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Malaysia’s post-poll tango

A demonstrator covers her mouth with a band during a rally to protest against May’s election results in Kuala Lumpur in June.
A demonstrator covers her mouth with a band during a rally to protest against May’s election results in Kuala Lumpur in June. Malaysia’s opposition coalition held multiple demonstrations to protest what they say was vote fraud. The number 505 stands for the date of the polling, which took place on May 5. REUTERS

Malaysia’s post-poll tango

While Cambodia’s political situation remains unpredictable, an almost identical post-election impasse in Malaysia now nears resolution.

It has taken more than three months and involved a lot of conciliation and not a little crow eating by both sides, and it has bruised the reputations of the nation’s top leaders – but overall it has proved worthwhile.

Now a similar post-election tango is being danced in Phnom Penh, as Prime Minister Hun Sen and his opposition counterpart Sam Rainsy tussle for power. Given the way it could act as a template for Cambodia, it is worth looking more closely at how Malaysia’s political stand-off played out peacefully without injuries, loss of life or military involvement.

In its 13th general election, held shortly before the one in Cambodia, Malaysia’s ruling National Front coalition, helmed by the United Malays National Organisation, lost ground – yet won re-election.

Its winning margin, in percentage terms, was about the same as that claimed by the Cambodian People’s Party in the July 28 election.

As is now happening here, there then followed strenuous opposition complaints in Kuala Lumpur about the conduct of the election and there were heated allegations of cheating, voter fraud and all the rest.

After judicial evaluation of opposition petitions, however, the result was upheld and the National Front settled back into governing the nation with a new cabinet and a somewhat chastened Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Of course, the opposition continued protesting, as they do in these situations all around the world, but finally they stopped in KL on Saturday – the anniversary of Malaysia’s independence.

On that auspicious date, the opposition, led by the charismatic but deeply flawed Anwar Ibrahim (you see how the parallels are almost scary), agreed to work with Najib’s team for the good of the nation.

Of course, Anwar played to the ground by insisting that his side maintained its “strong objections about the validity” of the May polls, but he signalled that it was now time to move on.

“We are prepared to put aside our differences for the sake of the nation’s wellbeing and future,” he said.

While this took some pressure off Najib, the prime minister remains vulnerable to an internal coup and he was not helped when a book about his predecessor, Abdullah Badawi, was recently published.

Put together by two Singapore-based academics, James Chin and Bridget Welsh, Awakening: A Critical Assessment of the Badawi Years is a compendium of essays and interviews written by political analysts.

That it was published in Singapore and launched by Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah, herself a vociferous opposition member of parliament, caused much teeth-gnashing among UMNO loyalists. But what really got their knickers in a twist were Abdullah’s revelations about his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, who remains revered by most of the party faithful but is reviled by the Anwaristas.

Among other things, Abdullah accused Mahathir of relentlessly urging him to push ahead with grandiose megaprojects that he felt would bankrupt the nation.

Abdullah resisted, relations soured, then plummeted catastrophically after the 2008 election when the Front under Abdullah, like the CPP under Hun Sen in July, lost its two-thirds majority.

The knives came out and Mahathir quit the party in disgust, saying he would only rejoin after Abdullah stepped down – which happened less than a year later and Mahathir’s acolyte, Najib, took over.

But Najib himself fared no better in this year’s election and the Front lost more seats and even came second in the popular vote. So the PM may be destined to follow Abdullah’s fate, while the latter enjoys some payback via the new book, which slams Mahathir left and right.

It is a piquant scenario that Hun Sen might want to examine if he is not to emulate the demise of Abdullah and possibly Najib.

Clearly, the days of autocratic leaders like Mahathir Mohamad, Lee Kuan Yew, Ferdinand Marcos, Than Shwe and Suharto, entrenching their hold on power for decades, are now over.

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