Malaysia’s Rancid Election

There are fears of violence, but observers think they’re overblown – or hope they are

John Bethelsen, Asia Sentinel 

Malaysia’s May 5 national elections are taking place against the backdrop of the most rancid ethnic and political atmosphere since 1969, when race riots shook the nation and led to the deaths of hundreds of ethnic Malays and Chinese.

Campaigning, which technically is limited to the period after the election commission sets the date, has been going on for as much as two years as the ruling Barisan Nasional slugged it out with the Pakatan Rakyat. With 13 million voters registered, an estimated 25 percent of them are going to the polls for the first time, delivering what has been called a real wild card. While inflation, educational opportunity, corruption and crime are issues, they pale against the questions of power and race. 

Two NGOs held a joint press conference Wednesday, asking the Australian and UK governments and the United Nations to put pressure on Malaysia to ensure that the elections will be fair and free. The government has refused to allow international observers and in February stopped Australian senator Nick Xenophon at the airport and expelled him when he tried to enter the country after producing an international fact-finding report that accused the election commission of gerrymandering districts in favor of the government. 

The organizations are the international wings of Bersih, the election reform NGO, and Suaram, a human rights NGO. Supporters of the Barisan Nasional allege that the two organizations are closely aligned with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, which both organizations vehemently deny, saying they are independent organizations seeking to clean up politics.

In the press conference, the two groups alleged that political violence, death threats and widespread electoral fraud are escalating, which is clearly true although seasoned political observers in Kuala Lumpur say things aren’t as bad as the two say, and that in fact those committing the ugly acts are a small minority who do not appear likely to infect the larger society.

“There’s truth to many of the things they said at the press conference,” said a longtime political observer. “But I think they are stretching it a little too much. At the end of it, Malaysians in general – across all religions and races – have shown they won’t be baited by these guys. I am hoping that the vast majority will remain this way despite the provocations. Still, there is an imminent threat that things may turn bad.”

Still, that observer said he and others with the means intend to vote early and leave the country in case of violence, staying away until they see how things shape up.

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