily in 2013 and allowed voters to cast ballots more than once.

But nothing has been done to address the objections.

As the incumbent, the BN government has dipped into state funds and announced big spending programs to curry favour with Malaysian voters.

Some recent examples include handing out cash to voters through 1Malaysia People’s Aid fund. Nearly seven million poorer Malaysians are expected to receive handouts of up to US$308 over the course of the year. Civil servants are also expected to receive special bonuses this year and more following the election.

With inflation at an all-time high and unhappiness over taxes, unemployment and wages, such pork-barreling will certainly help Razak and its embattled party win over some uncertain voters.

Global democratic crisis

Pro-democracy watchdogs like Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit have warned that democracy is facing its most serious crisis in decades.

The basic tenets that include guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press and the rule of law are under attack around the world.

Malaysia’s use of dirty politics and pre-electoral rigging to tilt the level playing field contributes to this global democratic crisis.

Despite strong opposition movements and mass calls for change, Razak and his BN coalition are likely to win the coming election. A Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research poll conducted in December predicted a decline in the BN’s overall popular vote, but suggested the ongoing rigging of the electoral system will bring about a two-thirds majority win for the incumbent.

This unfair win is likely to fracture the tenuous opposition coalition and worsen Malaysia’s disturbing retreat to authoritarianism.