Malaysia Post-Election Watch: May 5, 2013 Parliamentary Elections

June 17, 2013, 3:14 p.m.

Originally posted on  IRI. org on June 14, 2013.

Following the dissolution of parliament by Prime Minister Najib Razak on April 3, 2013, Malaysia held its 13th general elections on May 5, 2013. The elections marked an important moment for Malaysian politics as they were indicative of progress by opposition parties to capitalize on the loss of popularity of the ruling coalition, particularly among Chinese voters.  The elections saw the largest voter turnout in the country’s history, 80 percent according

to the Malaysian Election Commission (MEC).  A total of 579 parliamentary candidates contested 222 parliamentary seats from 15 political parties.  According to the MEC’s official results, the incumbent ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN) won 133 seats and the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) obtained 89 seats.  This despite the opposition PR winning 51 percent of the popular vote.

Political Environment

While these elections garnered the highest voter turnout in Malaysian history with 80 percent of the eligible voters casting ballots, the political environment during and after the elections remains tense.  The official 15-day campaign period was eventful and marked by a number of reports of alleged election violations.  Despite the official campaign period, unofficial campaigning occurred by both the ruling BN and opposition PR coalitions for months before the official election announcement.  There were some concerning instances of politically motivated violence including explosions at several campaign sites, one of which occurred on April 23 in Penang state at a BN campaign rally.

However, the political environment before, during and after the results were announced has focused on alleged violations of the election process and its lack of fairness.  These allegations have included alleged threats, vote-buying, public resources being used to aid political campaigns, biased media reporting in favor of the ruling coalition and a lack of financial transparency despite limits on campaign spending.  Allegations of electoral irregularities continue to remain a keen area of debate including the use of the same expired identity card number for different persons living at the same address, armed forces personnel being registered to vote twice, eligible voters who are living and voted in 2008 but had their names removed for the upcoming elections, fast-tracked citizenship for illegal immigrants or foreign workers whose names had been formally added to the voter rolls, and “phantom voters,” non-Malaysians voting.

Furthermore, while the process on Election Day was relatively peaceful many observers have expressed serious concerns about the fairness of the electoral process.  This is best illustrated by the controversy surrounding the use of indelible ink.  The “seven-day” indelible ink was reportedly easily removed using only soap and water immediately after it was applied.  This raised concerns of possible opportunities for an individual to vote multiple times and has been noted by citizen election observers providing evidence for claims by the opposition of the perpetuation of electoral fraud.

Election Impact

Hours after the polls closed in Malaysia’s 2013 general elections, PR opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim declared that PR had won on his Twitter account.  Later that night, before BN was declared the winner-elect, Ibrahim held a press conference and cited various examples of fraudulent polls.  The opposition continues to emphasize various instances of voter fraud allegedly conducted by BN to win the elections, and the country has been gripped by a wave of protests organized by opposition leaders including Ibrahim.  Three days after the elections, the opposition coalition held a rally in Kuala Lumpur with at least 40,000 supporters who contested the election results.  The May 8 rally was followed by several other opposition-organized and widely attended rallies throughout the country to contest the election results and seek recourse through the legal system.

Against the backdrop of an increasingly vocal opposition, BN has moved to begin the work of the new government and a national reconciliation process beginning with the re-appointment of the Prime Minister Najib Razak.  Najib swore in 30 ministers and their deputies, more than half of which came from BN’s largest component party, United Malays National Organization (UMNO), on May 16.  Noticeably absent from the new cabinet were ministers representing the mainly ethnic Chinese, Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) who opted out due to their poor performance in the elections.  While many ministers have returned to the cabinet, there are several new notable ministers appointed to the administration.  For example, UMNO’s dynamic youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin Abu Bakar was appointed to the ministerial position of Youth and Sport.  The appointment of Jamaluddin was seen by many as a tip to the new guard of UMNO leaders within the party.

As the opposition continues to hold the government and the MEC accountable for the various cited cases of election fraud, the government is attempting to deliver on its promise of a national reconciliation.  A national reconciliation could prove challenging as the elections saw a shift in support of young and urban ethnic Malays from BN to PR in addition to the large number of ethnic Chinese who moved to support the opposition.  The election results also confirm a trend of decreasing support of BN since the 2008 elections where they lost their two-thirds majority of the popular vote for the first time since the BN’s predecessor Alliance coalition lost in the 1969 elections.  The inevitable post-mortem by BN component parties has begun.  The prime minister attributed BN’s loss to a “Chinese Tsunami,” blaming ethnic Chinese voters for abandoning BN in support of the opposition coalition.  However, analysts have linked dissatisfied urban voters of all ethnicities as the main factor in BN’s loss of support.  From the opposition’s point of view, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) emerged as a key winner in the elections as it is now the largest opposition party in parliament, surpassing the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).  This underlines an increasing political bifurcation along ethnic lines between Malays and Chinese with decreasing support among the Chinese for the ruling BN coalition largely due to their continued practice of policies that give preferential status to Malay community.

