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Two weeks ago, operating on extreme sleep deprivation, I, as with many other Malaysians, was trying to make sense of the political tsunami, or as the Economist calls it, “the quiet revolution”, that occurred in Malaysia. In case you were under a rock, the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (National Front), suffered its worst defeat since independence – after winning its largest mandate just one election ago.

This surprised even the opposition, who had to scramble, trying to form a government in the states they netted (the opposition now controls five states, up from the previous one they held). One thing clear though, the votes that swung significantly in the opposition’s way was not because the opposition was particular great: in fact, it is a case of strange bedfellows, with Chinese-dominated social-democratic Democratic Action Party (DAP), Malay-dominated, populist-liberal People’s Justice Party (PKR) and Islamist Pan-Malaya Islamic Party (PAS) under the Barisan Rakyat (People’s Front).

This is why I’m not as optimistic about Malaysia’s political future as many other commentators. The opposition is under a significant burden to perform not even the best of them could do, especially where states have little autonomy in Malaysia, no less when it comes to economic and racial issues in which the government lost significant support. One of the opposition’s rallying cry in my constituency was local elections (local governments are presently appointed by state governments) – something that requires federal support.

And in many ways, they kind of lost the first test. The DAP, for one, has to tightrope two expectations – not to seem to be bedfellows with Islamist PAS (which non-Muslims, especially Chinese, distrust heavily) yet on the other hand maintain opposition unity. And in Perak, PAS probably dealt an effective blow to DAP’s hopes in the following elections.

In states with Malay sultans, like Perak, the Mentri Besar (first minister) has to be Muslim bar a special waiver by the Malay ruler. Perak’s regent refused such a waiver, despite DAP being handily the biggest winner in Perak (all of DAP’s assemblymen are non-Muslims). A compromise candidate would be from somewhat-secular PKR, where the mentri besar for Perak’s southern neighbour, Selangor, came from. Instead, the regent appointed a PAS candidate.

More than hurting DAP, PAS hurt their chances too, especially if the mentri besar is incapable of maintaining the coalition. PAS instead now seems politically opportunistic – putting its name forward despite having a tiny representation in the state’s legislative assembly. Hopefully, PAS’ true colours would be apparent through this. This election, they drop their raison d’être (an Islamic state) from their campaign, trying to win moderate Muslim and non-Muslim vote.

PAS campaign shift also marked another troubling aspect of the opposition’s win – its populist campaign. Far too often, the opposition has used rising cost of living and principally, petrol prices, to show how the government has dropped the ball. Yet inflation seems to be a global phenomenon, something no amount of price controls would change.

Anwar Ibrahim, on the campaign trail, touted his record as finance minister in the 1990s in keeping petrol prices stable (petrol price is subsidized and controlled by the federal government) – not a particularly fantastic achievement considering global oil prices then. If anything, it was Anwar’s failure to wean Malaysia from its fuel subsidies when global prices were low and economy growing rapidly.

But Anwar sees this record as good enough reason to be Prime Minister sooner rather than later. While BN may have won a handy 30-seat majority in the federal Parliament, much of is thanks from East Malaysia’s disproportionally overrepresented Sabah and Sarawak states. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi repaid this by giving the two states scant representation in his Cabinet.

East Malaysia is no stranger to crossing the floor. 14 years ago, then-opposition Sabah People’s Party (PRS) won Sabah’s elections. Their state government, however, lasted for a mere two weeks as most PRS representatives crossed the floor to Barisan Nasional (few years later, the much smaller PRS joined the ruling coalition). Anwar Ibrahim, who becomes eligible for public office in mid-April, seems – at least to the rest of us – to be banking on this to make him Malaysia’s 6th prime minister.

It would be tad premature to elevate the opposition to government now. With the exception of Kelantan (which has been ruled by Islamist PAS since 1990), the opposition is just learning the ropes of governance. While Anwar may have experience in that department (seemingly questionable by some account), few others in the opposition do.

More than that, the backdoor way of getting into government will cast a pall over Barisan Rakyat’s future electoral chances – unless a new Barisan Rakyat government exceeds voter expectations in a global economic downturn. Yes, elections in authoritarian Malaysia is significantly skewed towards the ruling Barisan Nasional but kicking Barisan Nasional out not through the ballot box but by enticing disgruntled MPs to cross the floor would not go so well with Malaysians.

After all, Malaysians in the four new opposition-ruled states have greeted their new overlords with guarded and wary optimism. Let shell-shocked Malaysians deal with this Teutonic shift in political realities.


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