Malaysia: Opposition Gains and Government Worries

This marks a potential shift for Malaysian politics, in which the ruling party works hand in glove with the royals to maintain the status quo.

Malaysian riot police dispersed 3,000 demonstrators at Iskandariah palace in Kuala Kangsar on Feb. 6 protesting the swearing in of a new chief minister and state executive council. The northwestern state of Perak has become embroiled in a political crisis, highlighting Malaysia’s wider political struggle after Sultan Azlan Shah of Perak, the traditional ruler of the state, ejected Chief Minister Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin and his executive council from their posts and appointed new leaders. The ousted government was part of Malaysia’s opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR), while the new installments are members of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which rules Malaysia’s national-level government.

Perak state, in the northwestern part of peninsular Malaysia, is an old tin-mining hub and modern manufacturing region hit hard by the global economic slowdown. The opposition PR won its first election there in March 2008, part of a general trend in which the party made electoral strides across the nation. The PR’s success has led the BN coalition to worry that their rule is beginning to crumble along with their ability to protect the legally enshrined privileges of the ethnic Malay majority. Opposition PR leader Anwar Ibrahim has had a roller-coaster rise to prominence since the March elections, and two opposition victories in recent by-elections have heightened the BN’s fears. Meanwhile, the global economic slowdown is weighing more heavily on Malaysia’s industries and households.

Four lawmakers in Perak’s state assembly have defected since Jan. 25 from the PR-led coalition, giving the BN and its allies the upper hand by one seat. Nizar moved to dissolve the assembly as a result of the defections, calling for a new election, but he failed to ask the sultan’s approval. The sultan ordered the state assembly leaders to resign Feb. 5, and the next day the former chief minister was physically removed from his office in Ipoh by police. On Feb. 6, riot police dispersed 3,000 supporters of the former government with tear gas when they attempted to bring their protest to the sultan’s Iskandariah Palace in Kuala Kangsar as the new chief minister and executive council were sworn in. The event has sparked a statewide constitutional crisis, but Anwar has ruled out waging a legal battle (despite the wishes of allies in Perak), seeking instead to get the sultan to change his mind so that the state can hold new elections.

State politics in Perak aside, many suspect that Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is set to become prime minister in March after current Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi steps down, had a hand in orchestrating the four defections and seeking the sultan’s help. This marks a potential shift for Malaysian politics, in which the ruling party works hand in glove with the royals to maintain the status quo. Both the ruling coalition and the opposition are searching for potential defectors to strengthen their power in Kuala Lumpur (often with bribes for those willing to change sides). Both sides will attempt to benefit from this incident, with the BN claiming that the opposition has undue respect for the sultan and the PR claiming that the state’s democratic representation has been curtailed. With the global economic slowdown taking a greater and greater toll on Malaysia’s economy, political struggles (and social instability) look set to intensify.