Saturday, March 15, 2008

Malaysia: Shadow Over Badawi’s Future

(an extract from

Mushtak Parker, Arab News

Malaysia’s 12th general election last week has opened up a Pandora’s box.

As a humbled Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi finalizes the task of forming a new Cabinet, the fallout of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition losing its two-third majority in the 222-seat Dewan Rakyat (the Malaysian Parliament) for the first time since 1969 and in four states plus the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur, are still reverberating across this subtropical country.

It wasn’t quite a political earthquake, but Malaysia’s voters gave Badawi and his ruling BN coalition and its constituent parties, UMNO (United Malays National Organization), MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association) and MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress), a bloody nose.

But the pain for Badawi could indeed be prolonged till November when the next test for the beleaguered premier looms — the annual convention of the dominant party in the BN coalition, UMNO. The president of UMNO is also the chairman of BN and the prime minister of the country. All indications are that Badawi’s presidency of UMNO will be severely challenged at the convention, and he might lose the vote of confidence and therefore the presidency. In which case, he would have no choice but to resign as prime minister. The only other credible alternative to Badawi is Defense Minister Najib Tun Abdul Razak, one of the deputy presidents of UMNO.

To make things worse for Badawi, his predecessor, Dr. Mahathir Mohammed has already accused Badawi of letting down the BN, UMNO and the country, and urging him to resign. The danger is that UMNO, instead of rallying behind its leader, will sleepwalk into spilling blood in a bitter factional feud.

To interpret the 2008 elections as Malaysian democracy and indeed political culture coming of age would be oversimplifying things. The BN won 140 seats compared to 82 for the opposition parties comprising DAP, PKR and PAS (the Islamic party of Malaysia). This still gives it a handsome majority in the Dewan Rakyat of 58 seats.

However, compared to the past, the BN coalition government would not be able to change the constitution at will, which may be a good check and balance on the government. A true test for Malaysian democracy is for parties to organize across the racial lines.

But given the politics of race in multicultural Malaysia, it is unlikely that this will happen. Take for instance Penang state, which has a Chinese majority and which is one of the more prosperous regions of the country.

Penang is also the home state of Premier Badawi, who comfortably retained his Kepala Batas seat. But it is also the stronghold of Anwar Ibrahim, the disgraced former deputy prime minister and UMNO deputy president who was jailed for corruption. Anwar was automatically barred from politics, but the expiry of his ban uncannily was a week after the date of the elections.

Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Ismail easily won her Permatang Pauh seat that she fought under the banner of her Parti Kaedilan Rakyat (PKR) or People’s Justice Party. There are reports that Wan Azizah plans to resign her seat to force a by-election that would pave the way for Anwar to re-enter Parliament and the sometimes-murky world of Malaysian politics. If this happens, it is most likely that we will have a by-election in April or May.

When Malays fight amongst each other, then others gain. The BN lost its majority in Penang — both in terms of its MPs in the federal Parliament and the state assembly. Penang’s new Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, from the opposition Chinese-dominated DAP, has already thrown down the gauntlet which could severely test the status quo in Malaysia. Lim gave notice that his DAP-led state government would no longer practice the New Economic Policy (NEP), which was introduced in 1971 after the 1969 race riots aimed at promoting affirmative action in favor of the Bumiputras (ethnic Malays) who were at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Badawi has been quick to warn Lim not to make statements that could stoke racial tensions and marginalize the Malays. The DAP may be testing how far it can undermine the race card in Malaysian politics. But the true battle for the soul of Malaysian politics will be fought out by factions within the dominant Malays — inside UMNO and between UMNO and PAS and PKR. There is one school of thought that stresses that the poor showing of BN was orchestrated by an UMNO faction supporting Deputy Premier Najib Tun Abdul Razak because it wanted to undermine Badawi’s authority and support within UMNO. Only time will tell whether this turns out to be so at the next UMNO convention.

PAS remains a one-state party as shown by its dominance of Kelantan. If it can transform itself from a purely religious party to a more inclusive party along the lines of AK Party in Turkey that would embrace non-Muslims and non-Malays, then it could start breaking the mold of Malaysian politics.

But the current PAS leadership lacks the vision or the will to effect such a transformation.

The other striking feature of the elections is the beginnings of potential dynastic structures in Malaysian politics. Mahathir’s son Mukhriz won a parliamentary set in Kedah for the BN; Anwar’s daughter Nurul Izzah ousted Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, the minister for women’s and rural affairs; and Abdullah Badawi’s son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin scraped through winning a parliamentary seat at the first go.