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Malaysia Politics

On 05 May 2013 Prime Minister Najib Razak's National Front ruling coalition secured a parliamentary majority in Sunday's general election. The country's Election Commission said the National Front, led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, garnered at least 112 out of the 222 lower house seats. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's three-party alliance took 57 seats with more than two-thirds of the results confirmed. More than 10-million people cast ballots for a record turnout of about 80 percent. It was the National Front's 13th consecutive victory in general elections since Malaysia's independence from Britain in 1957.

In the final count, the Barisan Nasional coalition won only 133 seats in the 222-member parliament, seven short of its tally in 2008 and well below the two-thirds majority it was aiming for. t also lost the popular vote, underlining opposition complaints that the electoral system is stacked against it. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's People's Alliance won 89 seats, up 7 from 2008 but still incapable of unseating one of the world's longest-serving governments.

The National Front survived the most serious challenge by an opposition alliance in the country's history. It was set to maintain the power it has held since Malaysia's independence from Britain in 1957. The opposition alliance, the People's Pact, led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, was riding high on voter frustration. Voters were increasingly critical of the ruling coalition's preferential treatment of ethnic Malays and alleged corruption. But voters apparently opted for stability instead of an untested opposition.

Population density is highest in peninsular Malaysia, home to some 20 million of the country's 27 million inhabitants. The remaining 7 million live on the Malaysian portion of the island of Borneo in the large but less densely-populated states of Sabah and Sarawak. More than half of Sarawak's residents and about two-thirds of Sabah's are from indigenous groups. Malaysia's multi-racial society contains many ethnic groups. Malays comprise a majority of just over 50%. By constitutional definition, all Malays are Muslim. About a quarter of the population is ethnic Chinese, a group which historically played an important role in trade and business. Malaysians of Indian descent comprise about 7% of the population and include Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians. Non-Malay indigenous groups combine to make up approximately 11% of the population.

The Malays and the Bumiputra (son of the soil) who are the majority of the population have special position and privileges inscribed in the constitution by the country’s founding fathers at independence. The privileges, particularly access to lands, scholarships, public services, public education and businesses are coherently implemented through government policies. This inequality has led to simmering dissatisfactions amongst younger generation Malaysians from other races in the past.

Malaysia's predominant political party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), has held power in coalition with other parties continuously since independence in 1957. The UMNO coalition's share of the vote declined in national elections held in May 1969, after which riots broke out in Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere, mainly between Malays and ethnic Chinese. Several hundred people were killed or injured. The government declared a state of emergency and suspended all parliamentary activities.

An ethnic apartheid has been part of government policy since the race riots in the 1960s. In both the ruling and opposition coalitions there are race-based parties representing the ethnic Malays, Chinese and South Asians. The classic, politically correct, stereotype of Malaysian society is Melayu, Cina dan India - Malay, Chinese and Indian.

In the years that followed, Malaysia undertook several initiatives that became integral parts of its socioeconomic model. The New Economic Policy (NEP), launched in 1971, contained a series of affirmative action policies designed to benefit Malays and certain indigenous groups (together known as bumiputera or "sons of the soil"). The Constitution was amended to limit dissent against the specially-protected and sensitive portions of the Constitution pertaining to the social contract. The government identified intercommunal harmony as one of its official goals. The previous alliance of communally based parties was replaced with a broader coalition--the Barisan Nasional (BN) or National Front. The BN won large majorities in the 1974 federal and state elections. The New Economic Policy (NEP), remains a longstanding sore point for Chinese Malaysians as the policy is now seen more and more as directed against Chinese wealth rather than against foreign ownership, as it was originally designed.

Dr. Mahathir Mohamad was Prime Minister between 1981 and 2003, leading UMNO and BN to successive election victories. Mahathir emphasized economic development during his tenure, in particular the export sector, as well as large scale infrastructure projects. Mahathir attributed the success of the Asian tiger economies to the "Asian values" of its people, which he believed were superior to those of the West. Mahathir sharply criticized the International Monetary Fund (IMF), international financiers such as George Soros, and Western governments during the sharp economic and financial crisis that affected Asia in 1997-8, and denied that the downturn was due to the failures of corruption and "crony capitalism."

