From Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
By Vikram Nehru
There has been growing speculation that the thirteenth Malaysian general elections will be held in June this year. But massive demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur on April 28 organized by Bersih (a civil society coalition for clean and fair elections) that ended in tear gas and pitched street battles, may have thrown a spanner in the government's plans.
The inevitable finger pointing between Bersih and the police that followed (some 380 people were arrested, significantly less than a similar rally last year) masks the more important point that there is popular belief that the election system is rigged in favor of the ruling Barisan Nasional.
The Election Commission has been at pains to announce that it has implemented many of the recommendations of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reforms, which conducted a genuine and nationwide consultative process. One recommendation being implemented is the use of indelible ink to prevent voter fraud, a recommendation put forward by Bersih itself.
The Election Commission also scrutinized the electoral rolls and found few irregularities, but so deep is the distrust in the country that this result appears to have carried little credibility.
The accuracy of the electoral poll in Malaysia is indeed a critical matter that must be beyond reproach. There are several swing states where small margins can change the national result significantly.
In the meantime, Prime Minister Najib has embarked on a charm offensive. He fulfilled an earlier promise by repealing the Internal Security Act, which allowed for preventive detention without trial. The government also passed a law that allows students to join political parties (although political events on campuses are still banned).
These actions no doubt will positively impact the prime minister's popularity, which was already high following a populist budget and a recent report complimenting the government on the implementation of its economic reform package. But while the prime minister enjoys very favorable ratings in the polls, his party, Barisan Nasional, does not.
This has given the opposition parties some hope, although they have yet to coalesce and offer a clear alternative. The scenes over the weekend of street protests and tear gas, together with allegations of police brutality, will likely help the opposition and hurt the government. This could further narrow the difference between the incumbent Barisan Nasional and the main opposition coalition.
All the tea leaves suggest a close race, perhaps closer than the one in 2008 when the opposition took five of thirteen state legislatures and over a third of the seats in parliament, denying the Barisan Nasional a two-thirds majority.
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