Malaysian electoral equation spells end of political certainy
Resurgent opposition is within striking distance of victory at next month's vote, but it faces some serious questions if it takes the prize, not least of which is who will be the prime minister
Amy Chew in Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia's election on May 5 promises to be its closest ever, with the 56-year rule of the National Front coalition under threat. It also represents a struggle for the soul of the country's ethnic Malay majority.
Opinion polls predict a wafer-thin margin for the National Front led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, 59, who is facing a resurgent opposition under former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.
"Things have become a lot closer since January. The opposition has become very close to or even on par with the ruling coalition," said Ibrahim Suffian, programme director of the Merdeka Centre, an independent research institute.
The Merdeka Centre does not rule out the possibility of a hung parliament where neither the coalition nor the opposition has a ruling majority, which would result in a period of political and economic uncertainty.
Najib had been widely expected to call the elections, which had to be held before June, much earlier.
The opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) said the delay had benefitted it.
"The delay reinforces the notion that we are winning and this will have an effect on the fence-sitters who would want to be on the side of a so-called winning horse," PAS lawmaker Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad said.
Support for the ruling coalition, which the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) dominates as the largest party, has been eroded by allegations of corruption, financial scandals involving individuals linked to government officials and the high crime rate, according to analysts.
Both the government and the opposition are campaigning on a platform of clean governance and reducing the cost of living.
"Ideologically, both [the government and opposition] are the same. Both believe in capitalism. The economic policy is also largely the same," a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, Professor James Chin, said.
The fate of both sides will ultimately come down to the 60 per cent of the population who are Muslim Malays.
While the charismatic 65-year-old Anwar heads the country's opposition and grabs international headlines as he holds large crowds in his thrall with his wit and oratory, his multiracial People's Justice Party (PKR) does not get the lion's share of the Malay votes.
It is the Islamist PAS, the second party in the opposition coalition, that draws significant Malay votes and is emerging as the likely kingmaker.
"On an emotional level, if a Malay voter gives up on Umno, he will turn to PAS. They [Malays] have greater confidence in a party that professes to fight for Islam, for Malay rights," a political scientist from the non-profit 1Malaysia Foundation, Chandra Muzaffar, said.
According to the Merdeka Centre, PAS typically scores a few percentage points higher in the polls than the PKR.
A 43-year-old Malay businessman concurred.
"The Malays will normally vote for either Umno or Pas," the businessman, who declined to be named, said.
"A Malay usually will choose to be represented by a party that represents them in their religious and cultural beliefs."
The Malay businessman describes himself as a former Umno supporter who is still on the fence about who to support this time.
"I still haven't made up my mind," he said. "[The National Front] has been good to me in providing me with an education and a living. But going forward, I am concerned.
"I am disturbed by incidents of corruption. We cannot have a government that blatantly exploits the country's resources."
The third party in Anwar's coalition, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), is dominated by Chinese and is expected to gain substantial votes from the country's Chinese community, who make up 24.6 per cent of the population.
In a poll by the Merdeka Centre in December, Chinese support for the government had slipped to 34 per cent, from 46 per cent a month earlier.
Events in recent months have highlighted the strength and depth of PAS's reach within the Muslim Malay community.
In January, during one of the largest opposition rallies in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, where some 80,000 people gathered, 75 to 80 per cent of the crowd were PAS members, testifying to its reach, discipline, well-oiled machinery and loyalty among its rank and file.
PAS is the oldest, largest and best organised of the three parties that make up the opposition coalition. Its founding in 1951 was inspired by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, among others, according to the party's website.
The founding core leaders of PAS studied under the Muslim Brotherhood's founder, Hassan Al-Banna, in Cairo in the 1940s.
PAS membership has more than doubled since 1998, when Anwar was sacked as deputy prime minister by then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who accused Anwar of being "unfit" for office.
That same month, Anwar was arrested after leading a 30,000-strong protest through Kuala Lumpur.
He was later sentenced to six years in prison for corruption and received a second, consecutive nine-year term in August 2000 on a sodomy charge.
As a consequence of Anwar's jailing, PAS expanded its support base beyond its traditional stronghold in the rural states of Kelantan and Terengganu on the east coast to urban centres throughout the country by attracting "the middle class, the business class and professionals from the urban centres".
Anwar's sympathisers joined PAS as there was no alternative political party for them at that time. When Anwar's wife set up their own party in 2003 while he was still in jail, many of Anwar's supporters stayed with PAS, according to the Merdeka Centre.
Anwar was freed in September 2004, when the Federal Court quashed the sodomy charge, but was still banned from seeking office until April 2008.
If the opposition should win, the key question is what kind of policies and shape of government is likely to emerge given the disparate ideologies of the three parties that make up Anwar's coalition, known as the People's Alliance.
Conservative segments within PAS want to implement an Islamic criminal code, known as Hudud law, in the unlikely event that it gains the two-thirds majority needed to change the country's federal constitution.
The plan is strongly opposed by the DAP.
Also up in the air is the question of whether or not Anwar Ibrahim will have the full blessing of PAS to be the prime minister. Given the strength of PAS, the party's endorsement is of utmost importance.
Local press reports and Bloomberg have quoted PAS president Hadi Awang as saying that it will wait until after the elections to announce who it supports as prime minister.
Some PAS supporters have expressed their desire for Hadi Awang himself to be the next prime minister if the opposition should win.
"I will be voting for PAS," said a civil servant who declined to be named.
Asked whether he supported Anwar as prime minister, he replied: "For me, the person who will make a good leader is Hadi Awang, among others.
"The current Prime Minister Najib, for me, is also a good leader. But there are people below him who are corrupt and it is very difficult for him to stop it. He is trying his best and it will take time."
The Merdeka Centre believes it will, ultimately, be Anwar Ibrahim who takes office should the opposition pull off an upset victory, as he has the qualifications, stature and the experience to run the country.
"Anwar has been the subject of a lot of attacks," the Merdeka Centre's Ibrahim said.
"Within PAS, there are conservative elements who perceive Anwar as carrying a lot of baggage so the leadership downplays Anwar. They are keeping it open until after the elections as part of the election strategy," Ibrahim said.