Thursday, February 16, 2012

Political tensions escalate in Malaysia

With elections expected to be held in Malaysia this year, there is reason for concern that tensions could rise in the event of a close result — and a misstep by either side could lead to violence.

National elections have to take place by March 2013, but Prime Minister Najib Razak has indicated that they could likely be sooner.

The ongoing sodomy case against the leader of the opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, has cast a shadow over the whole political process. The case was thrown out of court on 9 January 2012, but a mere 10 days later the attorney general announced the prosecution had lodged an appeal, thus ensuring the case will continue to cast a pall over the country’s political proceedings, generate increased tensions and tarnish the prime minister’s efforts to be seen as a reformer.

The decision to appeal negates some of the good press that Najib had received over the acquittal and a range of reforms he has introduced in recent years, including the repeal of the Internal Security Act that allowed for detention without trial.
The appeal also puts Prime Minister Najib and his coalition, Barisan Nasional, on the back foot, as many Malaysians and most international observers saw the original case against Anwar, and now the appeal, as politically motivated.

By lodging the appeal, the attorney general has given a new fillip to the opposition Pakatan Rakyat. This loose coalition of three parties, headed by Anwar, surprised the pundits in the 2008 election by garnering a third of the national vote and gaining control of five of Malaysia’s 13 state legislatures. If the government had not appealed Anwar’s acquittal, Pakatan Rakyat’s diverse coalition parties would have needed to present a common front on the issues most worrying Malaysians today:
the economy, inequality, crime, inflation, immigrant workers and corruption.

Instead they have been offered a stick with which to beat the Barisan Nasional government. The governing coalition — and its earlier incarnation, Parti Perikatan — has been in power continuously for over 50 years and there is a serious likelihood that if an election were held tomorrow, its majority in the national assembly would decline.

Malaysia is no stranger to civil unrest: demands for electoral reforms triggered riots as recently as July 2011 and, in recent years, there have been periodic eruptions of ethnic and religious strife, reflecting deep fault lines in Malaysian society. The dramatic events surrounding the Anwar trial, the as-yet-incomplete process of electoral reform, together with increasingly confrontational rhetoric, will only fuel tensions that have been building in Malaysia over the past few years.

The government must contribute to building confidence in the political process in order to prevent violence in the election build-up and immediate aftermath. It is also critical that the campaign centre on proposals to address pressing social and economic issues; but it remains to be seen whether Najib can incorporate these issues into his reform agenda.

Vikram Nehru is Senior Associate in the Asia Program and Bakrie Chair in Southeast Asian Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

A version of this article was first published here by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.East Asia Forum

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