Losing primacy

Published : Apr 11, 2008 00:00 IST

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. His party failed to win the two-thirds majority it usually enjoyed.-BAZUKI MUHAMMAD\REUTERS

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. His party failed to win the two-thirds majority it usually enjoyed.-BAZUKI MUHAMMAD\REUTERS

The National Front returns to power, but with a reduced majority, in the elections which saw a qualitative shift from race-based politics.

THE depleted ozone layer of pluralism in Malaysias political atmosphere has been restored significantly. Viewed in this perspective, the results of the March 8 snap general elections should not destabilise the upscale developing country, which still needs to address the economic and ethnic issues relating to its long-term future.

Unsurprisingly, Malaysia was caught in an almost surreal crisis soon after the results showed that Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi lost his 90 per cent parliamentary majority and failed to even secure a two-thirds majority in the 222-member House of Representatives. His Malay-dominated governing Barisan Nasional (B.N.), or the National Front coalition, long used to securing the two-thirds figure as a benchmark, got 140 seats, a tally just short of the high index. This meant that the B.N. had lost its springboard for constitutional activism.

No less important was the fact that a cluster of coordinating Opposition parties, not formally a unified group, won the remaining 82 seats. Thus, for the first time since the countrys independence in 1957, the Opposition parties, given their new collective tally and tactics, are expected to make their presence felt in Parliament. Above all, the B.N. suffered a stinging setback at the grass-roots level, losing four of the 12 States that went to the polls and failing to gain control of another State Assembly that was long held by the radical Opposition outfit, the pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). In sum, this aspect of the poll results as also the B.N.s loss of a two-thirds majority in the Lower House of Parliament led to calls for Abdullahs resignation. The chorus of protests on these lines was led by Mahathir Mohammad, former Prime Minister and at one time Abdullahs mentor.

As a controversial but charismatic thought leader in three different but somewhat overlapping areas the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organisation of Islamic Conference Mahathir was already well known. Abdullah, though not without friends on the international stage, found it hard to deflect Mahathirs criticism on the home front.

In the event, Abdullah managed to rally support from within the ranks of the newly elected Members of Parliament. But his failure to name a new Cabinet for at least a week after he was sworn in on March 10 for a second successive term showed that his work was well and truly cut out. Abdullah first succeeded Mahathir as Prime Minister in a smooth transfer of power within the B.N. hierarchy, without taking recourse to obtaining the peoples verdict. Not long after, Abdullah sought and obtained a stunning popular mandate of 90 per cent of the parliamentary seats in the general elections he called in 2004. At the time of the March 8 elections, he commanded the loyalty of 199 of the 219 members in the dissolved House. It is this advantage that he was accused of recklessly squandering, when the election results became known.

For the Opposition camp, these results obviously had an altogether different meaning. In effect, a qualitative shift has happened in Malaysian politics as different from a quantitative surge. The most dramatic strides, in both qualitative and quantitative aspects, were registered by the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or the Peoples Justice Party) led by Anwar Ibrahim, formerly a high-profile Deputy Prime Minister and a one-time incarcerated leader in a case that came to be known as a reflection of his political tussle with Mahathir. Equally important was the success story of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which led the Opposition cluster to an unprecedented triumph in the key State of Penang, besides scoring impressive gains at the federal level. In addition, the PAS not only retained power in the State of Kelantan but actually spread its wings in some other States as also on the federal stage.

In quantitative terms, the Malay-led multiracial PKR secured 31 seats in the new House, while the ethnic-Chinese-led multiracial DAP won 28. The PAS, as a largely Malay-Muslim-centred party with some new ideas about acquiring a pan-Malaysian identity, got 23 seats.

The ethnic-Indian-rooted Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) won two seats, one each on the DAP and PKR tickets. As a non-registered organisation, Hindraf, which spearheaded the recent public protest marches for equal rights to the ethnic Indian minority group in Malay-Muslim-majority Malaysia, could not enter the poll fray as an independent player. Hindraf, of course, blames its unregistered status on the refusal of the authorities to recognise a human rights group. The discomfort of the authorities lies, partly, in the strident Hindraf nomenclature. While Hindraf leaders such as Waytha Moorthy, Thanenthiran Ramankutty and Kannan Ramasamy maintain that the group has no communalist agenda, the Malaysian authorities are wary.

For now, the only recognised representative of ethnic Indians is the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). A significant sub-plot in the pan-Opposition poll campaign this time was to expose the limitations of the MIC as a true representative of the ethnic Indian minority. Some Opposition leaders tried to prove that the largest minority of ethnic Chinese and the smaller minority of Indian-origin people were no less relevant than the majority as the political equivalents of electrons and protons in an atom.

