Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and his ruling Barisan Nasional (BN or National Front) coalition have prevailed yet again in a Malaysian general election. For once, however, the results were not ordained: A half-century of BN rule has cost the party much of its vitality and it is an easy target for many of the dissatisfactions in Malaysia.
The question now is whether Mr. Najib will be permitted to continue his reform efforts or whether his United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the main party in the National Front, which is displeased over the margin of victory, will cast him aside as it has previous leaders who failed to deliver the results it sought.
The BN has ruled Malaysia since 1957. For virtually all that time, it has held Parliament in a tight grip: Not until elections in 2008 did the party lose its two-thirds supermajority. That “defeat” cost then Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi his job. Mr. Najib replaced him with a mandate to staunch the bleeding and return the BN to its previous status.
By many measures, Mr. Najib should have succeeded. The economy has grown an average of 6 percent annually the past three years and the government budget deficit has steadily shrunk, even though assistance continues to flow to 3.2 million households (out of a population of 28 million) — for a total $2.6 billion in aid.
Efforts to implement a “New Economic Model” — a plan to double per capita income by 2020 through reforms in key economic sectors and in government — remain on track.
According to the World Economic Forum, Malaysia’s world competitiveness ranking has jumped five slots in two years; it is now 21st out of 142 economies.
Voters were not convinced, however. In elections last Sunday, the BN won 133 seats in the 222-seat Parliament, a decrease yet again from the 140 seats won in 2008.
The opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR or People’s Alliance), headed by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, won 89 seats, up from 82 in the last ballot. That is the opposition coalition’s best showing ever, but Mr. Anwar still claimed foul, asserting that the BN has used its control of the purse strings to sway voters, along with more mundane charges of voter fraud, including flying as many as 40,000 voters around the country to cast votes in close races.
The election represented two battles. One was a struggle between personalities: Mr. Najib versus Mr. Anwar. The two men have similar histories, having worked their way up through the youth divisions of the UMNO, and both acknowledge the need for reform. Their differing approaches to that task constitutes the second battle. Mr. Najib seeks reform through gradual, piecemeal efforts, while Mr. Anwar wants more radical change.
That is not surprising, since Mr. Anwar has seen the seamier side of Malaysian government behavior from the receiving end, having been tried and convicted of sexual misconduct in what are widely believed to have been trumped-up charges.
Three questions now dominate Malaysian politics:
First, will UMNO sack Mr. Najib after his failure to deliver the two-thirds majority in Parliament? Some senior politicians, including former Prime Minister Mohamed Mahathir has said a leadership challenge was likely if a leader did not cross that threshold. Second, is this the end of the line for Mr. Anwar? While the charismatic opposition leader has pushed his coalition to new heights, he has proven unable to win power. Prior to the election, he said he would step down if he failed to unseat the BN. Will he follow through on that statement?
Finally, and most significantly, will the government continue its efforts to end the worst abuses of its affirmative action bumiputra (sons of the soil) policy? The policy was first established more than three decades ago to remedy the economic disadvantages felt by many Malays, who make up 60 percent of the population.
Originally intended to level the economic playing field, the policy evolved into a device to channel money to well-connected supporters of the BN and became synonymous with cronyism, if not outright corruption.
While some members of the Chinese and Indian minorities have also benefitted from the BN’s patronage, they have become increasingly disaffected by the policy. Their dissatisfaction was evident in the 2008 poll and the BN’s slide continues.
The ethnic Chinese party that is part of the BN continues to lose support, falling from 15 seats in 2008 to five in Sunday’s ballot.
Mr. Najib recognizes that reform is essential. Fortunately, he is more popular than his party, which gives him leverage when dealing with the entrenched interests that seek to continue the patronage, even though such policies will further erode the BN’s popularity.
Mr. Najib is hoping that his party will see that he has carried it to victory, and not the other way around. That will give him the leverage he needs to implement tougher and more far reaching reforms in his next term.