Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Arab Spring of Malaysia

The ruling coalition of Malaysia, the National Front, suffered a crushing defeat in the 12th General Election (GE-12) held on March 8, 2008.  The coalition still managed to form the Government of Malaysia though.  By crushing defeat, they lost their two-thirds majority, which they generally enjoyed after every election since Independence.

The National Front was returned to power again after the GE-13 held recently, on May 5, 2013.  But they suffered another defeat.  Not only that their seats were further reduced, they lost popular vote as well.  They garnered about 47 percent popular votes, against the 50 percent garnered by the opposition coalition.  But since the winning party is decided by the number of seats won, not by how many actually voted for them, the National Front still won the election, even though the opposition pact beat them with popular vote by 3 percent. 

The real value in the election is winning the seat, regardless of the vote.  Thus, while one opposition candidate had won by more than 51,000 majority votes whereas one ruling party candidate had won only by less than 200 votes, their value is the same: one seat each.

As usual, there have been claims of inconsistencies in the election process.  It was also claimed that this was the dirtiest election ever.  But there is nothing unusual about these claims.  Malaysians have heard of these before.

The opposition leader goes to the street challenging the election result, claiming that the results of between 30 to 40 parliamentary seats were doubtful.  He also alleged that the National Front has lost the moral ground to rule the country, since this ruling coalition lost the popular vote.

Normally the result of the election is to be challenged in court.  But the court process can be very lengthy.  The opposition pact, furthermore, need at least 23 seats in order to form the Government with simple majority (The ruling coalition had won 133 seats while the opposition pact won 89.  The total parliamentary seats are 222.  At least 112 seats must be won to form a government).  If it is just a matter of two or three seats, there is probably a fighting chance.  But 23 seats are big.  This is probably the reason why the opposition leader decided to go to the street rather than to the court.  Besides, it is generally alleged that the court tends to favor the ruling coalition. 

Going to the street is neither democratic nor undemocratic.  It depends on the purpose.  If the purpose is to air some grievance, or to demonstrate one’s feeling over something, the democratic setting allows it.  If it is to topple the Government, this sounds more like the Arab Spring rather than democratic process. 

In democratic setting, the Government is changed through election process.  The problem arises, however, when one does not trust the election process.  This is probably the main reason why the opposition leader went to the street (and still makes his round in major cities in Malaysia).  He believed, and still believes, that the opposition pact had won the election, but was denied because of unfair practices in the election process.

Even before the GE-13 was held, there have been talks about Arab Spring in Malaysia.  In simple terms, Arab Spring refers to the uprising of the people against their Government.  In recent times, three Arab governments fell through this process.  Two of them were relatively bloodless (Tunisia and Egypt) but the other one (Libya) was bloodied.  Another Arab Spring has gone into Summer, Fall and Winter, and is still mired with civil war (Syria).  Arab Spring in Yemen meanwhile brought some measure of success, while the one in Bahrain did not seem to bring much change.

If the current trend of the opposition leader going to the street gains momentum, Malaysia could as well experience the so-called Arab Spring Malaysian Style.  Whether this is good or bad for Malaysia is a matter of perspective.  The changing of Government through revolution, which is what the Arab Spring is all about, does not always bring positive result.  At the same time, no government can sustain itself if it continually ignores the wish of the people.  The question to be asked is this: Does the Malaysian Government continually ignore the wish of the population?

The answer would depend on whom you are asking.  If you ask me, I can provide the following simple scenario.  Kelantan, one of the states in Malaysia, has been under the opposition rule since 1990, and was returned to the same party in the recently concluded General Election.  The Federal Government tried to wrest the state, but the population of Kelantan refused to budge. 

Penang and Selangor, other two states in Malaysia, went to the opposition pact in the GE-12 in 2008.  The opposition pact won these states again in GE-13.  This time, they won by larger seats. 

Kedah, another state that went to the opposition pact in GE-12, was returned to the ruling coalition in GE-13.  There was no indication that the election in Kedah was severely rigged in GE-13, if any.  It was simply that the people in Kedah chose to come back to the ruling coalition.

This suggests that, flawed as it is, the ruling coalition are not as bad as some people make it out to be.  Considering that the National Front has been ruling Malaysia since her Independence, this suggests that it is the party of choice to the majority of Malaysians.  Of course, being the ruling party, it has unfair advantage not available to the opposition pact.  Any government for that matter, once in power, will do everything to stay there.    Still, if vast majority of the population had rejected it, the National Front would have been confined to the opposition role long time ago.

GE-13, however, seems to signal a new trend.  For the first time in the history of Malaysian politics, the ruling coalition lost popular vote.  More people voted for the opposition pact, but the ruling coalition managed to win the election only because they had won more seats. 

This victory due to winning more seats but losing popular vote may not seem fair, but that is how it works in Malaysia.  Going to the street would probably not change this fact.  If the opposition leader feels that he can create Arab Spring in Malaysia due to the groundswell, as indicated by massive turnout in the opposition rallies prior to the GE-13, he should also ask himself whether the Arab Spring is a good thing for Malaysia.  The Arab Spring may have been good for the Arabs, but it is not necessarily good for the Malaysians.  

The opposition leader may have felt that it is his obligation to rally the people to right the wrong, believing that the opposition pact had won the election, but was snatched by the Election Commissions in the last minute, and handed the victory to the ruling pact.  If the Election Commissions had truly switched the result, then he should probably go to the international tribunal for the recourse, not to the street.

What is certain is that the groundswell, both as illustrated by huge turnouts in the opposition rallies before the General Election, as well as measured through popular vote, is a clear warning to the ruling coalition.   During the campaigning period of GE-13, the opposition pact shouted the mantra: Ini kalilah (This will be the time), meaning, this time the Government will change. To that, the ruling coalition interjected with a jibe: Lain kalilah (Other time perhaps).

This jibe intended as a pun by the ruling coalition could well be a self-fulfilling prophecy, if the ruling coalition do not make systematic move to win back the lost grounds.  “Other time perhaps” could well be the next general election. 

But five years is a long time.  Anything can happen, even the Arab Spring Malaysian Style.