On May 5, Malaysians went to the polls in what was expected to be the closest national election since independence. Massive turnout was reported, particularly in urban areas, with many districts reporting that over 80 percent of eligible voters came to the polls. In the early part of the vote counting, opposition supporters seemed jubilant, and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim even announced that he believed his three-party opposition alliance had taken down the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, which has dominated the country since independence, never losing an election. Of course, BN has used massive gerrymandering, enormous handouts from state coffers, thuggish election day tactics, and outright vote-buying in the past to secure its victories. Still, the May 5 vote seemed to be a potential watershed, putting the opposition into power and putting Malaysia onto the path of a real, consolidated two-party democracy.
Unfortunately, the election seems to have solved nothing, and may only exacerbate Malaysia’s serious internal problems. Although the ruling coalition claims victory, Anwar and the opposition allege massive fraud that could have cost them the win. So, the status of Malaysia’s electoral institutions has been badly damaged. Indeed, the opposition coalition appears to have won a higher percentage of the popular vote, yet gerrymandering and potential frauds have given the BN a majority of seats. Since the election commission is run by the prime minister’s office, and thus by the BN, it’s almost impossible anyone is going to overturn the election results.
So, for one, Malaysia now enters a period in which huge percentages of the population—particularly in urban areas—did not vote for the government and are extremely angry about the result. Anger is going to simmer for weeks or months, and is already growing fiercer on Malaysia’s free online media. This anger could lead to renewed street protests, a completely ineffective national government, or greater capital flight and educated Malaysians emigrating, already one of Malaysia’s biggest challenges. Without domestic capital being reinvested in the country, it will be impossible for Malaysia to escape the middle-income trap that it has been caught in for years.
Second, the election now has torn apart any remaining fictions about interethnic harmony in Malaysia. The ruling coalition used to be comprised of ethnic Malay, Indian, and Chinese parties, but the BN’s ethnic Chinese components were all but wiped out in this election by the opposition’s ethnic Chinese party. At the same time, the BN expended far more of its resources in ethnic Malay-dominated districts, and so instead of being a multiethnic coalition, the new BN government is really just one party, the Malay-dominated UMNO. A graph on New Mandala shows the correlation between BN victories and percentages of Malays in each district.
Malaysia now has a situation in which ethnic Malays totally dominate the ruling party, and minorities, including the Chinese, have almost completely gone to the opposition. Not a recipe for interethnic harmony. Private companies run by ethnic Chinese, already tired of affirmative action laws favoring Malays, are even more likely to close up and leave. Meanwhile, since the BN did not deliver an overwhelming victory, current Prime Minister Najib Razak, a relative moderate, is likely to lose his job to a figure in the BN who is more hard-line pro-Malay and less willing to promote reconciliation among all ethnic groups in Malaysia.
All in all, not a situation with a lot of bright sides.