Malaysia’s sixty-year ruling party facing electoral defeat

The 14th Malaysian general election – GE14 – is going ahead on May 9th. The ruling National Front (BN) government is expected to face intense competition from the main opposition coalition, Alliance for Hope (PH), similar to that staged in the last two general elections of 2008 and 2013. This time it could be the ‘mother of all general elections’ – ‘do or die’ for the governing party – in power since independence from Britain in 1957.

Neither ‘Najibnomics’ nor ‘Mahathirism’ 

With increasing living costs and the unpopular GST (Goods and Services Tax), as well as various scandals and corruption in the government,  the PH could gain considerably more support or even have the possibility of winning the GE14 and forming a government for the first time.

Mahathir Mohamad, the long-serving former prime minister in the National Front government for 22 years and now with the opposition Hope Alliance, has vowed to unseat the scandal-filled current prime minister, Najib Razak and UMNO (the United Malay National Organisation) – the dominant party within the National Front. Mahathir, now 92 years old, is also considered as the Prime Ministerial candidate for the Hope Alliance. Amazingly, he is being supported by Anwar Ibrahim, who was sacked and jailed by Mahathir during a power struggle within UMNO at the time of the Asian financial crisis in 1998. Anwar is currently serving a new politically-motivated jail term under the present BN government and is expected to be released from jail in June this year. Mahathir has promised to handover power to Anwar, if the PH wins the election.

With both the BN and PH coalitions consisting of pro-market right wing parties, the general election will be a stage for a battle for power with populism rather than giving concrete solutions to working and middle class demands for real change.  In fact, in this general election, the people are only given two choices, either continuing with ‘Najibnomics’ or bringing back ‘Mahathirism’ to implement ‘reform’.

Two sides of the same coin

Najibnomics is linked to Najib Razak’s economic policies which are aimed at making Malaysia a high-income nation. The GDP for 2017 increased to 5.8 percent compared to 4.2 per cent in 2016, and has been used as the benchmark for the success for Najibnomics. However, this phenomenon is not a development unique to Malaysia, as Najib has attempted to make out. There has been a slight increase in world economic growth in 2017, which has lifted Malaysia’s performance, but most economists have predicted that this growth is only temporary since the crisis in the global economy that began in 2008 has not been overcome. The problem that caused the crisis still exists and could possibly spark greater turmoil.

Between 2015 and 2016, eight multinational companies like Samsung and Seagate have shut down their factories in Malaysia due to the ‘weak market’ and ‘restructuring’ and to ‘ensure international competition’. Whether investment into Malaysia in 2017, including from China, can be sustained or not depends heavily on ‘market and international competition’.

The Malaysian economy is heavily dependent on the world economy and, if a new crisis arises, Najibnomics can shatter easily, as is shown by other crises like the Asia Financial crisis of 1998. The government is also using Najibnomics as a cover to conceal the scandals and corruptions such as the one connected with 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad).

Criticism against Najib has been growing since 2014 after he failed to explain the scandals of corruption and the mismanagement of billions of dollars of funds linked to 1MDB – an investment company wholly owned by the Government of Malaysia and led by Najib, who is also the finance minister. Various financial scandals connected to 11 billion dollars being lost from 1MDB involving Najib, his wife and family and corporate figures have been revealed. The Wall Street Journal revealed that around 700 million dollars were channeled to Najib’s private bank account just before the last general election in 2013. Although the government said that it was ‘donations’ from some businessman in the Middle East, the funds were believed to be from 1MDB and have been used for the BN’s election ‘goodies’ handed out in the last general election to gain votes.

Mahathirism refers to the agenda of neo-liberalism and autocratic government during the 22 years of Mahathir’s own reign. In fact, Najib is actually continuing with what Mahathir did during his tenure as prime minister! Scandals and corruption in the Najib government, now opposed by Mahathir, have long been deeply rooted during the Mahathir government. The clash between Najib and Mahathir is more a competition for power with the aim of safeguarding the agenda of cronyism and nepotism.

Opposition leaders such as Anwar Ibrahim say they are willing to cooperate with Mahathir solely to ‘save Malaysia’ from Najibnomics. By putting Mahathir forward as the main leader, the Alliance for Hope is relying on Mahathir’s achievements being compared with those of Najib. Some people, especially those who have been through the period of Mahathir’s rule, and believe that ‘life and the economy were better during the Mahathir era than under Najib’, would choose to vote for PH. It is undeniable that the deterioration of support for the BN in the last two general elections is due to the worsening economic impact on people.

The opposition leaders still believe that the reform agenda outlined by Anwar Ibrahim with other opposition parties in 1998 can be realised by allying with Mahathir. At that time, the CWI in Malaysia (Socialist Alternative) argued that Anwar Ibrahim’s ‘reformasi’ (reform) was not an agenda for building an alternative to the neoliberal capitalism which created the 1997 financial crisis. It was aimed more at saving the structure of capitalism itself from ‘Mahathirism’, which at one point was not favourable to international capitalists.

The coalition of Mahathir with the parties in the Alliance for Hope does not indicate a fundamental clash between Anwar’s ‘Reformasi’ and ‘Mahathirism’. Basically, they are willing to cooperate for the sake of safeguarding the structure of Malaysia’s capitalism from being destroyed by ‘Najibnomics’.

Weaker government but strengthened autocratically 

The governing coalition – Barisan Nasional – is at its weakest point at this stage but it still can use autocratic and undemocratic measures, government machinery such as the Election Commission and the support of the monarchy to win the election. At the last general election in 2013, although BN lost the popular vote, they still managed to form the government as a result of the uneven distribution of voters among the seats contested and with ‘first-past-the-post’ election procedures as well as the 3Ms – Money, Media and Machineries – that favour the ruling government.

