Malaysia’s democratic opening

Published on OpenDemocracy, by Bridget Welsh, March 11, 2008.

The historic defeat of Malaysia’s ruling coalition represents a break with the closed, racialised politics that have dominated the country’s politics since independence in 1957, says Bridget Welsh.

… The final self-inflicted wound for the BN came in the last stages of the campaign, when it launched an all-out personal attack on Anwar Ibrahim; this backfired in the Malay community, the very ethnic base that the BN was depending on to win in a polity that has traditionally voted along ethnic lines. This reaction became part of a general trend as Malaysians abandoned the pattern of ethnic voting, with all groups voting for the opposition in large numbers; the largest anti-government swing was in the Indian Malaysian community, which has traditionally been loyal to the BN coalition.

A Malaysian farewell: The final worry of the campaign was the electoral process. Malaysian elections have usually been free, but not fair. The push for electoral reform since 2004, which included a mass rally of over 40,000 in November 2007, put this issue centre-stage. The opposition intentionally asked its voters to vote late in the afternoon to reduce the opportunity for the BN to replace registered voters with “phantoms” or “clones”. This BN practice did happen, but not to expected levels – in part due to failings in the BN machinery. Concerns about irregularities remain an issue; but they have been overshadowed by the sheer force of opposition gains, which is a testimony to the power of Malaysians’ discontent with their rulers.

The election results will bring greater democracy to Malaysia. A stronger opposition will bring more checks and balances at the national level; and in state governments the push for transparency, against corruption, and potentially for the introduction of local elections will open Malaysian elections further. The move toward multiracialism also offers the space for widening of civil liberties across racial boundaries. These steps won’t be easy, but the 8 March polls signify a rupture with the closed racialised politics which have dominated the country for decades. (full text).

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