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Malaysia heading towards closest ever poll

This year's election is likely to be the most closely fought since the nation's independence five decades ago.
Last Modified: 19 Jan 2013 13:29
Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has been trying to make Malaysia more open, but has faced an uphill struggle [AFP]

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - When Azrul Azwar Ahmad Tajudin told his audience at an academic conference in Singapore that there was a chance Malaysia's opposition would take power in this year's elections, he had no idea that his analysis would trigger such a furore back home.

Azrul, chief economist with Malaysia's Bank Islam, outlined three possible scenarios for the parliamentary polls likely to be held in March, almost at the end of the current government's five year term.

There was a "high probability", his research suggested, that Pakatan Rakyat, a coalition of opposition parties led by Anwar Ibrahim, would win a tiny majority - an outcome that would mean a change in government for the first time since Malaysia gained its independence five decades ago.

A few days later, Azrul found himself suspended from his job at the bank.

"It seems I'm in hot soup," Azrul told Al Jazeera by phone. "Politics may have an impact on the economy in general, right? I had three parts to my report and the third was on the political outlook. I don't understand the reaction."

Azrul said that he believed his bosses may have come under political pressure.

"This was for me the most important result: that finally, after a decade of sporadic demonstrations, the people have won"

- Greg Lopez - Visiting fellow at the Australian National University. 

The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has dominated Malaysia's politics since independence, but is still working out how to adapt to a rapidly changing country a decade after the retirement of long-time leader Mahathir Mohamad.

Mahathir centralised power and cracked down on those who opposed him - even within his own party.

Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has since been trying to make Malaysia more open and democratic, but his attempts at political and economic reform - including a bold move to repeal repressive colonial-era laws - have largely failed to excite a new generation of younger, internet-savvy Malaysians, who doubt that the party shares its leader's enthusiasm for change.

"Najib means well, but his reforms are very much top down and on his party's terms," Keith Leong, a political analyst with Karim Raslan Associates in Kuala Lumpur, told Al Jazeera.

"Najib is very much an exemplar of the old Malay ruling class," he noted.

Complex nation

Malaysia's 28 million people are a vibrant mix of cultures and religions - from the Muslim Malays who make up about 60 percent of the population, to substantial communities of Chinese, Indians and indigenous people.

The loss of its cherished two-thirds majority in parliament in the last election in 2008 shocked UMNO and its partners in the Barisan Nasional coalition.

Party grandees pushed Najib into the leadership, in turn making him prime minister of this highly complex and rapidly evolving nation.

Promising reform, he repealed harsh laws such as the Internal Security Act that allowed for detention without trial, and pledged not to jail anyone for their political beliefs.

He also embarked on a number of initiatives designed to bring new dynamism to Malaysia's economy, create a more inclusive society and deal with corruption. With his eye on the younger generation, he even signed up to Facebook and Twitter.

"In 2008, no-one saw it coming. No-one was prepared for a real challenge," said Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies. "Now we all know there's a challenge. It's 2008, Part II. Consciousness has changed."

Buoyed by the 2008 result, the opposition, which groups together Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the Democratic Action Party and Parti Islam SeMalaysia, has also sought to cement its support.

It has challenged the government in parliament and exposed suspected high level corruption, while promising to create a fairer and more inclusive society [PDF].

Women's Minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil left her post after the opposition revealed that hundreds of millions of ringgit that was supposed to have been used to develop a dairy industry had actually financed the purchase of luxury condominiums and cars (1m ringgit = $332,000).

Her husband and children had been put in charge of the project. Shahrizat, who heads UMNO's women's wing, denied any wrongdoing in what became known as the "cows for condos" scandal.

On January 12, at a rally dubbed #KL112, tens of thousands of people joined Anwar and Pakatan's other leaders at Kuala Lumpur's historic Merdeka Stadium, the place where the country's first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, declared independence from Britain in 1957.

