Mahathir’s challenge

Print edition : April 13, 2018

Mahathir Mohamad holding up the 200-page election manisfesto of the four-party coalition Pact of Hope (Pakatan Harapan) outside Kuala Lumpur on March 8. Photo: MOHD RASFAN/AFP

A rally in Kuala Lumpur in November 2016 demanding Prime Minister Najib Razak’s resignation. Photo: Charles Pertwee/Bloomberg

Anwar Ibrahim, jailed opposition leader, at a court house in February 2015. His conviction is largely seen as politically motivated. Photo: Vincent Thian/AP

Prime Minister Najib Razak. Photo: KIMIMASA MAYAMA/AFP

The opposition puts up a spirited campaign under former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed’s leadership, but it is an uphill task with the majority of Malays likely to support Prime Minister Najib Razak.

As things stand today, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, embroiled in one of the biggest financial scandals the world has witnessed in recent years, seems to be coasting to yet another victory in the general election scheduled for later this year. Najib and his close political and family associates stand implicated in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) multibillion-dollar scam. The 1MDB is a development agency set up by the state; its board of advisers was chaired by the Prime Minister himself. An amount of $4.5 billion was found missing from its funds and around $681 million from the fund was in the Prime Minister’s personal bank account. Investigators from six countries, including the United States, Switzerland and Singapore, have said that corruption on a massive scale, involving the Prime Minister and his associates, has been uncovered. “Kleptocracy at its worst” was how U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions described the 1MDB scandal. Najib is said to be the unnamed “Official No.1” in the investigations being conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice. In the first week of March, the Indonesian government, alerted by the U.S. Department of Justice, seized a $250-million yacht belonging to the fugitive millionaire Low Taek Jho, a key figure in the scandal. He, along with the Prime Minister’s stepson, Riza Aziz, had produced the Hollywood hit film The Wolf of Wall Street starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Funds siphoned off from the 1MDB were allegedly used to make the film. The production company agreed to pay $60 million to the U.S. Department of Justice in a civil forfeiture suit. This is being interpreted as an admission of guilt by the two Malaysian financiers. DiCaprio has returned many of the expensive gifts and paintings that were given to him by the producers.

When the scandal first broke, for a short time it looked like the Prime Minister’s days in office were numbered. But in the last two years, Najib seems to have turned the tables on his opponents and critics by using a combination of guile and authoritarianism. He sacked his Deputy Prime Minister and replaced the Attorney General who was on the verge of presenting a damning report on the scam. The new Attorney General was quick to exonerate Najib and accept his explanation that the money found in his bank account was a gift from an unnamed benefactor from the Saudi royal family. The Malaysian media have since been browbeaten into downplaying the scandal.

As the election date (before August) nears, Najib has used state machinery and a subservient election commission to put the opposition on the back foot. This time the opposition is led by the venerable Mahathir Mohammed, who was Prime Minister for a record 22 years and Najib’s political mentor. Mahathir was at the helm during the boom years of Malaysia’s economy, in the 1980s and the 1990s. He was also the architect of the country’s “Bumiputra” (son of the soil) policy that played a crucial role in empowering the ethnic Malay majority. Now 92 years old, he came out of retirement at the behest of his supporters, many of them from the ruling party, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO). The party has enjoyed uninterrupted power from the time Malaysia became independent in 1957.

The opposition, which conducted a feisty campaign ahead of the last elections in 2013 under Anwar Ibrahim’s leadership, turned rudderless for quite some time afterwards until Mahathir stepped in to fill the void. Anwar, another protege of Mahathir, was incarcerated in 2014, for the second time, on the charge of sodomy. (He was first imprisoned on the charge in 1999 when Mahathir was the Prime Minister.) Mahathir has promised to pardon Anwar if he defeats the Barisan Nasional (B.N.) coalition led by UMNO.

The opposition was also weakened by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic (PAS) party’s decision to leave the coalition after the government promised to introduce “Sharia” law in the states under its administration. The support of the Islamist party, which has a strong base among religiously conservative rural Malay voters, was crucial for the opposition’s surprisingly good show in 2013.

