In Malaysia, the 13th general election has been called by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak after a year-long speculation.
More than 13 million Malaysians will go to the polls on May 5. This is the first time that the ruling party has gone through the full five-year term before dissolving parliament.
Critics claim that the ruling coalition has lacked confidence to face the electorate on several contentious issues. It faces growing anger due to rising racial and religious tensions, allegations of corruption involving its leaders directly or indirectly, the rising cost of living, police brutality, continued detention without trial and the awarding of scholarships to students based on racial quota and not merit.
Najib, who became prime minister after his predecessor quit four years ago, has never led the party in a general election and political pundits argue that this has put him in a difficult position to force through any potential policy changes.
The election could be the closest in history. Najib needs to reverse the huge gains the Anwar Ibrahim-led opposition alliance Pakatan Rakyat (PR) made in 2008, when the ruling National Front lost five of 13 states and the two-thirds majority which it had enjoyed since Independence about 57 years ago.
The issues of the campaign include race, vote buying, electoral fraud, Hudud law and corruption.
The race card
A key factor in Malaysian elections is the question of race.
Most, if not all, parties are race-based and candidates are chosen with their ethnicity as the main consideration. Both sides of the divide are using the race card subtly or otherwise in their campaigns.
Despite several measures and concessions made to please the Chinese electorate, the community appears to be steadfast in its anti-establishment stand.
The Chinese-majority state of Penang which fell to the opposition for the first time is a symbol of non-Malay support for any party.
Several Malay NGOs are using the racial sentiment by calling for Malays to unite in order to preserve their supremacy which is enshrined in the Malaysian constitution.
They have openly demonstrated against policies that they claim has eroded their legislated special rights, especially in Penang where the 42-year-old New Economic Policy (NEP) favouring them, has been dismantled.
The government argues that the private sector is almost absolutely controlled by the Chinese and has very little opportunities for the Malays.
The private sector say this claim is unfair, as it does not receive preferential treatment from the government and they are all self-made with meritocracy being the most important consideration. Meanwhile, the government critics say, state funds are mainly from the revenue of the taxpayers which should be allocated for all.
The two hottest election battlegrounds are Penang and another opposition-ruled state Selangor in central Malaysia. The states attract the highest number of investments, providing strong revenue to the federal government. Najib has declared that these two states must be won at any cost while the opposition is fighting hard to keep them in its stable.
To win back diminishing popular support, the current administration started giving out cash handouts from last year to almost every segment of the society, saying that this was to alleviate the hardship brought about by the rising cost of living.
Civil servants, who traditionally support the ruling party, were given higher salaries and allowances. The opposition claims this is tantamount to vote buying, but the people are not complaining.
To counter this, the opposition alliance announced that it will bring down fuel prices and cut car prices drastically. And as another major draw, it announced that it will provide free education right up to tertiary level if it comes to power.
Claims of electoral fraud and allegations of the election commission as the ruling party’s tool were brought to the fore by the clean election movement called Bersih meaning clean.
Three major demonstrations were held over the last two years by the group. It attracted tens of thousands of protestors which turned violent when the police used brutal methods to quell them.
The government made some concessions finally but Bersih claims they are not enough with evidences of tainted electoral roll surfacing often.
Another major factor in the election is the more than three million first time voters.
While they are said to be generally leaning towards the opposition, the National Front has put in a lot of resources to win their hearts by using social media, an important campaign tool. The mainstream media are all owned by the government or linked to it.
Another contentious issue is the move by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) to try and usher in a future where the Islamic way of life becomes a part of every day life in Malaysia. PAS says they are willing to discuss the issue, but the implementation of the Hudud law is a matter beyond question and not up for negotiation or debate of any kind.
Despite disagreement with its partners over this, it has started pushing for the implementation of hudud in the state of Kelantan which it had been ruling for the last 20 years. Several Islamic practices are already in place there.
It says hudud would address a multitude of issues affecting Muslims. However, the non-Muslims fear that there will be long-term direct and indirect effect on them although on the surface it is meant only for the Muslims.
The opposition alliance is now in a bit of a fix over this - supporting the plan will mean losing non-Muslim votes while opposing it will see a backlash from Muslim voters. Depending on how the opposition alliance handles this issue, it will affect not only the thinking of Muslim voters but also the stand of the fence-sitters and new voters.
Corruption has never played a big role in Malaysians' voting decision in the past. However, things have changed this time around with the rapid advent of news portals and the social media.
The opposition has capitalised on this and used it to expose many corrupt practices involving government ministers and their family members. Although Najib announced strong measures to eradicate corruption, it does not seem to be winning the hearts and minds of the people, as those implicated continue to hold office.
Others who have been charged have either won their cases or have their appeals pending.
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