The liberal democratic order is in a state of flux and chaos. As per the 2017 Freedom House report, the year 2017 marks the 12th
consecutive year of a decline in democracy. Since 2006, about 113 countries have seen a net decline in democracy across the board. A notable region that is currently experiencing deep slide is South East Asia. There have been a decline of democratic principles across the board – with authoritarian rule in Cambodia, human rights crisis in Myanmar, and a military coup in Thailand. In the context of this dismal state of democracy in Southeast Asia, where countries are desperately trying to hold on to the democratic norms and tenets of free speech, free media, fair elections and rights of minorities, the recent Malaysian election results brings a fresh dose of optimism. By successfully ending (without violence as the country experienced during the 1969 elections) the six-decade long one-party rule, the results of the 9th
May election has positively impacted the general perception of democracy in Southeast Asia, and more importantly the trajectory of Malaysian politics. The elections itself, and the events that have led up to it, have been dramatic to say the least.
The United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) had been at the helm of the Malaysian government for more than six decades. In an attempt to hold on to power, the UMNO, and the larger Barisan National Coalition had left no stone unturned. The 2018 elections saw a concerted attempt by the Najib Razak-led government to influence results in their favour. This started with the widespread misuse of independent institutions such as the judiciary, the election commission, the police and intelligence organisations in their favour. The most obvious example of this was the “Fake News” bill introduced months before elections to imprison anyone spreading “fake news”. The government was entrusted with the power to decide what counts as fake news.
This was followed by institutional and legislative manipulation by structural electoral reforms called gerrymandering. This was seen in the redrawing and alterations of electoral wards in the month of March -- two months before the election. The changes approved altered 98 out of the 165 seats in peninsular Malaysia. Then, the UMNO and BN coalition stepped up their most potent weapon of politicising the issue of race and religion in the Malaysian society – an attempt to divert and redirect attention from the allegations of corruption and malpractices the incumbent government was facing.
However, the country witnessed a climactic rise of Mahathir Mohamad and the Pakatan Harapan Party -- a messy coalition of opposition parties in 2018. Mahathir Mohamad, 92-year former prime minister, came out of his retirement to lead the rag-tag coalition to a sensational victory, ending the UNMO’s iron grip over power for 61 years. Interestingly, it was Mahathir who had led the UMNO for almost 22 years during his tenure as a Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003. What was interesting was that to unseat “corrupt” Najib government, that was badly caught up in the ‘1MBD’ scandal, Mahathir formed an alliance with his nemesis, Anwar Ibrahim – who he had jailed on the charges of corruption and sodomy. Mahathir and Ibrahim, along with Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (Ibrahim’s wife), were able to create a united front to overcome the strong opposition of the Barisan National.
The surprise victory of the Pakatan Harapan has soared the popular expectations like never before. To prevent the results of these elections from being an anomaly in the history of Malaysian politics, the new government has to run the ground fast and resolve a long list of complex and challenging tasks ahead of it.
First, the most pertinent task ahead for the new government is to deal with the large national debt, amounting to almost $251 billion.
The urgency of this task comes from the role this issue played in the campaign, as it directly affects the people. A promise for a prompt response to the increasing levels of debt had been an important pillar of Mahathir’s success; here the image of Mahathir as the architect of Malaysian economy and his role in the rapid modernisation of Malaysia played an important factor. After coming to power, the government has already started reviewing the investments and loans it is receiving – primarily from China – and has consequently decided to suspend three Chinese projects worth $22 billion. The balancing act for the government in this case is to reduce the debt without stunting economic growth, look for alternative avenues for investment beyond China, and at the same time prevent economic isolation.
The second agenda of the new government is to reorient Malaysia internationally in context of a rising China. The previous BN government had limited its international relations to its role in China and the Belt and Road Initiative. The new government has the opportunity to forge new relations and maybe even revive older ones to reintegrate Malaysia with other nations.
Consequently, the third task, linked closely with the first, is to revive domestic economic development and generate employment in accordance with the growing rate of population. Along with this is also the task of making this growth more equitable and accessible. In the present context, a small Chinese population is economically powerful, which has led to inequitable development and discontent in the Malaysian society. Coupled with the inequitable development is a large youth population (69.7 per cent) that is deeply dissatisfied with the direction of development. A red area here for Mahathir is to find an equilibrium between his economic ambition and his obligation towards strengthening democratic norms and societal change.
The fourth challenge stems from the fragile racial relations in Malaysia; which were also exploited in the electoral campaign. The underpinning of this is the structural division of the Malaysian society into three ethnicities – Malays or Bhumiputras (68%),Chinese (30%) and Indians (7%). Within these sections, the economic power is concentrated with the Chinese, while the political power is with the Malays. This fragmented division has created deep racial bias and animosity for many decades. Further, the New Economic Policy of 1971 was also developed along the lines of racial biases, which favoured the Bhumiputras by giving them access to public sector investments, subsidies and quotas in employment and education. These racial cleavages were exploited by the BN government. However, the 2018 elections was a brief moment of the country getting above the racial bias. This is indicative of the aspirations of the large young population of a race free society. However, for the government to do this is an extremely complex task.
Fifth, at the domestic front, the of this election has rattled the party system. By ending a one party rule, the process of party formation in the country is undergoing a churn. This will manifest with complex power sharing relations within the ruling party of Pakatan Harapan between Mahathir and Ibrahim, and will also see a reorientation of the Barisan National in response to the new government. It could also possibly see a rise of a new, and a third contestant, in the electoral competition of the country.
The last and the most critical challenge is the rising levels of Islamic radicalisation in the country. Along with the race card, the Barisan National also raised the religion card in its electoral campaign. This led to the parties’ support of Islamic fundamentalist leader Zakir Naik and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). To prevent further polarisation of the Malaysian society, the Pakatan Harapan government has to counter this fundamentalist ideology by knitting an alternative secular and inclusive ideological narrative, while simultaneously resisting its spread.
Being at a critical juncture in its democratic transition, Malaysia has to navigate delicately to address issues that are fundamental to the nature of the society – the fragile race relations, the role of press, minority rights, economic equity, role of justice and law enforcement. By strengthening its civil society institutions and independent institutions, the new Malaysian democratic experience can counter the rising right-wing extremism, authoritarianism and Islamic fundamentalism in the Southeast Asia region. In many ways, the Malaysian election outcome provides a fresh dose of optimism for the region’s democratic revival.
The author is a Research Intern at ORF Delhi.
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