Malaysia in historic vote as jailed icon takes on govt
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Malaysia held a historic election on Sunday as charismatic opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim – a former deputy PM who was jailed on sodomy charges – took on what he says is a moribund and corrupt ruling coalition in a neck-and-neck race.
As Malaysians headed to the polls on Sunday, the region held its breath. The legislative elections are expected to be the country’s most decisive in history, as the long-standing ruling party faces its first serious leadership challenge since national independence in 1957.
Prime Minister Najib Razak is faced with tough competition from opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is best known abroad as the jailed former deputy prime minister who was accused of having sex with his wife’s male driver.
Imprisoned in 1998 for six years, he successfully overturned his sodomy charges in 2004 and has since re-emerged as his former party’s biggest threat. Today, he is taking Malaysia’s stagnant political scene by storm with his popular People’s Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat), an unlikely coalition comprising his own multi-racial party, a secular Chinese-majority party and a conservative party of Muslim Malays.
A popular pro-democracy activist and fierce critic of race-based policies, Anwar has pledged to root out what he says is rampant corruption among his former colleagues at the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has ruled the country for over half a century.
Seemingly steadfast since 1957, the political bulwark finally began to lose its grip on power in 2008, when it failed to gain a two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time in post-independence history.
Currently holding 135 of 222 seats in parliament as part of the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition, Prime Minister Najib’s party now faces a defeat at the hands of its former deputy prime minister.
“This election is the most pivotal election in Malaysia’s history,” political science professor Bridget Welsh of the Singapore Management University told FRANCE 24. “It’s the first time that the opposition has a fighting chance of winning .”
A survey released on Saturday by polling house Merdeka Center placed Najib's coalition and Ibrahim’s alliance neck-and-neck, with 85 and 89 seats respectively. It said that 46 of the seats were too close to call.
Boom and bust
The ruling party prides itself on economic success – in 2012 the country enjoyed 5.6% growth and wages have sky-rocketed in recent years. But its strict ethnic quotas, which were introduced in universities and state institutions in 1970 in order to regulate discrimination, have come under harsh criticism in recent years.
Largely benefiting the majority Malay population (62% of inhabitants), four decades of quotas have left ethnic Chinese (26%) and Indian (7%) minorities feeling deprived and frustrated.
The wealth gap between the country’s highest and lowest earners is now larger than ever before, and one of the widest in the region.
“Here in Malaysia it’s no longer a question of ethnicity, but a question of class,” political science professor Terence Gomez of the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur told FRANCE 24. “This conflict is integral to all of Malaysia’s ethnic communities.”
Prime Minister Najib has attempted to seek favour with lower earners in recent weeks by offering 500 ringgit (126 euro) handouts to the country’s poorest households. But his last-minute efforts may not have had the desired effect among the neediest of voters. “I don't feel this big economic growth,” a 49-year-old office clerk from Kuala Lumpur was quoted by Reuters as saying. “This bribe from the government seems a bit insincere to me.”
The term bribe is only too common for Malaysians. In recent years, a growing anti-corruption sentiment among the country’s poorest has developed into a popular street movement, of which opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is a leading figure.
“We have revealed an enormous amount of corruption in our country,” he told FRANCE 24. “Abuses of power, attacks against ethnic and religious minorities – including Christians – it is time to stand up bring an end to this racism, religious sectarianism and corruption,” he said.
A ‘most extraordinary’ politician
Not only popular in his own country – where his rallies attract tens of thousands of supporters – Ibrahim’s compelling cause has also brought him favour in the West. The circumstances of his own arrest and jail sentence, which he has always said was a political smear campaign orchestrated by his rivals, brought him serendipitous popularity among progressive thinkers both inside and out of the country.
Following his ordeal, he has repeatedly said that while he opposes same-sex marriage, he believes that sodomy – which is still illegal in Malaysia – should not remain an unlawful offence.
In 2008, Time Magazine named him the ninth most influential person in the world. The following year, Britain’s The Economist described him as “South-East Asia’s most extraordinary politician”.
Nonetheless, Ibrahim still has a long way to go. The electoral system in Malaysia allows rural constituencies, which tend to favour the ruling party of Najib Razak, a heavier hand in the outcome of legislative elections. In 2008, the ruling coalition won only 51% of the votes, but gained 63% of seats in parliament.
But Ibrahim is staunch in his belief of change. “No power on earth can stop the power of the people,” he told ecstatic crowds at one of his final rallies before Sunday’s poll. Entering battle with an all or nothing attitude, Ibrahim has already said that if the opposition fails to win the election, he will step down as leader.
“People have to accept that I have given all that I have,” he told AP. “I have given a lot of my personal life and suffered immensely.”