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Inside Story

Is it time for change in Malaysia?

As the nation prepares for polls, we ask if the opposition leader can shake off years of allegations and controversy.

Last Modified: 04 Apr 2013 15:22
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The parliament in Malaysia has been dissolved and the gloves are off as political leaders gear up for a fight over corruption, discrimination and the cost of living.

"This is a crucial election for the prime minister and the ruling coalition but ... I think there is a certain degree of ... quiet confidence that the Barisan Nasional will retain power for three reasons. Number one ... the series of by-elections that were held before 2010 ... Barisan did fairly well in those by-elections .... Number two, the prime minister has introduced a series of reforms among them economic reforms .... And number three, the demands from a certain segment of our society for a greater democratic space, he's been able to respond to those demands to some extent ... "

- Chandra Muzaffar, a Malaysian political scientist

Parliamentary polls will pit the National Front Coalition, which is in power since 1957, against a resurgent opposition.

The ruling group has already been knocked back, suffering its worst ever results in 2008 elections. And it will not be plain sailing this time either.

Malaysia is geographically split in two parts - there is a narrow peninsula in the western region and that is where the capital Kuala Lumpur is. And across the South China Sea is the eastern part, forming part of Borneo island.

Malaysia is also an ethnically diverse country. Ethnic Malays make up 60 percent of the population and they are the most dominant group in politics.

Ethnic Chinese form around one-quarter of the population and they hold a lot of the economic power. Ethnic Indians and indigenous peoples are among the poorest in Malaysia.

In the forthcoming elections, three million first time voters - nearly one-quarter of those eligible - will have to decide who to give their support to.

But who are the key political players?

Najib Razak is the current prime minister, and his National Front Coalition has been in power for more than 50 years. Najib himself took over in 2009, following a disastrous election for the coalition, which lost its two-thirds majority in parliament.

Najib will be highlighting Malaysia's strong economic growth under his stewardship as a reason for re-election.

"I think the very fact that this prime minister has allowed the parliament to almost automatically dissolve shows that there is actually not much confidence in the many transformation programmes that he has put in place .... Despite the relatively decent economic performance of the country, many people on the street do not feel any ... significant increase in their incomes, the perception is that inequality is actually rising ... the cost of living in the urban areas continues to increase .... I think the majority of the voters feel that this is an opportune time for there to be a transition in government after 56 years of Barisan Nasional rule."

- Kian Ming Ong, an election strategist for the opposition Democratic Action Party

"In the last four years, all Malaysians have experienced and witnessed a huge change in the economy, the politics and socially within our nation under the government's transformation programme, which has brought tremendous change to peoples' lives and prosperity to the country," he said.

"I urge all Malaysians and the parties to take note that if there is a change of power at federal or state level after the next election, [it] must be transferred peacefully and smoothly."
 
On the other side, Anwar Ibrahim is the leader of the opposition and a former deputy prime minister. He was fired from office in 1998 and tried for abuse of power and sodomy.

Anwar spent six years in jail but was eventually cleared of the charge. He was also acquitted of new allegations of sodomy last year - he has called all the charges politically motivated.

Anwar is pledging to tackle government authoritarianism and corruption. He is promising to cut taxes, increase subsidies and address complaints of discrimination against minority ethnic Chinese and Indians.

So is it time for change? And can the opposition leader shake off years of allegations and controversy?

To discuss this, Inside Story, with presenter Kamahl Santamaria, is joined by guests: Chandra Muzaffar, a Malaysian political scientist, Islamic reformist and activist; Kian Ming Ong, an election strategist for the opposition Democratic Action Party; and Zachary Abuza, a professor of political science at Simmons College, Boston, who also specialises in southeast Asian politics and security issues.

"I think the government can take a lot of credit for what they've done ... they have made great improvements in race relations. Back in November 2007 there were some of the worst riots in the country so I think he's [Najib] done a lot there. He's certainly improved the country's international standing and Malaysia has played a very important role in dealing with some regional conflicts in the Philippines and southern Thailand .... And yet we have an opportunity for the opposition, clearly not everyone has gained ... the economy is growing but it always creates winners and losers. The government has had to come out in the past year with roughly $2bn in cash handouts which might be important, but to many look like a blatant vote buying tactics, so there is a lot to be said."

Zachary Abuza, a professor of political science at Simmons College, Boston

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Al Jazeera
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