Taken from Malaysiakini.com

As 1,900 candidates poured into nomination centres around the country yesterday to file their papers, the excitement for the May 5 general election has intensified. For the first time in history, every seat is being contested.

One seat, Kalabakan in Sabah, even has a seven-cornered fight. The mass entry of candidates into politics speaks of Malaysia’s heightened political involvement, with more and more Malaysians wanting to be part of the action.

However, this at the same time points to underlying challenges facing political parties across the spectrum in managing the egos and interests involved.

The nominations show that many would like to enter the fray, despite the potential damage this would cause for either side. Let me highlight a few issues arising from the nomination results, focusing on independents, multi-cornered fights and warlords.

(Mis)managing Independents

The most striking factor is the increase of independents from 115 in 2008 to a whopping 270. This nearly three-fold increase points to some underlying shifts in national politics.

Based on the published list of independents, 39.2 percent of the parliamentary seats and 35.8 percent of the state seats have an independent or smaller party from outside of the two coalitions running. Most of these are independents and this raises questions why.

NONEFirst and foremost is the important shift within the BN itself. There are a record number of BN, especially Umno candidates, contesting as independents.

The behind-the-scene sabotage and shoddy treatment has now come out into the open, as candidates who were not fielded have taken to contest.

The example touted is the Umno Wanita deputy chief, Kamilia Ibrahim (above) of Kuala Kangsar, who was crudely dropped by the caretaker Prime Minister and Women’s Minister, Najib Abdul Razak, but the examples are multiple, such as Mohd Shariff Omar in Tasek Gelugor in Penang.

This speaks of the failure of the party leadership in Umno to address the concerns of party members. Unlike in the past, when the promise of contracts and alternative positions were secure, this election has increased risk for Umno and members are willing to be more openly daring by fielding themselves.

Already, behind the scenes, there are offers to accommodate individuals who have used the weapon of the nomination paper to send a lesson, and in the days ahead it will be interesting to see who sticks to principles and who opts for the resolution package.

Umno is not alone in facing internal party woes. Independents are also affecting the opposition, where the placement and dropping of candidates has led to the entry of a record number of former candidates contesting.

NONEAttention has centred around Jenice Lee (left) of DAP, who was dropped due to concerns raised over the management of finances in her former district of Teratai in Selangor.

Lee has labelled herself as ‘Pakatan-friendly’. Rather than graciously accept the party decision, she has fought back foolhardily, exposing herself and her record to greater scrutiny and party expulsion.

There are a multiple underlying forces in many of the independent races – party mismanagement, weak party discipline, disgruntlement and unresolved internal party-infighting.

We see the latter in Malacca for example, where long-standing squabbling between Lim Guan Eng and the state party leadership has manifested itself in the state seat of Kota Laksamana contested by DAP stalwart and current Malacca MP Sim Tong Him.

We see a similar dynamic where the beloved former state assemblyperson for Aulong, Yew Tian How, was dropped by the state party leadership. In this case, the cut-off-the-nose-to-spite-the-face decision at the state level has the potential to affect the chances of Nga Kor Ming contesting in the Parliament seat of Taiping, under which Aulong comes.

The clashes of personalities between the national and state leadership have persisted and extended into the public arena. Every one of the major national parties has this underlying dynamic, as testimony of the record number of independents.

There is also the independent as genuinely independent factor. Traditionally, the largest number of independents has been in Sabah and Sarawak. Here, personality and persona are important factors shaping voting behaviour, as family and personal ties are strong.

This time round the most number of independents are still present, especially in Sabah, with a count of 32 percent (or eight) of the Parliament seats and 46.6 percent (or 28) of the state seats. It is telling that many Malaysians feel empowered by the excitement of the race to join, with some hoping potentially to be bought out.

National phenomenon

The rise of contests has become nationwide, as shown in the table below. It has been accentuated by the presence of smaller parties, such as Kita, PCM, Berjasa, SWP and PSM. We see multi-cornered races in places usually unheard of in quite some time, such as Kedah, Terengganu, Pahang, Penang and Selangor.

NONE

Many of these contests will be interesting to watch, such as Sungai Petani and Padang Serai in Kedah, Sungei Siput and Tapah in Perak, Hulu Selangor in Selangor and more. There is clearly more competition in the Malay heartland than in recent elections, reminiscent of earlier decades.