The BN also plans to repeat the same strategies as at the last general elections to win the support of the rural Malay population (who in the past have been conservative and supportive of the government in power) as well as in the seats in the Borneo states (Sabah and Sarawak). All these are deemed to be part of the ‘BN deposit’.  However, the split in UMNO in Sabah and the impact of poorer living conditions generally could now favour the opposition coalition.

A few weeks before the dissolution of parliament, the BN carried out new delineation and gerrymandering for some parliamentary and state seats, and then enacted new anti-fake laws to dictate opposition criticism against government, and disband Mahathir’s party on technical grounds in order to undermine his PH coalition.

Using the success of Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ in the US presidential election as a model, the BN headed their manifesto: ‘With BN, Make Malaysia Great Again’. In it, the BN promised to raise the standard of living, including promising an increased minimum wage for private sector workers, wage increases to public sector workers, increased yearly monetary aids for low and middle income populations as well as various infrastructure projects if they are returned to power. But even with that, the greater hatred expressed towards GST and growing inflation could still translate into support for the opposition PH, which is presenting itself as a united coalition and a government-in-waiting with ‘solutions’.

The ruling BN is also using the ‘good’ economic factors – with GDP growth around 5.8 percent last year and increased investments, especially from China – to show that it has managed the economy well in the context of uncertainties and turmoil in world markets in the last five years. But the growth figures do not convince working and middle class people, whose living standards are continuously affected as a results of government policies to satisfy the markets and investors by implementing policies such as GST and the abolition of subsidies to some essential goods and utilities. In fact, the 5.8 per cent growth last year did not see an increase in the standard of living of the working class and the youth, or the middle class with an increase in income not matching the rising cost of living. The increased wealth from this economic growth still benefits the billionaires and political elites that continue to adorn the capitalist system and control the nation’s wealth by ignoring the needs and rights of the majority.

United opposition with right wing populism

The opposition Alliance of Hope is utilising the increasing cost of living which is also affecting the rural population, as well as the ‘Mahathir factor’, in order to gain rural support. Since a majority of the urban population supports them, if they could attract more support from rural voters, as well as the Borneo states, PH could win this general election.

However, it still won’t be easy going for PH, since PAS (Malaysian Islamic Party) which was the main puller of rural votes for the opposition coalition in the last general election, is now not part of the PH and it can play the role of a spoiler to prevent the PH gaining seats in rural areas. In this election, PAS is contesting against both BN and PH after leaving the coalitions on issues such as the use of Shariah laws.

PH’s election manifesto has: ‘10 promises in 100 days, to build the nation and fulfil hope’. Among other things it has promised to abolish GST, introduce free education and health services, increase the minimum wage and build democratic and uncorrupted government if it wins. It is using the ‘better achievement’ in terms of the economy and welfare programmes in the two wealthiest states (in terms of economy) – Selangor and  Penang  – that it won in the last two general elections. However, the population in these states is still facing higher living costs, uncontrolled housing prices and unsustainable development that incurs floods and other environmental problems. This demonstrates that they have no programme or alternative to address the vulture character of Malaysian and global capitalism.

Alternative to neoliberal capitalism

The PRM (Malaysian People’s Party), which had roots in left politics in the past, is now allowing its name to be used by some disgruntled leaders from the opposition with a right wing agenda as their political vehicle to contest in the elections. The PRM could face the same fate as the Workers’ Party, which is being used by one of the parties in PH. Rather than reviving the party with clear political alternatives, the PRM leadership has succumbed to a right wing opportunistic politics.

The Malaysian Socialist Party (PSM) which has been supporting and contesting the last general elections under the banner of an opposition coalition, has announced it will contest under its own banner in some seats after the PH did not give it any seats other than confining them to contest in just one seat where the PSM won last election, but under the PH banner.  This means that the PSM is forced into contesting against PH in this election. However, saying, ‘Vote for us whichever seats we contest and vote PH in other seats!’ or ‘ We will support a PH government’ will not clearly differentiate them politically when they undoubtedly have some strength from their activism and people-oriented struggles. Putting ordinary people or activists as candidates should be welcomed, but it should be accompanied by clear alternative policies, programmes and slogans that differentiate them clearly and show the way to overcome the social and economic problem face by the working and middle class.
With the vacuum of the mass party of the left, the mood of most voters that are unhappy with BN is to vote for the opposition. Independent candidates with a clear political alternative to right wing parties would be a platform for building a working class alternative.

Socialist Alternative has been arguing that an independent left, without any links or collaboration with pro-capitalist parties is the way to build the alternative political party of the working class and oppressed people. PSM should use the support that they could gain in the elections, as a platform to build independent anti-capitalist forces with socialism as an alternative to pro-capitalist politics.

With the global and regional economic instability, the country’s politics are expected to remain unstable after the election, whether BN or PH forms a government. Socialist Alternative has argued that simply converting from one leader to another leader or converting one party into another party, without an alternative agenda and policy to capitalism, changing the desires of the working class and young people, including the aspirations for a transparent and democratic government, cannot be realised. Without an alternative for the working class, the agenda of capitalism advocated by parties in BN or PH cannot be fought. They are always able to change faces and colours to promote themselves as an alternative to the ruling party, like what we are now seeing with Mahathir.

As long as the alternative mass political party based on socialism and the working class is not built and developed, the political elite of pro-capitalism will continue to confound and destroy the lives of ordinary people. Socialists, trade unions, working classes, young people and other oppressed societies have important tasks – to build an alternative to capitalism, and to build a democratic future and society by equitable distribution of wealth and the preservation of sustainable environments.

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