Mahathir's policies were based on an affirmative action program that offered school slots, cheap loans, and insider business deals and contracts to the Muslim Malays, who traditionally had been the poorest Malaysians despite being the majority. The affirmative action economic policies quickly turned into cronyism: only a handful of well-connected Malays got really rich. Nowhere was the business-politics connection clearer than when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was Prime Minister. Dr Mahathir initiated an aggressive privatisation policy and involved the private sector in key strategic sectors. This saw many individuals said to have close ties with Dr Mahathir growing their business empires.

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption; however, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. The media reported numerous cases of alleged official corruption. There was a broadly held perception of widespread corruption and cronyism within the governing coalition and in government institutions.

The end of Mahathir's tenure was marred by a falling out with his deputy and presumed successor, Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar was touted as a potential prime minister under former leader Mahathir Mohammad but their friendship soured over Anwar’s political ambitions and differences over how best to handle the 1997 Asian financial crisis. In September 1998, Mahathir dismissed Anwar and accused him of sodomy and corrupt conduct. Although Anwar was convicted on both charges in 1999 and 2000, the trials were viewed as seriously flawed. Malaysia's Federal Court eventually freed Anwar after overturning his immoral conduct conviction in September 2004 after he served six years behind bars.

Mahathir stepped down as prime minister in October 2003 after 22 years in power, and his successor, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, was sworn into office. Abdullah called elections and won an overwhelming victory in March 2004. Since taking office, Abdullah, an Islamic scholar, promoted the concept of "Islam Hadhari" or "civilizational Islam," emphasizing the importance of education, social harmony, and economic progress. His relationship with Mahathir eventually soured, and the former prime minister now expresses regret at supporting Abdullah to be his successor.

Opposition parties were unable to compete on equal terms with the governing National Front coalition, led by the ethnic Malay UMNO party, which has held power at the national level since independence in 1957, because of significant restrictions on campaigning, freedom of assembly and association, and access to the media. Political parties could not operate without restriction or outside interference. The lack of equal access to the media was one of the most serious problems encountered by the opposition. Opposition leaders also claimed that the election commission (EC) was under government control and lacked the independence needed to carry out its duties impartially.

Malaysia held national elections in March 2008. UMNO and its coalition allies in the BN won a simple majority of the seats in the national parliament but for the first time in history failed to gain the two-thirds majority necessary to amend the constitution. The election results came as a shock to the country, which has only known the governance of the formidable National Front coalition. A loose coalition of opposition parties, called the Pakatan Rakyat or Peoples Alliance, led by Anwar Ibrahim, won 82 of 222 seats in parliament and took control of the state-level assemblies in five of Malaysia's thirteen states. The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition suffered two morale-sapping parliamentary by-election defeats, where the opposition seized control of five of Malaysia's 13 states and a third of parliamentary seats.

In the March 2008 general election, the ruling National Front (BN) needed the 30 seats it won in the East Malaysian (Borneo) state of Sarawak to ensure its majority in Parliament. BN captured 140 out of 222 seats; 110 would have left it short of a majority. Neighboring Sabah's 24 BN seats were critical too. Hence, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has described the two states as the BN's "safe deposits." Sarawak's role as a "kingmaker" in national politics was significantly increased its importance in the eyes of Federal leaders. Furthermore, the staunch loyalty shown to the BN by the 30 BN Sarawakian Members of Parliament, some of whom were initially rumored to have agreed to crossover to the opposition People's Alliance (PR), has also boosted Sarawak's BN fortunes. The BN's ability to deliver a large number of Parliament seats was due to Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud's (who had held the chief minister's post since 1981) "iron grip" on the state.

The co-operation of the opposition parties, broadly united under Malaysia's former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, was recognised as a key factor in UMNO losses. Other factors included concerns about a slowing economy, rising fuel and consumer prices, and Prime Minister Badawi's inability to follow through on promises to tackle corruption.

A belt of Opposition states formed in the upper peninsula. The "spirit of change" was not nationwide, it was peninsula-wide. The elections had raised hopes for a post-racial Malaysia, but changes deepened the fault lines. Although the Chinese are a minority - forming 23 per cent of Malaysia's 27 million people - their vote can be decisive if the Malays are split. Chinese support for the BN fell to 30 per cent from over 50 per cent in the 2004 election. In recent years political divisions have been increasingly shadowed by cultural and religious ones. The Muslim Malay majority has become more conservative in Islamic observance, while the next largest group, the Chinese, has become more liberal and cosmopolitan. The Malay-Muslims majority is being challenged to forgo their political power and economic protection, to allow the other races to benefit from what the country has to offer.

