restricted access Malaysia: Sign of the Times: Election Fever, Recurring Themes, and Political Malaise
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Sign of the Times: Election Fever, Recurring Themes, and Political Malaise

The year 2011 proved to be yet another tumultuous one for "post-March 2008" Malaysian politics. The Malaysian opposition PR (Pakatan Rakyat, or Peoples' Alliance) coalition strained to sustain its pressure on the incumbent BN (Barisan Nasional, or National Front) while at the same time struggling to manage internal differences and fresh allegations of sexual misconduct against de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim. As for BN, despite sweeping five consecutive by-elections since November 2010, the coalition's comparatively lacklustre performance in the April 2011 Sarawak state election meant that it had not entirely stemmed the opposition tide that has drawn votes away from its ranks, especially from the Chinese electorate. Indeed, though the Sarawak state assembly remained firmly under BN control, PR managed a commendable performance in this bastion state to secure a fifteen-seat bloc in the state assembly, making it the largest opposition presence in this BN stronghold in more than two decades.1

Meanwhile, Malaysian civil society yet again demonstrated its resolve to mobilize for change with the controversial Bersih 2.0 rally. Bersih, which means "clean" in Malay, is short for Gabungan Pilihan Raya Bersih dan Adil (Coalition for Free and Fair Elections), a coalition of NGOs seeking electoral reforms. [End Page 171] Since the first rally held on 10 November 2007 that catalysed widespread popular discontent leading to the ruling coalition's poor performance in the 2008 General Election, Bersih has become a household name synonymous with grass-roots pressure for political reform in Malaysia.2 While smaller in scale, their second rally in July 2011 nevertheless garnered enough attention in the media (both local and international) to force the Malaysian Government to set up a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on electoral reforms, whose suggestions were eventually adopted by Parliament in December 2011.

These events foregrounded continued deterioration of ethnic relations, as well as rampant speculation over the timing of the 13th General Election, due in 2013. Inter-religious issues leaped into the spotlight with alarming frequency throughout the year on issues ranging from the confiscation of Christian bibles to church raids by state religious authorities in Selangor. While Najib's meeting with the Pope in the Vatican in July 2011 might be construed as a positive gesture to mend fences with the Christian community in Malaysia, this merely papered over the cracks caused by subterranean tensions that continue to stymie attempts to improve inter-religious relations.

Trapped between the visceral criticisms of pro-reform NGOs and new fractures in the already strained relations between religious and ethnic groups in the country, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak had to delay much anticipated elections despite the fact that, having inherited a weak BN from his predecessor Abdullah Badawi after the March 2008 polls, he is under pressure to obtain his own mandate via popular vote. Instead, the Najib administration was stretched over the last twelve months trying to appease all sides as the characteristically cautious Prime Minister sought the most opportune time to hold the 13th General Election.

By-Election Fever

There have been a total of sixteen by-elections held in Malaysia since the March 2008 national polls. In 2011 alone, three by-elections were held in Johor (February), Pahang, and Malacca (both in March). In all three cases, the incumbent had passed away, hence by-elections were required in accordance with Malaysian law.3

The wave of sixteen by-elections began within five months of the 2008 General Election, when Anwar Ibrahim won convincingly in Permatang Pauh. Anwar's victory set in motion a series of opposition by-election victories, and it was not until October 2009, in Bagan Pinang, Negri Sembilan that BN finally managed to significantly stem the tide. But Bagan Pinang also marked a turning point, for since then, BN has been victorious in all but one by-election. [End Page 172]

The three by-elections in 2011 were noteworthy in that these were traditional BN strongholds: Pahang is the home state of the Prime Minister, Johor is an UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) fortress, and Malacca has been a BN...