KUALA LUMPUR – focus
Malaysia’s ruling establishment has been accused of resorting to “gutter politics” as a bruising election campaign kicks off amid outrage over sex videos and opposition charges of sabotage.
The May 5 vote looks to be a typically hard-fought and polarizing Malaysian election as the 56-year-old regime faces the fight of its life against a rising opposition. But analysts are warning that negative tactics in the campaign, which officially began Saturday, could backfire on the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
Prime Minister Najib Razak had pledged to oversee a civil poll but advocates for a clean campaign have cried foul over alleged improprieties in what one group has warned will be Malaysia’s “dirtiest election ever.”
A top figure in an opposition Islamic party in the Muslim-majority nation was forced recently to deny involvement over an online video claiming to show him in a tryst with a young woman.
The opposition said more such videos were expected, including one purportedly involving Nurul Izzah Anwar, a lawmaker and daughter of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was himself targeted in a 2011 sex video claim.
Reports of election violence have mounted, mostly involving attacks on opposition supporters, with one man reportedly in a coma after being beaten.
Advertisements have run in some areas suggesting the opposition would impose Islamic law on non-Muslims, which they have decried as dangerous religious fear-mongering.
“I deplore gutter politics and demand that Prime Minister Najib have the decency to not only condemn but also to ensure those behind the sex videos and political violence face the full brunt of the law,” Nurul Izzah Anwar said.
UMNO became notorious for hardball tactics under authoritarian leader Mahathir Mohamad, who dominated Malaysia for 22 years until retiring in 2003. The most searing example involved Anwar Ibrahim, who was poised to inherit UMNO’s reins but was ousted in a 1998 power struggle with Mahathir that saw Anwar imprisoned for six years on sodomy and corruption charges widely seen as dubious.
The affair threw Anwar into the three-party opposition, which he led to its best showing ever in 2008 elections. Anwar last year was acquitted in another sodomy case and denies any link to the 2011 video.
“Many in the public do not think that these videos are credible,” Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia politics expert with Singapore Management University wrote in an opinion piece, adding they are “clearly backfiring.”
The opposition was thrown into panic when a government agency April 17 refused to recognize the leadership of one of its parties, sowing confusion over whether the party could contest the polls. After an outcry, the agency reversed its position Friday but the opposition called it a bid to sow chaos in their campaign.
“If they are prepared to go to this extent, I don’t believe they will stop at this,” said Anwar Ibrahim, who warned of a “tough tumble” for the opposition in the campaign.
Previous elections have been marred by charges of ruling-coalition fraud and vote-buying, and activists warn these polls will be no different. Najib’s government insists the vote will be fair, and top officials have said poll violence and other violations will be punished.
In Muslim prayer services Friday, a sermon approved by a national Islamic body decried unscrupulous campaign methods.
“Imagine what will happen to Islam and our beloved country if the practice of slander and cursing others becomes the main medium for campaigning?” it said.
UMNO has developed multiethnic Malaysia into a regional economic success under a formula that ensures political supremacy for majority Muslim Malays. But its grip has slipped recently amid anger over corruption, rising living costs and crime — and UMNO’s use of divisive tactics.
Najib signed an “electoral integrity” pledge sponsored by Transparency International in February, but the group accused the government earlier this month of violating it by abusing government resources to promote the ruling coalition.