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A battle Barisan Nasional cannot afford to lose

Oh Ei Sun
Oh Ei Sun4/16/2018 08:00 AM GMT+08  • 6 min read
A battle Barisan Nasional cannot afford to lose
SINGAPORE (Apr 16): The next general election has been variously characterised as a “do or die battle” or the “mother of all elections” between the ruling Barisan Nasional and the opposition Pakatan Harapan. A more nuanced take is that the coming
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SINGAPORE (Apr 16): The next general election has been variously characterised as a “do or die battle” or the “mother of all elections” between the ruling Barisan Nasional and the opposition Pakatan Harapan. A more nuanced take is that the coming general election will have profound consequences for the ruling and opposition coalitions.

Malaysian general elections are often routine and predictable affairs, with BN slated to score a big win and so continue to hold the reins of the government, while the opposition is expected to clinch some seats and carry on with their “critical” role, as is typical with the illiberal democracy practised in many a developing country. The first time this “arrangement” was rudely shaken up was perhaps in 1969, when the Alliance coalition — the predecessor of the BN — barely won the general election and the opposition parties collectively broke its stranglehold on the two-thirds majority in parliament required for constitutional amendments.

Racial clashes ensued in what is referred to as the May 13 incident. There are various schools of thought about the real causes, but the upshot was quite massive casualties. The first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, stepped down in the aftermath and the country was essentially ruled by decree for two years.

In 1973, the then prime minister, Abdul Razak, expanded the Alliance, bringing many parties that were in the opposition at the time into the fold and renaming it Barisan Nasional. Gerakan, the People’s Progressive Party, Pan- Malaysian Islamic Party and many parties from Sabah and Sarawak co-founded BN, although the Democratic Action Party (DAP) famously remained in the opposition, and the somewhat maverick PAS left the coalition in 1977.

BN then proceeded to overwhelm the Malaysian political landscape for more than three decades, especially during the 22 years of Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s premiership. In 2008, PAS and DAP joined hands with Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) — formed by the ousted deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim — to once again deny BN its two-thirds parliamentary majority. In addition, the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coa lition clinched five state governments. This time around, there were no racial riots, and Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi stepped down after a year. BN performed even worse in 2013, but Prime Minister Najib Razak managed to stay in power.

Two significant political trends took place thereafter. PAS decided to reinvigorate its previous pursuit of a theocratic state and eventually left the opposition coalition, taking with it a huge chunk of political support. The internationally reported events around state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) apparently irked Mahathir, who had hitherto championed Najib, and former deputy prime minister Muyhiddin Yassin. Both left United Malays National Organisation (Umno) to set up Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia and joined hands with DAP and PKR to form the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. These two somewhat crisscrossing political trends will, to a large extent, affect the results of the coming general election.

Indeed, for Najib and BN, the coming election results will be of the utmost importance to their political futures, as much as to the nation’s destiny. If BN (especially its driving party Umno) were to perform better electorally than it did in 2013, such as if it manages to recapture the much-vaunted two-thirds parliamentary majority, then Najib will, of course, comfortably renew his grip on power both nationally and within Umno. All ambitious Umno elements will have no choice but to remain subservient to Najib’s newly burnished leadership. BN component parties will have to remain submissive to a consolidated Umno’s uncompromising dominance. And, of course, the Najib administration will be able to carry out its existing policies almost unimpeded. Malaysia is then likely to step into yet another period of strong-handed rule after that of Mahathir.

If BN were to retain its hold on forming the government but perform worse than in 2013, the political scenario would be much more interesting. For one, the various ambitious undercurrents within Umno would no doubt surface, for a convenient excuse for sidelining the present senior leadership of Umno would have presented itself. This sort of intra-party struggle is a form of democratic exercise prevalent in most parliamentary democracies, where the party’s senior leadership would have to take responsibility for the electoral defeat or even a mere setback and often have to resign. This occurs frequently in Australia and the UK, for example.

BN component parties will also be emboldened to come out from under Umno’s shadow to demand a more equal voice within the coalition. This is, of course, predicated upon their having performed adequately in the gene ral election, which may or may not be the case, as the overall BN results would have by then worsened. And such a weak government would be hard put to exercise sufficient control over the powerful civil service, such that policies may not be efficiently implemented. It would be an exaggeration to say national affairs will then be paralysed, but a mere slowdown in the provision of government services would be detrimental to trade and investment.

A BN defeat in the coming general election would, of course, have disastrous consequences for the longtime coalition and its senior leadership. For one, there are the widely reported enforcement actions overseas pertaining to 1MDB-related dealings, which the local authorities have summarily dismissed as non-actionable. These would most likely be reinvestigated by the new government, as PH has promised. This is likely to be extremely worrying to the concerned parties.

Moreover, as BN and its component parties (especially Umno) have over the years evolved efficient distributory mechanisms for political and other sorts of interests, the abrupt loss of such interests that would accompany BN’s loss of power would no doubt tear the coalition asunder, as the “glue” and funds that hold it together will be suddenly missed. This is probably why the preservation of its hold on power is of utmost importance to the ruling coalition. It is a battle it simply cannot afford to lose.

Oh Ei Sun advises policy institutes in Malaysia and abroad. He was political secretary to the prime minister from 2009 to 2011

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