The opposition did well in 2013 because it was able to build a multi-ethnic coalition of the kind that the UMNO had been cobbling up since independence. The opposition coalition, then known as the “Pakatyan Rakyat”, was led by Anwar Ibrahim’s breakaway faction of the UMNO. With the PAS and the multi-ethnic Democratic Action Party (DAP) as part of the grouping, it turned out to be a potent alliance and got 52 per cent of the votes.

Yet it was denied a parliamentary majority because of blatant gerrymandering of constituencies in favour of the B.N. alliance led by the ruling party. Gerrymandering or malapportionment is the creation of constituencies with vastly different sizes. It takes many more votes to get an opposition party candidate elected than ones from the ruling party. The opposition traditionally gets most of its votes from urban areas and places where the majority of the electorate comprises non-Malays. The B.N., with 47 per cent of the votes, ended up getting 60 per cent of the seats in parliament in 2013.

The ruling party’s electoral allies are the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). The absence of the PAS in the Pakatan Harapan, as the opposition coalition is now known, could make its platform more attractive to secular Malays and non-Muslims. Prominent Malaysian intellectuals and activists are openly campaigning for the opposition. Mariah Chin Abdullah resigned as chairperson of Bersih (Coalition for Clean Elections and Reform) in March to join the opposition coalition.

After the 2013 elections, Najib worked hard to dismantle the opposition alliance. Anwar was sent back to jail on trumped-up charges and the PAS was enticed out of the coalition. The Justice Party comprising Anwar and other dissident leaders from the UMNO also splintered. However, the 1MDB scandal and Najib’s brazen attempts to sweep it under the carpet motivated Mahathir to come out of retirement and gird up for one final titanic political battle. In late 2016, he formally quit the UMNO and formed a new party, the Malay United Indigenous Party (PPBM).

The UMNO, aided and abetted by the election commission, has further refined the art of gerrymandering to face the new challenge mounted by the opposition coalition. National elections have to be held before August this year. More than half of Malaysia’s 222 parliamentary constituencies are being redrawn to favour the ruling coalition. According to reports, the ruling B.N. coalition could end up with a two-thirds majority in parliament with the same percentage of votes it got in the last elections. The opposition is hoping that undecided voters will turn out overwhelmingly in its favour. The Malaysian Constitution has decreed that all electoral constituencies should be roughly equal in size, but the government has paid no heed. The only other country where gerrymandering is done on such a large scale is in the United States. Many Republican States have used it to their advantage to keep the Democrats at bay.

Money and muscle power are also quite in evidence in Malaysia this time. The government presented a populist budget with plenty of sops for the electorate, including generous handouts. Around seven million poor Malaysians will be getting around $300 in cash payouts this year. Civil servants have also been given generous increments in this election year.

Recent opinion polls have shown that only around 36 per cent of the electorate thinks that the country is being governed well. However, around 46 per cent of ethnic Malay voters think that the UMNO government is doing a good job. The ruling party has painted the opposition as “anti-Malay” and as out to dismantle the special privileges that the UMNO has provided to the majority community. At the same time, propaganda against the sizeable Chinese minority is being whipped up by the ruling party. Prominent Chinese businessmen are being accused of providing funds for the opposition. The MCA, an ally of the UMNO, has distanced itself from some of the racist innuendos being deployed by UMNO leaders on the campaign trail.

The issues of corruption and malfeasance in government seem to be secondary issues for a significant section of the Malay electorate at this juncture. But this can change if more skeletons tumble out of the Prime Minister’s and the ruling party’s closets. The high rate of inflation, triggered by the ham-handed introduction of the goods and services tax (GST) this year, has angered ordinary Malaysians. Mahathir told supporters in mid-March that he was confident of victory if the elections were free and fair. He said the only way Najib could win was by “cheating”. He alleged that the Prime Minister had hatched a conspiracy to prevent him from running for the elections. He also said the voters’ list was seriously tampered with, citing a case of one household that had 70 names registered as voters.

Mahathir is of the view that a 10 per cent swing among rural voters should be enough for the opposition to get a simple majority. The rural vote usually goes mainly to the UMNO. But many Malays have great respect for Mahathir for the reforms he introduced and because of his stature as a world leader. If Mahathir wins, he will have the distinction of becoming the oldest leader in the world to win a democratic election. At this point however, given the harsh realities on the ground, it is an uphill task for Mahathir.

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