A closely contested by-election over the weekend, which saw victory for the ruling coalition, shows that the political terrain in multi-ethnic Malaysia remains divided and raises searching questions for the opposing sides.
The by-election for a seat in the Federal Parliament took place in an ethnically mixed area — Hulu Selangor, a district in central Selangor state that is fairly similar in composition to the overall population of the Malaysian peninsula.
Selangor is considered the richest state in this South-east Asian country, where 60 percent of the 28 million population consists of Muslims.
This has been quite a cynical election, noted Andrew Aeria, a political science lecturer at a local university. 'Pakatan Rakyat (the opposition People’s Alliance) has to buck up and do more leg work if they want to win elections beyond urban areas among the working classes, especially the ‘bumiputera’ (indigenous) community.
'For the (ruling) Barisan Nasional (BN), there seems to be a swing to the right wing in terms of their ethnic political discourse — and they displayed an increasing reliance on money politics to stay in power.'
The BN candidate, a newcomer from the Malaysian Indian Congress party, defeated the Pakatan heavyweight Zaid Ibrahim by a narrow 1,725 margin, wresting back the seat from the People’s Alliance, which had narrowly won in the same district in the 2008 general election.
For Prime Minister Najib Razak, much was at stake on the by-election, in particular his 1Malaysia concept, which promotes national unity, and his New Economic Model to overcome economic stagnation. The full weight of the ruling coalition’s money, machinery and media was felt in the poll, observers note.
For the Pakatan, the by-election was a test of support for the Selangor state government, which it helms, and for the People’s Justice Party (PKR), whose candidate stood in the by-election.
The by-election was called following the death of PKR’s Datuk Dr Zainal Abidin Ahmad.
Although it was just a single parliamentary seat, the psychological stakes were high. This was the tenth by-election since the last general election in 2008, and the score now reads 7-3 in favour of the Pakatan.
Pakatan parties rule four of the 13 states of the Federation and aim to capture federal power in the next general election due by 2013 or sooner.
Prime Minister Najib Razak was determined to stop the People's Alliance bandwagon from picking up more momentum.
Former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, now under trial on sodomy charges, claimed the ruling coalition had splashed more than 100 million ringgit (about 31 million U.S. dollars) in the rural district of Hulu Selangor during the campaign period to secure victory.
'We didn’t buy votes but we solve people’s problems. Those are genuine problems which have not been addressed for some time. They are really genuine,' Najib defended.
Despite the enormous resources it deployed, the ruling coalition mustered only 52 percent of the votes cast.
'The Hulu Selangor election result has shown that there is a majority of Malaysians whose vote cannot be bought and whose ideals are not in line with BN’s,' observed Lim Teck Ghee, the director of the independent Centre for Policy Initiatives, in a commentary. 'In particular, the younger voters yearn for justice, fair play and good governance — attributes which BN seems to be incapable of embracing.'
But what apparently did not work well in Pakatan’s favor, according to a party campaigner from the Islamic Party (PAS) was that voters in the rural areas of Hula Selanger 'relied heavily on the mainstream media, especially government-controlled television and newspapers.
'We had great difficulty getting through to them as they were constantly bombarded by mainstream propaganda,' he said.
Much of the Barisan Nasional’s racial rhetoric these days is being articulated by a right-wing group, Perkasa, which speaks of empowering the indigenous Malays amid rhetoric of Malay supremacy. They are backed by former premier Mahathir Mohamad.
Such rhetoric has blocked large numbers of minority groups from supporting Najib's 1Malaysia concept, which they find lacking in substance. Popular support for the Malaysian Chinese Association, once a senior partner in the ruling coalition, has plunged even as the party is embroiled in factionalism and a crisis of leadership.
As for the Pakatan, which is made up of three main parties — PKR, PAS and the Democratic Action Party — Zaid’s defeat is a blow. Many had seen him as a potential successor to Anwar.
Said a commenter on a political blog — who simply went by the name KP — on the opposition party’s defeat in Hula Selangor: 'I feel Pakatan has been overemphasising its support from the business and sub-urban/urban sections that they overlooked the fact that the proletariat and rural sections remain the majority in this country.'
'The key finding is that the Malaysian electorate remains highly polarised within ethnic communities and across generations,' observed political analyst Bridget Welsh in a post-election commentary that was published in Malaysiakini, a popular news portal.
The psychological battleground now quickly moves to the Barisan-stronghold of Sarawak state in north Borneo, where yet another by-election will be held on May 16 in the town of Sibu.
Both sides must be gearing up for what promises to be another intense battle ahead of Malaysia’s next general election.
© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service
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