Malaysia’s Najib fails his first test

By Anil Netto (Asia Times)

BUKIT GANTANG, Perak – Malaysia's ruling coalition lost two of three by-elections held on Tuesday, in a result that shows that the change in prime minister from Abdullah Badawi to Najib Razak only four days prior has done little to stem the erosion in popular support for government led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

Many viewed the three local polls as an early referendum on the new premier, who took over after the UMNO-led ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition suffered a setback at general elections held in March last year. The BN lost five states to the People's Alliance opposition, made up of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic party (PAS), the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and the People's Justice Party (PKR), led by Anwar Ibrahim.

Among the five states BN lost was Perak, the site of a power grab last month led by Najib after the BN enticed three assembly members to cross over to its side in the Perak state assembly. The defections sparked a constitutional crisis over the legality of ousting the state's chief minister Nizar Jamaluddin and People's Alliance-led local government and replacing him with a BN candidate and UNMO-led state administration.

All eyes were on the federal parliamentary seat in Bukit Gantang in Perak, where Nizar was standing against an UMNO candidate. The by-election was widely viewed as a referendum on UMNO's assertion of its control over the state a month earlier. In the event, Nizar increased the People's Alliance's majority in the Bukit Gantang parliamentary constituency to 2,789, from 1,566 in 2008 – a shattering blow for Najib which is likely to intensify calls for a dissolution of the state assembly.

It represented a significant triumph for Nizar, who won overwhelming support from ethnic Chinese and Indian voters, even though he stood for the Islamic PAS party. Many view the charismatic politician as a potential successor to Anwar to lead the People's Alliance, and even as a potential future prime minister.

Meanwhile, in Kedah, another People Alliance-ruled state, an ethnic Indian PKR candidate clinched the seat in Bukit Selambau with a 2,403-vote majority over a candidate from the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), a minor race-based party in the BN that has struggled for relevance after a poor performance at last year's general election.

The PKR's increased majority was notable given that it had to contend with a record 13 independent candidates, who combined bagged a total of 1,326 votes. The MIC was trounced even in predominantly ethnic Indian areas within the constituency, calling into question the future viability of the BN's race-based political strategies.

In rural Batang Ai, in north Borneo's Sarawak state, the BN candidate increased the coalition's majority to 1,854, more than double the 806 votes it recorded in the previous state elections. Electoral victory came after the BN pledged millions of ringgit of state funds for development projects in the constituency, both before and during the election campaign.

The People's Alliance has bid to make inroads into the pivotal state, which along with neighboring Sabah are considered bastions of BN support and account for a quarter of the seats in the federal parliament. But the opposition is not as familiar with the region's different ethnic make-up and how what is euphemistically termed the "politics of development" can influence rural voters, who are often left out of the mainstream.

Some political analysts questioned the PKR's choice of candidate over another native ethnic Dayak, who was seen as a more consistent and forthright defender of the local community's interests. Sarawak, ruled by a powerful long-time chief minister, is mired by cronyism which critics say has drained state resources and depleted its rainforests.

Former premier and UMNO leader Mahathir Mohamad made a last-minute appearance in Batu Gantang and Bukit Selambau to campaign for the BN. His show of support came only after Abdullah Badawi, whom he had hand-picked as his successor, but strongly criticized while he was in office, stepped aside for Najib. Even so, the presence of the former strongman, who clamped down on dissent throughout his 22-year rule, had little impact in turning the tide in BN's favor.

"The by-election results will send a broadband message to Najib that the people want change and democratic reforms," said a resident of Bukit Gantang.

Najib no doubt recognizes these calls for reform, which have been widely articulated ever since the reformasi movement was unleashed in 1998. Among Najib's first steps as new prime minister was to lift the recent suspensions of PAS- and PKR-aligned fortnightly newspapers. Addressing journalists at the Malaysian Press Institute, Najib said he firmly believes there is a vital place for a vibrant, free and informed media.

"If we are truly to build a democracy that is responsive to the needs of all the people, we need a media – both old and new – that is empowered to responsibly report what they see, without fear of consequence, and to hold governments and public officials accountable for the results they achieve or do not achieve," he said.

Najib had earlier released 13 detainees held under the strict Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for indefinite detention without trial. He has vowed to undertake a comprehensive review of the controversial law, which has frequently been used for political purposes. One speaker at a People's Alliance by-election rally pointed out that another 27 detainees were still incarcerated in the Kamunting Detention Center near Bukit Gantang.

Despite Najib's public appeal to liberalism, few expect his administration to abolish the ISA, particularly with Mahathir now lurking in his government's background. Neither do they expect to see the laws that curb the media, including the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Official Secrets Act and the Sedition Act to be repealed any time soon.

Najib carries his own political baggage, most notably allegations linking him to the case of a murdered Mongolian woman. He has vehemently denied allegations of involvement, but so far not taken legal action against those who have made the charges. More specific to the ruling coalition's long-term prospects, the future of its minority race-based parties looks bleak.

The recent by-election contests showed that at least in the Malay peninsula competition is no longer between the BN and the People's Alliance but rather between UNMO and the Alliance. The BN's component minority parties can now only mobilize token support among ethnic Chinese and Indian voters. And UMNO-backed candidates have now lost all three by-elections they have contested held in the peninsula since last year's general elections. The BN has won only one out of five since last March's polls.

More worrying for the BN, a younger generation of voters – without the race-based baggage of their forebears and more attune to Internet-based independent media – are articulating issues-oriented politics and focusing on issues sensitive to UMNO such as corruption, human rights abuses and the need for more democracy. Najib will likely need to demonstrate that his liberal words are matched by democratic actions if the BN is to avoid losing outright the next general election.