Another setback for Malaysia’s UMNO

Even the use of state machinery, including control over the mainstream media, which provided lop-sided coverage in favor of the BN, could not stem the tide. Opposition activists, independent journalists and bloggers provided a counterweight, using the Internet to expose allegations the government used money politics to influence voters.

By Anil Netto, Inter Press Service

A key parliamentary by-election on Saturday that fell to a resurgent opposition alliance has piled more pressure on Malaysia's premier-in-waiting, Najib Razak.

At issue now is whether the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition Najib will lead beginning in March is capable of pushing through the reforms many believe are vital for the government's long-term survival.

Najib, who spearheaded the BN's campaign in Kuala Terengganu, capital of the oil-rich east coast state of Terengganu, was unable to stop another electoral swing to the People's Alliance, which consists of the three main opposition parties.

The ruling coalition had won the Terengganu seat by a 628-majority in last March's watershed general election, which sawthe opposition making sharp electoral inroads by taking control of five of the federation's 13 states.

This time Kuala Terengganu fell to the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, which is represented in the People's Alliance, by a 2,631 majority. Much of the vote swing came from young Malays, which some believe spells trouble in the long run for the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the dominant party in the BN coalition.

Although the by-election had no bearing on the parliamentary balance of power – the People's Alliance increased its share of seats to 83 in the 222-seat parliament – many saw it as an early referendum on Najib. The deputy premier will soon take the top job from Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, following a leadership transition scheme hatched last September by UMNO leaders. During that meeting, they effectively pinned the blame for the BN's general election setback last year on Abdullah.

This time much of the responsibility for the defeat falls on Najib's shoulders. ''If Najib thought he was going to have it easy, this by-election has been a rude shock for him,'' says opposition activist Medaline Chang, who helped to campaign for the People's Alliance in Kuala Terengganu.

It is the second time Najib has led the ruling coalition to defeat in a by-election campaign. Last August, the ruling coalition lost a by-election in Permatang Pauh to the People's Justice Party, another member of the People’s Alliance. That result saw the Alliance's de facto leader – and now parliamentary opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim – returning to politics after a 10-year absence.

Even the use of state machinery, including control over the mainstream media, which provided lop-sided coverage in favor of the BN, could not stem the tide. Opposition activists, independent journalists and bloggers provided a counterweight, using the Internet to expose allegations the government used money politics to influence voters.

"The great thing about the results of the Kuala Terengganu by-election is that the old politics of the Barisan Nasional will no longer work,'' says P Ramakrishnan, president of the social reform group Aliran. ''The past winning formula – money, media and machinery – could not woo the voters to throw in their support for the BN,'' he said.

Najib, the son of Malaysia's second premier, Abdul Razak, also holds the key Finance portfolio and faces a huge challenge as Malaysia's export-oriented economy slows in tandem with the global downturn. (See Malaysia's ostrich economics, October 30, 2008.) Weakening global demand for semi-conductors and electronic products and a slump in global petroleum and palm oil prices will make this a difficult year, with extensive job losses expected.

Najib already has political troubles, stemming in part from his implication by association in the murder of a Mongolian female interpreter. He has vehemently denied any links to the case, for which two special forces operatives are currently on trial. Meanwhile, top UMNO leaders recognize that the party will have to reinvent or reform itself if it wants to check its slide and remain in power after the next general election.

Najib has asked BN leaders to move out of their comfort zones and build closer rapport with the grassroots population. He has said that development projects must be based on the needs of the people – an admission of sorts that many projects have not been people-oriented in the past. ''The BN government cannot afford a disconnection between the people's aspirations and the government's direction," Najib was reported as saying.

But the big question now is whether, after five decades in power, the UMNO is capable of instituting such reforms, given that corruption, vote-buying and a system of patronage is so deeply entrenched.

UMNO vice president Muhyiddin Yassin said Najib would have to perform "political surgery" on the coalition. ''The people want radical improvements after what happened in the last election,'' he was reported as saying. ''We must be able to do something that would attract the public.'' He said the party had to be reinvented and not just re-branded.

But it's not just the UMNO that needs to be reformed. The credibility of key democratic institutions has suffered under BN rule, with critics claiming their independence has been compromised to ensure that the BN retains its grip on power.

Reforms to the judiciary, law enforcement and anti-corruption agencies, as well as the election commission, are seen as essential to restore the BN government's credibility.

Outgoing Premier Abdullah says he is determined to push through legal reforms and he has tabled two bills in parliament – the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Bill and the Judicial Appointments Bill – towards that end.

A third bill concerning police and other law enforcement agencies rounds out his promised reform agenda and Abdullah has vowed to see through the bills' implementation even after he leaves office in March.

After failing to push through such reforms at the height of his popularity following a landslide general election win in 2004, it's unlikely the BN, led by a divided UMNO, will have the political will to follow through on such meaningful reforms, especially considering their full implementation could end prematurely the careers of many party functionaries and loosen the BN's stranglehold on power.

''This by-election leaves the BN having to do some deep soul-searching,'' says Chang, the opposition activist. ''I think they need to look outwards and get outsiders to provide some frank views, as the people in the BN seem to be in a state of perpetual denial.''

The next electoral test will come in the form of possible by-elections and polls for the state assembly of Sarawak, another resource-rich state long considered a stronghold of the ruling coalition. But faced with a resurgent opposition, Najib will have to battle hard to restore his and the ruling coalition's electoral fortunes.- Asia Times Online