Malaysian elections thrown wide open by record total of independents

Knife-edge Malaysian elections are thrown wide open by a record total of independents

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 April, 2013, 4:22am


Infighting over nominations has led to a record 79 Malaysian independent parliamentary candidates, further complicating predictions for an election already widely seen as too close to call.

Party discord has affected both the 56-year-old ruling coalition and the three-party opposition, which are waging a bitter fight for May 5 elections shaping up as the most competitive in Malaysian history.

Final nominations for 222 parliament seats were unveiled on Saturday, kicking off the two-week campaign.

But a slate of would-be candidates on both sides, including incumbents, have gone rogue as independents after being left off their parties' lists.

"Party discipline is important. We will issue letters today to sack those who contested as independents," Prime Minister Najib Razak said yesterday.

Other parties, including those within the opposition, have made similar announcements.

In some districts in the Muslim-majority country, candidates from different opposition parties, which had pledged to work together, will now face each other, threatening to split their votes.

Independents could make a big difference in many closely fought battles, said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia politics analyst based at Singapore Management University.

"It's a combination of things - disgruntlement, party infighting, planting of people, a situation of more people entering the race. It's going to make things more complicated," she said.

The election pits a coalition dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has ruled Malaysia under a tight grip since independence in 1957, against an upstart opposition promising a more liberalised society.

The opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People's Pact) alliance aims to build on momentum from 2008 elections in which it tripled its seats in parliament, taking a third of a chamber long under the grip of UMNO and its allies.

Malaysians have feverishly awaited the vote after the 2008 election triggered speculation that the opposition could effect the country's first-ever regime change.

Most political observers have predicted a win for the ruling bloc with a reduced parliamentary majority, but dozens of seats are considered too close to call.

Ruling-coalition support has ebbed due to impatience with corruption, rising crime and living costs and its use of authoritarian tactics and divisive racial politics.

Most of multi-ethnic Malaysia's 29 million people are moderate-Muslim ethnic Malays who enjoy political supremacy and controversial economic advantages over sizeable Chinese, Indian and other minorities.