However, recent events also indicate that the government may be more willing to suppress opposition voices, including political parties and the media, in the wake of the election results. On May 22, Malaysian police arrested several opposition politicians and activists for offences under the Sedition Act including opposition member of parliament Tian Chua, who is vice president of the opposition PR.  The Sedition Act, which states it is a criminal offence to make statements with “seditious tendency,” was a law which Najib had promised last year to repeal, and has been used to repress political dissent in the past.  As a result of these actions, the political environment in Malaysia is likely to remain fraught and divisive for the foreseeable future.

Election Results

Malaysia’s parliamentary elections included votes for the 222 members of the lower House of Representatives, or Dewan Rakyat, elected by popular vote to serve up to five-year terms as well as 12 of Malaysia’s 13 state parliaments, with the exception of Sarawak which was held in 2011. Despite the opposition-coalition PR obtaining a majority of the popular vote, the ruling BN was able to maintain control of the Dewan Rakyat due to disparities between the sizes of constituencies with more BN-leaning constituencies being typically smaller in size.  The opposition, comprised of three political parties, gained a total of seven seats compared to the 2008 elections.  The PR’s 89 seats are comprised of the DAP with 38 seats, PKR with 30 seats and PAS with 21 seats.  The DAP saw the greatest gains with 10 additional seats.  In contrast, the PKR and PAS lost one and two seats respectively compared to the 2008 results.

The ruling BN won 133 seats in the parliament during the 2013 general elections yet lost seven seats compared to their 140 seat majority in 2008.  BN’s largest component party, UMNO actually gained nine seats from their 79 seats in 2008 to 88 in 2013.  In contrast, many smaller component parties in the BN coalition fared less well.  For example, the Malaysian Indian Congress and Sarawak United People’s Party lost eight and five seats respectively.  The MCA was left with six parliament seats (down from 15 in 2008) and Gerakan was left with one seat (down from two).  One notable exception was the United Traditional Bumiputera Party which maintained its 14 seats, making it the second largest political party in the BN coalition after UMNO.

Of the five state parliaments that PR won in 2008, BN regained Kedah from the previously PAS-dominated legislature.  While the PR won Perak in the 2008 elections this returned to the BN after a constitutional crisis precipitated by three PR legislators defecting to the BN.  PR retained the three remaining states – Selangor, Penang and Kelantan – winning by a two-thirds majority.

Future Challenges

While some improvements in the electoral process were noted during the 2013 general elections, including the ability of some Malaysians to vote abroad, a significant number of issues remain that need to be addressed in order to ensure that the next elections are conducted in as open and transparent a manner as possible.

Above all, there remain questions regarding the independence of the MEC and its ability to adequately deal with many of the issues highlighted during this elections cycle.  Some of these issues go beyond their remit, for example, the adjustment of constituency boundaries will take place before the next elections but any changes will have to be approved by the parliament.  Rules governing the differences in sizes of election constituencies were completely removed in 1973, making it possible for a coalition to obtain a majority of the votes in parliament without winning the majority of the popular vote.  These adjustments have afforded the ruling-BN coalition distinct advantages given their mainly rural, Malay base.  For example, the Putrajaya constituency has only 15,791 eligible voters compared to the Kapar constituency with 144,159 eligible voters.  These seemingly systemic disparities remain one of the largest challenges to the perception of fairness of the electoral and process in Malaysia.

Other areas are certainly within the MEC’s remit including ensuring the integrity of the electoral process and the validity of the voter rolls.  This area in particular, given subsequent opposition allegations of unqualified or improperly credentialed individuals voting, will be of continuing concern.  Questions over the independence of the election commission will likely complicate any attempt at a resolution of these issues.  Arguably, these elections saw some modest efforts at improving the electoral process in particular in response to the broad-based Bersih movement for electoral reform.  For example, during these elections the MEC implemented 19 reforms following recommendations by a parliamentary select committee, including the use of indelible ink.  Although suggested by the MEC prior to the 2008 elections this was cancelled at the last minute.  Despite its use, its implementation will likely remain an area of keen debate and controversy.

IRI in Malaysia

Throughout Asia, the International Republican Institute (IRI) assists countries that have undergone transitions to democracy as well as those taking steps toward democracy by encouraging transparency, pluralism, open elections and democratic governance.  In an effort to improve political processes, promote democratic governance, increase government accountability and enhance civic engagement, IRI supports and provides expertise to elected representatives, political parties, civil society, women and youth.  Since 2002, IRI’s Malaysia program has offered workshops and seminars to political parties, political organizations and civil society as they consolidate and strengthen democratic institutions.  In recent months, IRI has assisted civil society organizations involved in election-related efforts, such as voter education and election observation.

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