Therefore, the comprehensive defeat of the long-time MIC president and federal Minister, Samy Vellu, in his home constituency of Sungai Siput boosted the political rating of Hindraf. A long-time socialist, D. Jeyakumar triumphed in his third attempt at defeating Samy Vellu, who was seeking his ninth successive term in Parliament. Jeyakumars original political affiliation, the Parti Sosialis Malaysia (the Socialist Party of Malaysia), was never recognised by the authorities. He contested the elections on the PKR ticket. Anwar Ibrahim, the PKRs patron, had begun to espouse a political agenda of justice and pluralism cutting across ethnic and religious lines.

Ethnic Indians do not constitute the majority in any of the parliamentary and State Assembly constituencies, but Sungai Siput is one of the few constituencies, with a relatively large concentration of Indian-origin people, at 22 per cent. With Malay-Muslims forming 32 per cent of the constituencys electorate, ethnic Chinese dominate the local scene with a 42 per cent quotient. Jeyakumar, shy of seeing himself as a giant-killer in politics, told this correspondent that his success should be attributed to a confluence of factors, including his endorsement by the PAS, despite his socialist political affiliation, and the rising politics of people power in Malaysia.

In the immediate context of the elections, Hindraf, he pointed out, had packaged its campaign on the people power paradigm. Across Malaysia, this theme was picked up by several other candidates, most notably Anwars daughter, Nurul Izzah, a newcomer to politics. She even acknowledged that the ethnic Indian group had inspired her. However, the evocative political creed of people power has a distinguished lineage, traceable directly to the French Revolution and, more recently, to the popular movements against authoritarian and military rulers in such South-East Asian countries as the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand.

Significantly, Nurul Izzah triumphed over a quintessential establishment candidate, Shahrizat Jalil, who was also a well-regarded Minister in Abdullahs Cabinet. In a number of ways, Nurul Izzahs win in the Lembah Pantai constituency in Kuala Lumpur summed up the qualitative shift in Malaysias politics. With an unmistakable Malay-Muslim majority, this constituency is also home to the two main minorities in sizeable numbers.

For Anwar, who still has some ground to cover to win over the ethnic minorities and establish a niche role for himself within the majority segment, Nurul Izzahs triumph was the icing on the cake. Anwar, who began his political career in the heat and dust of Muslim politics, became an acknowledged pan-Malaysian leader by the time of the polls. Given his political background, he is no stranger to the controversies traceable to Hindrafs style of politics.

Anwar told this correspondent that the mainstream Opposition parties can work with them [Hindraf leaders] on the issues of, for example, [enforcing] the rule of law, [fighting] corruption and [upholding the independence of the] judiciary. Noting that it might be OK to criticise some of Hindrafs demands, he hinted that these should change. He said: It is better that way. Then, we can get the Chinese and the Malays to appreciate [the ethnic Indian] problems. It is not a Hindu battle versus the Muslims as being portrayed now. Instead, a Malaysian Indian battle together [with the Chinese and Malays] against the regime [in power now].

He saw the possibility of Hindraf and the mainstream Opposition parties coming together on the same political wavelength in such changed circumstances. During the campaign, Anwar passionately advocated the abolition of Malaysias Internal Security Act (ISA), a law providing for indefinite detentions without legally testable charges and without judicial trial. Describing himself as a victim of the ISA twice over, Anwar said it is not fair at all to continue detaining five Hindraf leaders under this Act portraying them as extremists.

Two of Hindrafs five ISA detainees Malayalam Manoharan and V. Ganapati Rao (also spelt as Ganabathirau) belong to the DAP; Manoharan won an Assembly seat in the State of Selangor by contesting on the DAP ticket. As the report is written, the issue of his status as a State legislator and an ISA detainee remains unsettled.

The DAP, made famous in recent months by some authentic multiracial politics as espoused by its leaders Lim Kit Siang and others, had, by March 17, hit international headlines. The new Penang government, headed by the DAP, began exploring ways to rescind or reform, within its territorial jurisdiction, the existing pan-Malaysian state policy of affirmative action in favour of the Malay-Muslim community. In a sense, this move by the DAP took Anwars PKR and the PAS by surprise. And the Opposition cluster was, as of mid-March, engaged in finding an amicable way forward to advance multiracialism in a manner fair to all ethnic communities, given their historical disadvantages.

During the campaign, PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awang, in a positive gesture to other communities, gave up the partys original agenda of transforming Malaysia into an Islamic state.

The PAS gesture needs some fine-tuning and a framework for implementation. While these unresolved issues gave rise to speculation about fissures in the Opposition cluster, the overall political message of the March 8 poll was that Malaysia needed to effect a qualitative shift from race-based political bargains, as in the case of the B.N., to a more genuine idea of multiracial coexistence.

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