Monday, October 12, 2009

Malaysia's Ruling Coalition Wins One

The fundamentalist tide appears to have washed out in a by-election Islamists hoped to win Malaysia's Barisan Nasional coasted to a convincing by-election win Sunday in a state assembly constituency about 60 km south of Kuala Lumpur, dealing a blow to the hopes of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat, which had won seven of eight previous by-elections since national elections in March of 2008.

Mohamad Isa Samad, a veteran United Malays National Organisation politician who had been suspended for three years from active party politics after being found guilty of vote-buying, won the seat by a plurality of 5.435 votes over Zulkelfy Mohd Ahmad, state commissioner for the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, who received only 2,578. As in the national parliament, the Barisan had lost its two-thirds majority in the Negeri Sembilan statehouse, with its majority falling to 21 lawmakers to 15 for the opposition.

There were some incidents of stone and bottle throwing between UMNO and PAS members, according to the Malaysian state-owned news agency Bernama. Two individuals reportedly were detained, one from UMNO and one from PAS. Nearly 82 percent of the voters turned out, which election officials described as a disappointment – although in many western democracies an 80 percent turnout would be met with gratified astonishment. The election was described as clean and fair.

There are questions about what the victory means in the wider context of Malaysian politics. Umno appears to have forgotten about its promises of party reform in picking a tainted candidate who could win after a string of electoral reverses. Isa was suspended for three years for vote-buying. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, among others, Both Razaleigh and Mahathir are regarded as largely spent forces within the party.

There was jubilation in the relatively moderate tourist town of Port Dickson. It was originally expected that the PAS candidate might win because of Isa's reputation and infighting between different Umno factions. However, the constituency is deep in
Umno territory. Pas's fundamentalist rhetoric doesn't particularly resonate here. It also numbers 4,600 absentee military and police voters considered likely to side with the government. The district has 13,600 registered voters, of which 63 percent are ethnic Malay, 21 percent are Indian and 11 percent are Chinese. The rest are of other ethnic origins.

The national coalition, which has been reeling from a long string of defeats and from perceptions of a kind of end-of-era deterioration, can breathe a sigh of relief. With the coalition mired in corruption, its only win among the previous by-elections was for a Sarawak seat with an overwhelming UMNO plurality
Among other things, the by-election was considered a test of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak's attempts to woo ethnic Indian voters back to the Barisan. He appears to have succeeded, at least in the Bagan Pinang district. Indians, who make up about 8 percent of the total population of the country, have been disaffected partly by the endemic corruption in the Malaysian Indian Congress. The Indian community overall has bothered by racial tensions stemming from Malay Muslim protests that that forced the cancellation of the relocation of the 150-year-old Sri Mahamariamman Temple to a site more convenient to them after housing estates had overtaken the onetime rubber plantation in which it had been situated. Muslim protesters paraded a severed cow's head – an insult to Hindus, who venerate cattle -- to the local town hall and dumped it in the protest.

Najib, however, has presided over the creation of the new Malaysia Makkal Sakti Party (People Power Party in Hindi) within the Barisan in a bid to bypass S. Samy Vellu, the head of the Malaysian Indian Congress, who is considered hopelessly corrupt. Najib has attended Hindu festivals and been photographed making chapattis. Almost immediately after taking office in April, he freed several leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force, or HINDRAF, who had been jailed after protest rallies turned violent last October.

If PAS had taken the seat, analysts said, it would have been a dramatic repudiation of UMNO by the voters. In seven of eight previous by-elections since the 2008 general election, the party that previously held the seat reclaimed it. In those eight elections, the Barisan won only one. In Bagan Pinang district, however, the Barisan also had on its side a vast amount of party machinery including buses to haul their voters to the polls. Big billboards praising the Barisan went up all over Port Dickson. Multi-million dollar infrastructure projects and improvements were awarded during the runup to the election and fat government projects were handed out to local contractors. The mainstream media reportedly were warned not to write about Isa's legal problems. Books accusing Opposition Leader Anwar Ibraham of selling out the Malay race were distributed by the hundreds.

By contrast, the opposition Pakatan Rakyat relied on manpower, with as many as 1,500 volunteers swarming into the district to attempt to woo candidates. Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim flew back from the United States to attend rallies on Saturday, excoriating Umno for what he called irredeemable corruption. PAS spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat also campaigned in the district. Lim Kit Siang, the leader of the Democratic Action Party, the Chinese leg of the Pakatan coalition, also came to attempt to take advantage of Chinese disgust with the foundering Malaysian Chinese Association.

Prime Minister Najib has faced a growing series of problems, not the least of which is the disarray in the other component parties in the Barisan. The MCA has been wracked by scandal over huge cost overruns in the Port Klang Free Zone west of Kuala Lumpur. That is the RM7.45 billion (US$2.12 billion) cost to turn Port Klang, the seaport 70 km. west of the capital of Kuala Lumpur, into a national transshipment hub to rival the Jebel Ali Free Zone in Dubai. Its directors say it is likely to default on billions of ringgit in loans, with the possibility, according to an auditor's report, that accumulated interest could drive the cost to a whopping RM12.45 billion. The project was handed to the MCA to shepherd to fruition. The resultant scandal has had top MCA leaders blaming each other and threatens to wreck the party.

Najib's popularity originally soared to 65 percent voter approval in July after being only 43 percent on his selection as prime minister. His strong initial showing was attributed to a series of economic reforms in which he liberalized investment rules for non-Malays and sought to woo other ethnic voters. However, voter approval by people who said they were either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with his performance has since fallen to 56 percent, according to the Merdeka Centre research firm. The economy, which is built largely on exports, has continued to suffer in the global economic downturn.

The diminutive Isa obviously allayed concerns that his vote-buying record would be a detriment to his campaign. Although UMNO had originally sought out other candidates,
UMNO rank and file members pushed for his candidacy. He proved a formidable campaigner, making 18 to 20 stops in a single day, accompanied by a Malaysian rock singer. He was willing to subject himself to any and all questions from reporters about his suspension over vote buying. By contrast, the fundamentalist Zulkelfy often appeared lost and unable to deal with the development-oriented concerns of the district. Asia Sentinel

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