Post-election, Anwar continued to push the government hard. In July 2008 he filled a motion seeking a debate in parliament on 'loss of confidence' in the Government and he has vowed to seize power. The opposition People's Alliance, led by charismatic former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, was plagued by defecting members, internal squabbles and embarrassing scandals involving its lawmakers.

The penal code states that sodomy and oral sex acts are “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” but it was rarely enforced. Anwar's former aide, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, 26, claimed he had sex with his boss. In March 2009 Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's sodomy trial was transferred to the High Court. If imprisoned for sodomy Anwar could face 20 years in prison as all homosexual acts in Malaysia, a mainly Muslim country of 27 million people, are against the law. Sodomy remains a crime in Malaysia that carries up to a 20 year prison term. The latest sodomy charges dated to just after his Parti Keadilan Rakyat delivered the ruling UMNO party its worst electoral drubbing since independence in 1957. UMNO lost its cherished two-thirds majority in parliament and control of four of Malaysia’s 13 states.

In October 2008, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi announced that he would step down as UMNO party president, and by extension as Prime Minister, in March 2009, after a stunningly inept performance since he assumed the Barisan Nasional leadership in 2003. Since the general election in March 2008, which saw the Barisan Nasional lose five states to the opposition, there had been a clamor for change. Abdullah Badawi endorsed a transition of power to Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak.

Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Tun Razak, the 6th Prime Minister of Malaysia, was born in Kuala Lipis, Pahang on July 23, 1953. Najib is the eldest son of the second Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, who is known as the father of the country's development, and a nephew of the the third Prime Minister Tun Hussein Onn. He was among the youngest to be elected into the Malaysian Parliament when he won the Pekan constituency uncontested at the age of 23, following the death of his father. He also holds the title of Orang Kaya Indera Shahbandar, Pahang. Prior to being the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Najib held several posts including the Pahang Menteri Besar, Youth and Sports Minister and Education Minister. He also held the Deputy Minister's post for the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

Najib faced a huge challenge to avert a recession in Malaysia, whose exports have been badly hit by the global slowdown. This made it all the more compelling for Najib to adopt a fair-policy position. Transparency and good governance trump all else. Najib enjoyed the support from both the establishment and the business class. He had support from Malay-Muslims trusting him with their faith, the last frontier of Malay political dominance in Malaysia.

On 09 January 2012 Malaysia’s High Court acquitted opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on charges of sodomy, ending a two-year case that his supporters say was politically motivated. Judge Mohamad Zabidin Diah determined that the DNA samples considered crucial to the prosecution’s case were unreliable. The judge said the court was not convinced that the samples had been properly handled by police. Throughout the three-year ordeal, Anwar had maintained his innocence. An emotional crowd greeted the acquittal, which was expected to have an impact of elections expected in 2012 or 2013.

Malaysia held a lower house election on 05 May 2013. Malaysia's election board announced the date after the lower house was dissolved. Official campaigning was to start on April 20th, but the governing coalition and the opposition alliance were already competing for voter support. Prime Minister Najib Razak spoke before tens of thousands of supporters, stressing his National Front coalition's success in achieving stable growth. Najib also promised tax cuts and other benefits as his coalition's election pledges. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim repeatedly criticized corruption and special-interest politics under the coalition's long rule.

The focus was whether the country will see its first change of power since gaining independence. The National Front, a coalition led by a party of the ethnic Malay majority, has remained in power since Malaysia won independence from Britain in 1957. But the coalition lost its two-thirds majority for the first time in the 2008 general election. Opinion polls showed sluggish growth in its approval rating, raising voter expectations for a change of power.

A Malaysian appeals court overturned opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's 2012 acquittal on charges of sodomy. The Court of Appeals ruled March 07, 2014 that Anwar was guilty of having sex in 2008 with a man who was then his aide. A lower court acquitted Anwar in 2012, ruling that DNA evidence in the trial was contaminated. Sodomy is punishable by up to 20 years in prison under a colonial-era law in Malaysia. Human Rights Watch said it was clear the government was "determined to remove Anwar from the political scene by hook or by crook."

