23 Oct Malaysian politicians must reckon with a more demanding electorate
The leaders of Malaysia’s longtime ruling party sought the early election that will be held Nov. 19 to strengthen their hold on power and the spoils of office.
But the announcement of the vote last month was less welcomed by the public. Many worry about unnecessary risks from holding an election during the flood-prone monsoon season and are fatigued by seemingly endless politicking by a self-centered elite.
In their rush for an election at all costs, it is the elite politicians of the historically dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) who will now face a necessary reckoning, one in which Malaysians will determine whether the country will continue to be held hostage to leaders more interested in themselves than the country.
Malaysia has gone through unprecedented, conflicting changes over the past four years. Greater political instability has been accompanied by an expansion of democratic space and greater citizen empowerment. Preelection coalition politics has evolved into more fluid post-election coalition dynamics, forcing policy compromises.
After years of neglect, the east Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo are getting more acknowledgment. With weaker and fragmented parties, political polarization around race and religion has ebbed. Yet ethnic minorities have been increasingly displaced in new political alliances. At the same time, calls for better governance have increased, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The instability that has brought four prime ministers in four years began with the May 2018 victory of the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition over the incumbent front led by UMNO, which had led the country since independence.
Prime Minister Najib Razak was ousted from office by predecessor Mahathir Mohamad over the multibillion dollar 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal and policies that had increased the cost of living, including a poorly implemented goods and service tax. Najib was subsequently convicted on multiple corruption and abuse of power charges.
After pledging a political reset, Harapan’s victory opened the political system but the coalition underestimated the costs of overpromising, lacking clear priorities, internal differences and subsequent voter disappointment. Mahathir and longtime nemesis Anwar Ibrahim were unable to work together.
In various state elections and federal by-elections since 2019, Harapan has been punished by former supporters who either did not vote or changed political loyalties. The coalition has struggled to win over younger voters, who now represent a larger share of the electorate after the voting age was lowered to 18 and an automatic voter registration system was introduced.
First published on Nikkei Asia.