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Racially defining Malaysian politics

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Three factors are emerging from the post-election shake-out that will shape Malaysian politics for the foreseeable future. Although Malaysia's opposition came closer to government, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN -- National Front) coalition has secured government not just for another five years but may be in a position to retain power beyond the 2018 elections.

The vote has sharply delineated Malaysian politics along racial lines, with the BN’s ethnic Chinese partner, the Malaysian Chinese Association, losing two-thirds of its seats. The Chinese vote has, instead, swung dramatically behind the opposition Pakatan Rakyat’s (PR) ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP).

The opposition’s Malay Partai Amanat Se-Islam (PAS -- Islamic Message Party) lost two seats, with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Partai Keadilan Rakyat (PKR -- People’s Justice Party) losing one seat. The PR has thus become much more Chinese in representation, while the government’s BN has become increasingly Malay.

This then leads to the second factor, with the ethnic coloration of the government and opposition set to create further tensions in difficult and sometimes factious Malay-Chinese relations. The PR has only just been able to exercise discipline around the unity of its three component parties.

The PAS is divided between more accommodationist Malay Muslims and those who can barely tolerate their Chinese partners. The more radical wing of the party is now threatening to either splinter or to shift wholesale across to the government. The government is, meanwhile, holding out a welcoming hand to these disenchanted PAS members, replicating a policy employed by the BN for the past four decades by buying off vulnerable elements of the opposition’s ranks.

This could effectively kill the PAS as an effective component of the opposition, concentrating power in the hands of the opposition’s Chinese majority (Malaysia’s ethnic minority). From this position, it would be next to impossible to win the next elections. It would also cast doubt over Anwar Ibrahim’s leadership of the opposition, given his former balancing role between the PAS and the DAP.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Najib Razak will be watching his back, with his predecessor having been dumped for an election result that was not as bad as the loss of a 10 further government seats.

The third major factor of the 2013 Malaysian elections was that rorting of the electoral system reached almost breathtaking levels. On the latest count, the government won by 22 seats in a 222-seat Parliament, but with just 47.38% of the vote, while the opposition received 50.87% of the vote. This result has in large part been attributed to the gerrymandering of the Malaysian electoral boundaries, which favour rural Malay voters. However, what has alarmed observers is that although both the government and opposition pushed to get the vote out on Sunday, resulting in a record 80% turnout for the voluntary elections, the number of new voters spiked in a number of marginal seats, in one case to over 60%. There were 25% or more new voters across 90 of the Parliament’s 222 seats.

Added to this were some voters being told their vote had been cast before they had voted, claims of multiple voting, the mass government registration of non-Malaysian guest workers and the old stand-by of simply paying for votes.

The Malaysia government has scraped back into office on the basis of these electoral rorts. With a possible split in the opposition’s ranks, it may now have bought itself an extension to its guaranteed unbroken 61 years in office.

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