However, it is important to note that not all of the independents and entry of smaller parties are the product of empowerment. There appears also to be the placement of independents and smaller parties to undercut the chances of different candidates in the coalitions.

The aim is to pull away votes from either side, weakening the chances of the candidates to win. Sometimes this involves placing a person of a different ethnic group as a candidate to pull away votes.

Disproportionally, this is affecting the opposition, where behind-the-scenes financing may be operating. It is important to note that many of these independents and smaller parties are contesting in seats with small margins, such as Arau.

It is impossible to know with certainty which independents and small parties are the product of planting and positioning, rather than other factors, but this dynamic cannot be ruled out, as it has played a role in other contests in the past as a strategic tool.

Opposition’s multi-cornered fights

Attention has riveted on the seven contests between the Pakatan Rakyat coalition partners PAS and PKR. It is important to put this in perspective. Only one of these is for Parliament – Labuan or 0.5 percent of the seats contested.

The others are at the state level, six out of 505, or 1.1 percent out of the national state contests. By any numerical measure it is small. Yet, at the same time, this is symbolic.

The problems of internal party dynamics, notably within PAS, and the heated intra-party negotiations led to this blight on Pakatan cooperation. After the hard-fought resolutions of differences elsewhere, these contests taint the resolution of battles elsewhere.

The test for these parties now is to resolve this issue to show that Pakatan is indeed able to make good faith efforts for the electorate.

In any battle there are different sides and both sides can be blamed. Yet, what appears to be one current is PAS Terengganu’s unwillingness to give way to new faces. Three of the state contests are concentrated in this state, where PAS traditionally has shown an unwillingness to accommodate new faces and allow the other opposition parties entry.

This inability of PAS at accommodation has been the main reason Pakatan is at a disadvantage in this state. In the days ahead, the ability of PKR and PAS to reach a solution on the multi-cornered fights will be a measure of cooperation and be important symbolically.

The other major arena where multi-cornered party fights in the opposition is taking place is East Malaysia, especially Sabah. This was expected. In Sabah only one Parliament seat and one of the state seats are straight fights.

Nearly 55 percent of the Parliament seats to be contested in Sarawak have multi-cornered fights. Notably, Star (28 Parliament, 49 state) and SAPP (eight Parliament and 41 state) are fielding multiple candidates at the Parliament and state levels.

Star is contesting in both Sabah and Sarawak, while SAPP is only contesting in Sabah.

This is a battle between the Borneo opposition and the national opposition over Borneo candidates and it has been going on for a while. The real test will be whether Sabahans want to redefine their role with West Malaysia and do so through the more extreme position of independence advocated by Star, especially, through the locally-rooted SAPP or through Pakatan, which has fielded local candidates.

In Sarawak multi-cornered races are expected to have less of an impact in the wake of the Sarawak 2011 state election, where most (although not all) of these candidates were wiped out. However, the main contest and impact, electorally, will be in Sabah.

It is noteworthy that despite the level of infighting and bruising before nomination, Pakatan Rakyat was able to provide a slate that avoided three-cornered fights in East Malaysia, except in the federal territory of Labuan.

An important part of this election will be how state voting patterns contradict or support national trends. How parochial voters are in states like Sabah, for example, will shape the national outcome. Sabahans and Sarawakians have considerable choice; they will have more power to decide the country’s future than ever before.

Mahathir a factor

The BN on its part grapples with another persistent feature, the power clout of former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad. His influence is shaping the contest in Kedah, fuelling infighting within Umno.

NONEMahathir in this election, too, continues to play a major role, nationally, as shown by the predicted but nevertheless shocking unprecedented action of the BN making way for known ultra-chauvinist Ibrahim Ali (right), who is openly supported by Mahathir.

Supposed explanations after the fact only raise more questions. After the decision to field Zulkilfli Noordin, this action further aligns caretaker Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s BN with these Mahathir-linked reactionary positions and highlights the challenges the BN faces in reaching out to non-Malays.

The large list of candidates adds more ambiguity to the race. This is part of the broader pattern of more contests expected in this heated contest. As the campaign evolves, the race will remain essentially a two-coalition contest nationally.

Smaller parties are likely to be wiped out. The real exception, and unknown, will be in Sabah, with its more powerful non-coalition aligned parties. The multiple contests show that an underlying sense of political empowerment has taken root and extended into the candidates themselves.

At the same time, this broader democratising dynamic places a greater burden on the main coalitions, especially the opposition, to woo the electorate and show that they deserve to be in power.