Sunday, March 14, 2004

"This isn't the time to experiment with the opposition"

Last Updated: Sunday, 14 March, 2004, 17:26 GMT

Malaysia's predictable politics
By Jonathan Kent
BBC correspondent in Kuala Lumpur

Woman walks past election campaign posters of Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi
The ruling Malaysian coalition has won the last 10 general elections
The first rule of Malaysian politics and the only one that you really need to remember is that "the government gets to win".

Close government control of the media, changes to constituency boundaries and a gross mismatch between government and opposition finances combine to make this a virtual certainty.

When the country goes to the polls on Sunday, there is little doubt that the ruling National Front coalition will be re-elected by a handsome margin.

After all, the "Barisan National", as it is known, and its predecessor the Alliance won every one of Malaysia's 10 previous general elections.

"This isn't the time to experiment with the opposition," Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi told voters.

In Malaysia, it never is.

However, many seem to be hoping that change can come about without changing their government.

Gone is the old prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a man who during his 22 years in power became almost as much a hate figure amongst some in Malaysia as he was a hero to others.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad waves to his state's candidates at the nomination centre in Kedah
Former PM Mahathir Mohamad ruled over Malaysia for 22 years
He admitted as much early in this campaign.

"The November 1999 elections were in my opinion the most resounding vote against the accumulated burdens of the Mahathir years," says Rehman Rashid, associate editor of the government-linked New Straits Times newspaper.

Four and a half years ago, the key issue was the jailing of the former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim - an act seen by many as a political vendetta by Dr Mahathir.

"We were recovering from the deepest economic recession in our modern history.

"There was enormous political unrest over the Anwar Ibrahim affair. It was such a slap in the face for the way the country had been administered until then, but it was not enough to unseat the government."

Mr Anwar may still be behind bars, but Abdullah Badawi is counting on his being largely forgotten by voters.

He is also helped by two other factors - an increasingly buoyant economy and the fact that he is not Dr Mahathir.

Key rural states

So far, Mr Abdullah seems to have adeptly read the public pulse and he is reaping the rewards in popularity.

He has promised to eliminate corruption, dump the mega-projects on which his predecessor spent so much of Malaysia's cash and bring prosperity to poor rural areas instead.

"The promotion of small- and medium-sized enterprises and the promotion of the agricultural sector actually addresses the needs of the rural Malay electorate," says economist Terence Gomez.

"This is an electorate that the Mahathir administration neglected in the past."

These are the voters who most conspicuously deserted Mr Abdullah's party at the last polls and he needs to win them back. The key battlegrounds in this election will be the northern states of Terengganu and Kedah.

The conservative Islamic party Parti Islam seMalaysia (Pas) won Terengganu for the opposition in 1999 and made strong inroads into Kedah.

Both states are rural, the electorate predominantly Muslim Malays.

Closing the poverty gap

Malaysian opposition Islamic Party (PAS) supporters chant outside the nomination centre in Kuala Terengganu
Terengganu State in the north is ruled by the opposition Islamic Pas
The Pas is Mr Abdullah's most formidable opponent this time round.

The breadth of its membership belies the rather trite Islamic fundamentalist label that is so often applied.

Its leader in the state of Selangor, Hassan Ali, is not a rural religious leader peddling fire and brimstone, but rather one of the many educated middle-class professionals who see Islam as a socially responsible, egalitarian faith.

"Even in Selangor, the wealthiest state in Malaysia, the gap between the rich and poor is fantastic," he says.

"The government has not been able to narrow the gap - so when we come into power one thing we wish to highlight is our ability to close that gap," he says.

There are others in the party however who saw its surge of support in 1999 as a vote for an Islamic state rather than a protest against the shortcomings of Dr Mahathir's government.

They may be misreading the runes.

Hassan Ali says strict Islamic hudud laws will not be introduced in areas like Selangor which have a large non-Muslim population, only in overwhelmingly Malay Muslim areas.

But even there, many voters are more interested in honest approachable government than in having separate supermarket queues and swimming pools for men and women.

Chinese weight

The government is playing on the fear of Islamic fundamentalism to win over Malaysian Chinese voters.

The Chinese have a saying: 'Once you get the power of money you can change the world'
Jadryn Loo, Malaysian Chinese Association

However, despite making up a third of the electorate, the Chinese community has not had one of its politicians appointed to any of the top ministerial posts in over 30 years.

"In Malaysian politics, the Chinese accept certain compromise," says Jadryn Loo of the government party, the Malaysian Chinese Association.

"They don't mind not having much say in the government as long as they are able to make money, to have tolerance of culture and education, peace and stability."

She says the community just wants to be left alone to get on with business.

"The Chinese have a saying: 'Once you get the power of money you can change the world', and this is the thing the Chinese have been carrying for the last 400-500 years."

Forgotten community

If Chinese voters are on the sidelines, then pity Malaysians of Indian descent.

Though they make up about a tenth of the electorate, they are almost entirely ignored.

The leader of another government party, Gerakan, is reported to have recently told Indian members of his supposedly multiracial grouping that they were not wanted.

Every one of Gerakan's 40-plus candidates will be ethnic Chinese.

Muniyamah, a widow who lives in a plantation village near Kuala Lumpur and who is struggling to bring up 10 children on $US 70 a month, says politicians simply do not care.

"No politician ever comes to help people like us. Nobody is interested," she says.