Malaysia’s political landscape shifts

9 Mar 08

Malaysians awoke on Sunday to the biggest sea-change in politics in almost 40 years, with opposition Islamists and reformists winning control of five states and giving the government a humiliating wake-up call.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s multi-racial National Front coalition won just a simple majority in parliament, and his future as leader is in doubt after he watched a record majority collapse to the weakest level ever.

His predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, urged him to quit.

“He should accept responsibility,” said Mahathir who now says he made a mistake in picking Abdullah as his successor and that the current deputy premier, Najib Razak, should have taken over.

The streets were unusually quiet on Sunday, with many older Malaysians fearful of trouble.

The last time the coalition suffered a heavy setback, in 1969, race riots erupted.

Barisan has effectively ruled since independence from Britain in 1957.

“I am shocked. It feels Malaysia is a whole new country. It feels like it has been reborn,” Daniel Sia, a 27-year-old civil engineer, said as he did some shopping in the capital.

Lai Yee Fei, 28, who works at a coffee bar beneath Kuala Lumpur’s soaring twin towers, said she was glad that Malaysia now had a strong opposition to press the government.

“It’s good to give some pressure for Barisan Nasional,” she said.

“If the opposition parties can stand up for us, on behalf of us, I think it’s good.”

Abdullah, who only four years ago led the coalition to a record election victory on a wave of hope for change, faced a bleak political future today, his aides stunned but not willing to concede that he must step down.

“Frankly, this is not really the time because a lot of component parties (of Barisan) have been decimated,” one close aide said, declining to be identified.

“We have lost a few people and I think it’s time to consolidate.”

Abdullah’s humbling performance nationally – the coalition ended up with 62 per cent of federal seats, down from 90 per cent previously – was compounded by the fact that his own home state, the industrial heartland of Penang, fell to the opposition.

The leftist Chinese-backed Democratic Action Party (DAP) won Penang, the hub for Malaysia’s electronics industry, which accounts for about half of exports.

The opposition Islamist party PAS scored shock victories in the northern heartland states of Kedah and Perak and easily retained power in its stronghold in northeastern Kelantan state.

DAP and PAS also joined the People’s Justice Party, or Parti Keadilan, to take control of the industrial state of Selangor and almost all the seats in capital Kuala Lumpur.

Political experts and economists wondered aloud whether the Barisan government could now pursue its agenda, including plans for $US325 billion ($A351.5 billion) in development zones across the country.

Without a two-thirds parliamentary majority, Barisan can no longer change the constitution or make some key appointments and could struggle to alter electoral boundaries, powers that the opposition have long maintained were abused by Barisan.

“This is probably not good news for the equity market or the ringgit,” said Tim Condon, Singapore-based head of Asia research for investment bank ING.

The pro-government media, Abdullah’s cheer-leader during the campaign, changed tack today, urging Barisan to ensure better job and education opportunities in this multi-racial nation.

Malaysia is largely a mix of ethnic Malays, which make up about 55 percent of the population, and ethnic Chinese and Indians, who account for about a third.

A protest vote from Chinese and Indians, upset over what they saw as racial inequality in terms of business, job and education opportunities, had been expected.

The Indians were merciless, voting out the leader of the coalition’s Indian component party and handing a seat to an Indian activist currently in detention.

But Malays, who are all Muslims and traditionally support Barisan in good times and bad, completed a perfect storm for the government, handing the opposition Islamists a record vote in what was perceived as a protest against rising prices.

“Tomorrow we will start building a brighter future,” said opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim, de facto leader of Parti Keadilan, which emerged as the biggest opposition party in federal parliament with 31 seats.

“This is a new dawn for Malaysia.”

Anwar, a Malay and former deputy premier, is widely seen as the only politician who could unify the ideologically divided opposition into a coherent and credible political force, though many political experts see this an almost possible task.

Anwar was banned from standing in the elections because of a criminal record – he spent six years in jail until 2004 on what he called trumped-up charges – but is expected to take over his old seat from his wife, who has held it since his 1998 jailing.

Results from the elections commission late today showed the National Front with 137 seats in the 222-seat parliament versus 82 for the opposition, with three seats still being tallied.…