Malaysians go to the polls in a mood that might weaken the ruling Barisan Nasional’s grip on power after a campaign that has polarized the country along racial lines.
Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi made an announcement to minority communities to vote for the BN partners, the Malaysian Chinese association and the Malaysian Indian congress. He claimed that he do not want to form a government that is made up of only one race. His call some say veiled threat came in the wake of strong anti-BN sentiment among the minority communities, and the prediction that the opposition parties would make a major dent in the BN’s current record 91 percent majority of Parliament seats. The campaigning that ended at midnight after 13 days has seen record crowds at opposition rallies, especially in Penang where more than 25,000 people attended two Democratic Action Party events.
In Penang, reporters claimed that most Chinese Penang is one of the most closely-fought battlegrounds. The analyst has noted that the BN campaign did nothing to raise the low level of support among Indians and Chinese. The Indian vote – traditionally estimated by political parties at a high 80% for the BN – plunged after the government failed to address their complaints of marginalization. Their anger spilled into a street protest last November. Mr. Ibrahim Suffian, pollster merdeka centre, said the latest numbers suggested that up to 60% could now vote opposition, while the Chinese communities support also remained low.
According to Mr. Ong Kian Ming, an analyst of electoral politics, a 40 % swing of the Indian vote could do the BN serious damage, if the Chinese support also falls by 10% to 15% as anticipated. Statistical analysis shows that this could give the opposition as many as 65 seats, from their current 20 seats. They however need 75 seats to break the BN’s two third majority as this is the minimum number of parliamentary votes needed to amend the constitution. They last time it was lost was in 1969.
The racially-mixed nature of most seats, and the combined strength of the safe states of Sabah, Sarawak, Johor, Pahang, Negri Sembilan and Malacca make up the BN’s strong safety net. However, the mood to the north of Negri Sembilan, especially in the urban areas, is less pro-BN. Anger over rising costs has not dissipated despite the government’s media blitz trying to counter it.
Race relations remain as source of anger over the more aggressive push for Malay privileges, as well as Islam, that has consisted on minority rights. Furthermore, the three main opposition parties: Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), Parti Keadilan Rakyat and the Democratic Action Party – has been fairly united this time and, on some occasions have also campaigned for each other.
The close battles to watch are Penang, where the outcome is uncertain, and Kelantan, the one opposition held state, which the BN is trying to regain after three terms under PAS. A serious reduction in BN’s majority overall would be seen as a poor reflection on PM Abdullah’s record, with recriminations set to follow.