Prime Minister Najib, who also heads the powerful United Malays National Organization (UMNO), faced calls to resign over alleged financial mismanagement at indebted state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). He was under growing pressure over claims that $700 million (633 million euros) were wired from the state-owned development company to his personal bank accounts. The transfers were reportedly made shortly before the hotly contested election in 2013.

The PM, whose approval ratings had fallen sharply over 2015, weathered his biggest political crisis since taking office in 2009 by denying any wrongdoing. His position within the party is secure. And the party is secure in its Malay support.

The Pakatan Rakyat opposition alliance collapsed in June 2015 as the Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) - one of the coalition parties - severed ties with the the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) over differences which arose over the PAS' plans to implement Islamic penalties - known as hudud - in Kelantan State.

State-level Islamic religious enforcement officers already had the authority to accompany police on raids or conduct raids of private premises and public establishments to enforce sharia, including bans on indecent dress, alcohol consumption, the sale of restricted books, or close proximity to members of the opposite sex. Religious authorities at the state level administer sharia for civil and family law through Islamic courts and have jurisdiction for all Muslims.

Islamists within PAS saw the introduction of hudud laws as their major goal. Democracy and human rights seem to be rather unimportant to them. They do see the secularism of the Chinese minorities as represented by the DAP as a problem.

China’s ambassador to Kuala Lumpur, Huang Huikang, said “China rejects any form of extremism and racism, and will not stand by if Chinese interests are at stake”.

Two of Malaysia's opposition parties which used to be part of a now-defunct alliance - jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and DAP - announced in September 2015 the formation of a new coalition called Pakatan Harapan (or Alliance of Hope in Malay) with the newly formed Parti Amanah Negara (PAN) - a splinter party of the Islamist PAS.

Three parties that formed Malaysia's new opposition coalition agreed 09 January 2016 on a code of conduct designed to settle disputes among coalition members. The new pact aimed to avoid disagreements such as those that led to the split up of the former alliance in June 2015. The new opposition alliance of the DAP, PKR, and PAN parties, agreed that Anwar Ibrahim will remain the leader of the coalition and their prime ministerial candidate, though he remained in prison.

PAN has a huge following and it could be that PAS would seriously suffer from the split. Three-cornered fights were probable in the next general elections, meaning that PAS and PAN candidates may be on opposite sides. This new constellation of forces will enhance the chances of the ruling coalition to survive. The more divided Malaysia is, the more likely that Najib will remain in power because UMNO has always benefitted from a divide-and-rule strategy.

On 29 February 2016 former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and former party division leader Khairuddin Abu Hassan quit the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party. "I won't call it UMNO anymore, this is (current Prime Minister) Najib's party. I feel embarrassed that I am associated with a party that is seen as supporting corruption - it has caused me to feel ashamed," he told reporters as he announced his exit at a news conference.

Mahathir, Malaysia's longest-serving leader, remains a highly respected and influential figure and has become one of the fiercest critics of PM Najib. Mahathir previously left UMNO in 2008, when Abdullah Badawi was prime minister. Mahathir rejoined the party in 2009 when Najib became prime minister. Mahathir has led a campaign against Prime Minister Najib over accusations the national leader had diverted over $3.5 billion from the state-run 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fund. Najib said he is not guilty of the charges, saying the funds had been dealt with properly and were a “genuine donation” from Saudi Arabia.

The ‘Bersih’ or clean government movement was founded in 2006. It includes a coalition of 62 non-government organizations (NGOs) and has staged five rallies calling for reform of Malaysia’s electoral system and for Prime Minister Najib Razak to step aside amid corruption allegations. A sea of yellow shirts, hallmark of the ‘Bersih’ movement, took over the city’s center 29 November 2016. The protest went ahead despite arrests of several leaders including the coalition’s chairperson, Maria Chin Abdullah. Amnesty International, in a statement, said the arrests were part of a “series of crude and heavy handed attempts to intimidate Malaysian civil society activists and human rights defenders.”

The arrests highlighted a willingness by the government to use “the instruments of coercion” especially in the lead up new elections, expected in the next two years. A vote must be held by late August, 2018. However many observers believe the election will come much sooner, perhaps as early as mid-2017, as the government considers holding a poll before political opposition groups are able to unify. Fears of violence by pro-Malay ‘red shirt’ supporters failed to be realized. A key red shirt leader, Jamal Mohamaf Yunos, who had threatened tens of thousands of red shirt protestors to challenge the Bersih rally, was himself detained by authorities.

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