For the first time, the police gave their permission for the rally and chose not to deploy the riot police.

As Anwar brought the event to an end with a cry of "Merdeka" - "freedom" in Malay - the significance of the event wasn't lost on the crowd, or the analysts and politicians who were watching.

"This was for me the most important result: that finally, after a decade of sporadic demonstrations, the people have won," said Greg Lopez, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University's Department of Political and Social Change.

"A whole series of rallies were met quite forcefully, but the numbers kept growing. BN [Barisan Nasional, the umbrella coalition of which UMNO is a member] finally realised that the days of treating Malaysians with violence are over. A new norm has developed."

Resistant to change 

Analysts are expecting this year's election to be the most closely fought in Malaysian history.

The two coalitions will be vying for the backing of more than 13 million registered voters; a fifth will be voting for the first time. But even though the opposition is facing its best ever chance of taking power, winning may still prove a challenge.

"He's (Najib- son of Malaysia's second primer minister)  been trying to reform the old guard, but these are very powerful people "

- Wan Saiful Wan Jan - CEO of Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.

Despite increasing urbanisation, Malaysian elections are largely won or lost in its rural heartlands, where constituencies are large and voters are spread out. Communities there are also likely to be more reliant on the state-run or mainstream media, which give scant and largely negative coverage to the opposition.

Although Pakatan can highlight its economic success in running the states of Penang and Selangor, Barisan Nasional is also likely to stress its prowess at the national level, where it has overseen the country's transformation from an agricultural backwater to manufacturing and trading hub.

Nonetheless, while a December poll by the Kuala Lumpur-based Merdeka Center showed Najib's approval rating at 63 percent, slightly lower than the previous survey in October, only 45 percent said they were "happy" with the government.

The reforms are "stopping him from losing votes", said Ooi. "He's holding his ground, but the times are against Barisan Nasional. Its paternalism rubs people the wrong way. They don't want to be 'told' anymore."

In some ways, UMNO is a victim of its own success. It has dominated Malaysian politics for decades, a self-styled champion of ethnic Malay rights and Islam with an estimated 3.3 million card-carrying members. But it's also a highly structured organisation where advancement depends on age, experience and connections.

Despite being tainted by allegations of corruption and cronyism, the party has proved resistant to change, even for someone such as Najib, the son of Malaysia's revered second prime minister and a nephew of the third.

"He's been trying to reform the old guard, but these are very powerful people," said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, founder and CEO of independent think tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. "As much as Najib might want to reform, he'll be restricted by how he can appease these warlords."

A video that went viral in Malaysia this week shows just how much the country has changed since Mahathir's time. At a forum in a hall in a northern university, a young female student and self-proclaimed socialist named KS Bawani stands up to question some of the comments made by the panellists.

As Bawani defends the Bersih movement, which led mass protests to clean up the electoral process, and calls for free education, panellist Sharifah Zorah Jabeen loses patience, orders the student to listen and takes away the microphone.

Sharifah, the president of a little known group named Suara Wanita 1Malaysia, then embarks on a tirade of her own, stressing that all students support the government. Sharifah herself was once a member of the Malaysian Indian Muslim Congress, part of the ruling coalition. The clip triggered outrage across social media and has inspired numerous parodies, including a dance remix that's had more than a million hits since it was posted on January 14. The ruling coalition has sought to distance itself from Sharifah, even as some of its members have echoed her views.

Azrul, who studied in France on a government scholarship, is also left pondering the influence of the country's more conservative forces. In a statement on Azrul's suspension, Bank Islam said Azrul's "political views and comments: should not be associated with the bank, but that his suspension was not connected to his "personal political views".

Azrul has already come to the conclusion that it's probably best for him to move on. "I think the best thing is for me to resign.' he said. "I don't want to burn bridges and I don't want others to suffer this kind of political pressure."

Follow Kate Mayberry on Twitter: @kate_mayberry

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