It’s never been easy to be an opposition politician in Malaysia.
The country’s been run by the same coalition of parties since independence in 1957 in a system that Freedom House rates “Partly Free”. For decades, representing the opposition has been only for those with the ability to operate on a shoestring, and the stomach to cope with sustained attack from the ruling coalition.
But Malaysia is changing, and so is its politics.
Nowhere was this more evident than on Monday morning when Pakatan Rakyat, Malaysia’s newly energised opposition coalition, launched its manifesto.
The mood was optimistic the talk of “hope” and “change”.
“We are confident we can capture Putrajaya [Malaysia’s administrative capital],” coalition leader Anwar Ibrahim told the more than 1,000 party delegates attending the event.
The coalition – made up of Anwar’s Keadilan party, the Democratic Action Party and Parti Islam seMalaysia – unveiled a slew of policies that it believes will lead to a fairer and more just Malaysia.
Among its key pledges, a promise to tackle corruption and break up monopolies, reduce the cost of living, raise incomes and create new jobs by reducing the country’s dependence on unskilled foreign workers.
The opposition also says it will close down the controversial Lynas rare earths plant if elected and review a petroleum and gas project in the south of the country.
The coalition, much to its own surprise, won an unprecedented five states in the 2008 election and deprived the Barisan of its long-held two-thirds majority in the federal parliament. Pakatan points to its record in states such as Penang as an indication of what it can achieve when given the mandate to lead.
“The country and the people deserve better than what the [ruling] Barisan Nasional has been offering for the past 55 years,” Keadilan Strategy Director Rafizi Ramli told the audience. Since 2008, Rafizi has become one of the coalition’s most high profile young leaders, helping put corruption at the very top of the political agenda.
The ruling coalition, which has still to release its own manifesto for the 2013 poll, says the opposition won’t be able to afford to implement the plans outlined in its manifesto.
Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, who is more popular than the government that he heads, is hoping his own political and economic reform efforts, including changes to security laws, will encourage voters to give Barisan another chance. He’s also announced a raft of handouts with cash payments to the poor, bonuses for civil servants and vouchers for books and education. Najib is currently touring the country as part of a tour dubbed “Promises Fulfilled” and has still to set a date for the polls, which must be held by the end of June.
Opposition politicians have been travelling the length and breadth of the country too.
They sense their first real chance to take power in more than a generation. With both sides offering populist policies to lure an increasingly discerning electorate, the stage is set for what is likely to be the toughest battle for votes since independence.