After the shock of Myanmar’s recent astonishingly open by-elections, and the almost equally surprising outcome of Singapore’s general election last year, another even more unpredictable poll beckons.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak must dissolve parliament and go to the people in less than 12 months, and with a future economic slowdown predicted, he is sure to go sooner rather than later.
Over the past decade, the long-ruling National Front government, helmed by Najib’s United Malays National Organisation, has begun to fray at the edges.
In the 2008 election, the Front lost its two-thirds majority, and with it, the ability to amend the constitution at will – a precious right it had long exploited.
Not only that, but the Front also lost control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states, including powerhouse Selangor, adjacent to the capital Kuala Lumpur.
Front leaders were so devastated, they replaced then PM Abdullah Badawi with the younger and more decisive Najib, who promptly unveiled a visionary road-map to reform many of the nation’s outmoded institutions.
Although he has made a decent start in implementing this vision, there still remain key issues Najib must resolve if he is to keep his job.
First, he must work out how to eclipse his former colleague, the resurgent opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, in the eyes of the electorate.
Second, he must convince voters he is sincere in aiming to revamp the state-heavy economy and the institutionalised racism which favours the majority Malays over the minority Chinese and Indians.
Despite inspirational proposals and heartfelt promises, Najib’s actual legislative reform measures have all too often proved disappointing.
For instance, after a massive demonstration last year by a movement called Bersih (which means “clean” in Malay) to purge the electoral system of its pro-Front distortions, Najib launched his own reform initiatives.
These included a pledge to abolish the colonial-era Internal Security Act, which has traditionally been used against leaders of Bersih-type protests – and against meddlesome oppositionists like Anwar.
Two weeks ago, Najib kept his word and tabled a new Security Offences (Special Measures) Bill in parliament.
In full pre-election mode, Najib touted the bill as a major improvement over the ISA, principally because it prohibits arrests based solely on “political belief or political activity”.
But oppositionists and civil society groups attacked the proposed new legislation as merely a watered down attempt to reclaim the political high ground.
Said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch: “The new law has improvements, but the authorities still hold too much power to detain people for too long without judicial oversight.”
Much the same happened when Najib approved the setting up of a bipartisan parliamentary commission to consider electoral reforms.
The intent was commendable, but the end result failed to satisfy those it was designed to mollify, particularly the middle-class and minorities.
Bersih, for instance, charged that the panel’s report did not tackle the way voting lists are full of bogus names, dead people and addresses housing scores, if not hundreds, of spurious individuals.
Consequently, Bersih plans to mount another big street protest in KL this coming Saturday.
As well, the plan Najib announced last week to partially liberate the nation’s media from state control is likely to meet the same ambivalent response.
Meanwhile, the three-party opposition alliance led by Anwar has mapped out a twin strategy for the election.
First, by highlighting recent corruption allegations against government officials, it will target conservative rural Malays who have traditionally supported UMNO.
Second, it will tout the economic success of opposition-held states like Penang, which, after scrapping Malay preferences in public tenders, has wooed more investments than any other state.
As a result, although backed by the Front’s well-oiled election machine, Najib will likely win the election, he may lose some more seats and not regain Selangor.
If that happens, the knives will come out and the PM, like his predecessor, will be shown the door.
Contact Roger Mitton at email@example.com