Rodziah Ismail Ticker's Blog

Bagan Pinang By Election: Malaysia’s Crucial By-Election Test

Posted in Bagan Pinang, Election, Malaysian Politics, Pilihan Raya, Politics by rodziahismailticker on September 25, 2009

To be taken with a pinch of salt…

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Written by Our Correspondent
Friday, 25 September 2009

An obscure by-election could put UMNO’s future on the line

Malaysia’s fundamentalist opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia appears increasingly likely to win the country’s next by-election in the first poll that might actually start to realign power, despairing United Malays National Organisation insiders say.

“UMNO may lose the seat and start the demise of the party,” said a disillusioned party stalwart, although other observers point out that the ruling national coalition has a built-in edge from military and police voters.

The seat came open in the state of Negeri Sembilan with the sudden death of UMNO state lawmaker Azman Mohd Noor from blood poisoning in early September. Although it is a seat in a relatively obscure state legislature, if PAS takes it in the Oct. 11 by-election in what had been an UMNO stronghold, observers in Kuala Lumpur say, it will be a convincing demonstration that the fundamentalist Islamic party is breaking out of its rural stronghold on the eastern side of the country and that its power is growing.

UMNO is banking on the hope that of the 14,000 voters in the constituency, 5,700 are absentee postal voters, most of them soldiers and policemen, whose vote usually goes to the Barisan Nasional. The district is about 60 mi. south of the Kuala Lumpur conurbation.

The election comes at a time when Malaysia is suffering from a variety of economic, ethnic, religious and cultural strains that are being exacerbated by political maneuvering between the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition and the ruling Barisan Nasional. Annual gross domestic product fell a stunning 6.2 percent in the first quarter of 2009 as the world financial crisis disrupted Malaysia’s export-oriented economy. GDP continued to fall by 3.9 percent in the second quarter, killing job growth despite a massive fiscal stimulus package and accommodative fiscal policy from Bank Negara, the country’s central bank.

“They say it’s turning around, but a lot of people are losing their jobs, this (Eid Ul Fitri, the end of the fasting month) people are not spending, many companies are opting for early retirement for their workers,” said a Kuala Lumpur-based lawyer. “Hopefully (the fiscal package) does kick in soon, but I doubt it on the ground. It is going to hurt.”

As part of that fiscal stimulus, development spending is expected to hit RM55 billion (US$15.8 billion) for all of 2009 and rise to RM58 billion for 2010. However, construction spending is a double-edged sword. Malaysia’s construction companies are closely aligned to UMNO and increasingly jaded voters are concerned that the spoils will go to fat-cat cronies of the politicians.

Given these problems, PAS has emerged as a political powerhouse in urban areas as ethnic Malays have turned away from the scandal-ridden UMNO, attracted by PAS’s stated clean-government aims despite its strict fundamentalist policies. The party has been feeling its oats around Kuala Lumpur, seeking to ban beer sales in Malay areas and, most recently, pushing authorities to seeking to force the sexy rock superstar Beyonce Knowles into modifying her often provocative dress in advance of an Oct. 25 concert. Beyonce cancelled a show in Malaysia two years ago because of the country’s dress code.

Malaysia has been raising the hackles of human rights defenders, particularly with the scheduled whipping of part-time model Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno which was ordered by a Kuantan religious court for the offense of drinking beer. Kartika is now awaiting the lash. The same shariah judge more recently also ordered an Indonesian male to be caned for the same offence.

At the same time, however, it’s unsure just how much the fundamentalism carries over into the general population. The newspapers have continued to carry stories of late-night revels by urban Malay youth during the Ramadan fasting month, with as many as 200 young people drinking and dancing on tables in sexually revealing clothing at one event, although one observer says that by and large the country’s Malay young are largely conservative. He also expects them to vote in great numbers in upcoming elections, with as many as 1 million youthful new voters registered.

These strains are playing themselves out in Negeri Sembilan. In seven of the eight by-elections since the 2008 general election, the party that previously held the seat reclaimed it. However, in Negeri Sembilan UMNO appears likely to shoot itself in the foot by nominating Mohd Isa Abdul Samad, a party division head, to take on the PAS candidate, who has yet to be named. Isa was suspended for three years from UMNO for vote-buying. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has taken to almost daily attacks on UMNO,criticized the decision to nominate Isa, calling attention to the recent loss of a Penang seat because the national coalition candidate had been disbarred. UMNO, Mahathir said, has “not learned from earlier blistering mistakes.”

The 14,000-voter district is more than 20 percent ethnic Indian. It will be a test for Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to see if he has had any success in wooing Malaysia’s Indians, who make up about 8 percent of the total population, back to the fold. They have been furious over Muslim protests that forced cancellation of the relocation of the 150-year-old Sri Mahamariamman Temple to a site more convenient to them after housing estates had overtaken the onetime rubber plantation in which it had been situated. The obstreperous Muslim protesters paraded a severed cow’s head – an insult to Hindus, who venerate cattle — to the local town hall and dumped it in the protest.

Indians are also turned off by the politics of the Malaysian Indian Congress, the third leg of the Barisan Nasional. The party’s leader, S. Samy Vellu, is regarded as out of touch with his constituency and, with the rest of the party leadership, mired in corruption. Najib has endorsed the creation of a new party, Parti Makkal Sakti, and offered to attend the party’s Oct. 10 launch — the day before the by-election — as guest of honor. The party is an offshoot of the Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf, whose leaders were jailed last year under the Internal Security Act after anti-government rallies that turned violent. Najib has also attended ceremonies in the magnificent Batu Cave just north of Kuala Lumpur which houses a Hindu temple.

The overtures to the new party appear to be part of an desperate attempt on the part of UMNO to search out new component ethnic parties to prop up the flailing Barisan Nasional, the national coalition that has ruled Malaysia since its inception. The collapse of the MIC was accompanied by the collapse of the once-powerful Malaysian Chinese Association as well, as well as smaller parties like the mostly Chinese Gerakan and the PPP

In particular, the MCA finds itself in the middle of what one observer described to Asia Sentinel as “a circus.” Its leaders are beset with one of the biggest scandals in the country’s scandal-scarred history, with cost overruns for the Port Klang infrastructure project zooming out of sight. The port development was awarded as a turnkey project without competitive bid to well-connected political cronies of both UMNO and the MCA. Project outlays, originally projected at RM1.95 billion, ballooned to RM3.52 billion, with interest accounting for another RM3.9 billion by 2012. The parties to the contract have fallen on each other, describing illicit payments and filing lawsuits. The squabble appears set to wreck what is left of the MCA, with Chua Soi Lek and Ong Tee Keat battling each other for the leadership although both have been tainted by allegations of corruption. That means the Chinese are largely fleeing the Barisan for other parties.

The question is whether the Pakatan Rakyat coalition headed by Anwar Ibrahim is going to reap the whirlwind. PAS has come to dominate the political discourse in a way unthought of prior to the opposition coalition’s founding. Besides PAS, the coalition includes the Chinese chauvinist Democratic Action Party as well as Anwar’s own Parti Keadilan Rakyat, made up mostly of young urban Malays. Given the ethnic and religious strains, keeping the cialition together has been a demanding job.

“The Chinese thought that if they split the Malays they could win and dominate. But in my estimation, they will be faced with a weak UMNO, an increasingly strong PAS, and a weak Keadilan,” a source said. “The Chinese will vote DAP, meaning it will be a 100 percent Malay government with the Chinese on the outside, given the decimation of the MIC and the MCA.”

Asia Sentinel

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