We are pleased to continue our series of Election Reports with the first of two post-election reports on the Malaysian elections by Thomas Pepinsky, who teaches in the Government Department at Cornell University. You can follow his series of Malaysian election previews at his blog Indolaysia. The following post builds on analyses which were previously posted at the Australian National University’s New Mandala and the University of Nottingham’s CPI blog.
On May 5, Malaysians went to the polls for the country’s thirteenth general elections, known to Malaysians as GE13. The results are now in, with the incumbent Barisan Nasional government eking out its narrowest ever parliamentary victory of 133 seats to Pakatan Rakyat’s 89. These results are a bitter disappointment to the many Malaysians who viewed these elections as an opportunity to oust the ruling BN from federal office, which the BN and its predecessor known as the Alliance have held in one form or another since 1957. For the BN, the results are surely a welcome relief given the opposition’s vigorous challenge, but they are a weak enough result for this longtime political juggernaut that they will almost certainly necessitate a shake-up at the highest levels.
Here, in the first of two posts on GE13, I outline the historical and contextual background needed understand the results, focusing on three basic features of Malaysian politics: ethnicity, regionalism, and authoritarianism. In my next post, I will analyze the results in light of this discussion.
Malaysian politics has always centered on ethnicity. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is by far the largest party in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front) coalition. Other major parties in the BN include the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), and a roster of smaller parties which also tend to have ethnic bases, even if they are usually not explicitly ethnic parties in the way that UMNO/MCA/MIC are.
The historical alliance of UMNO, MCA, and MIC reflects the basic tripartite categorization of Malaysia’s ethnic landscape into bumiputera, Chinese, and Indian. Bumiputeras (or “sons of the soil”) are mostly ethnic Malays, with the remainder including the indigenous people of the upland regions of the Malay peninsula (orang asli) as well as various indigenous peoples residing in the Malaysian part of Borneo. The ethnic groups today known as Chinese or Indians are themselves also quite diverse communities, with different histories of settlement and regions of origin in southern China and the Indian subcontinent. If this all seems confusing, it is: here is a lecture slide for undergraduate Southeast Asian Politics course at Cornell that tries to organize these cleavages in a systematic way.
Importantly, opposition politics also follows an ethnic logic too, but in a rather different way. The three members of Pakatan Rakyat (PR, or People’s Pact), are the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and the People’s Justice Party (PKR). Most Muslims in Malaysia are ethnic Malays, so while the Islamist PAS rejects ethnic or communal politics vociferously, its natural constituency is almost entirely Malay. The DAP’s social democratic platform has historically found most support from Chinese Malaysians, so it too has an ethnically-defined constituency even though it also rejects ethnic politics. PKR, headed by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, is the only truly pan-ethnic political party in Malaysia, drawing together reformist Malays, Chinese, Indians, and indigenous peoples of Borneo under a single anti-incumbent, reformist platform.
Malaysia’s geography leads to important regional dynamics that interact with ethnicity. Peninsular Malaysia is comprised of eleven states in addition to the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya. East Malaysia consists of the two much larger but less densely populated states of Sabah and Sarawak, and the federal territory of Labuan, all located on the north coast of the island of Borneo. This regional divide reflects the different ways in which British colonial rule arrived in what is today Malaysia, as the Kingdom of Sarawak (a British protectorate), the British North Borneo Company (Sabah), and a collection of Straits Settlements, Federated Malay States, and Unfederated Malay States in the peninsula.
Politics differs in important ways between the peninsula and East Malaysia. For example, the BN’s peninsular members include UMNO, MCA, and MIC; the smaller, multiethnic (but largely Chinese) Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia; and the tiny, multiethnic (but largely Indian) People’s Progressive Party. In East Malaysia, the BN’s members include the LDP, PBB, PBRS, PBS, PRS, SPDP, SUPP, and UPKO, in addition to UMNO (explanations for the abbreviations can be found here). For most of Malaysia’s independent history, the Malay peninsula has been the country’s political center, with East Malaysia relegated to a backwater or afterthought. This is particularly meaningful in light of recent elections, where East Malaysia has gone heavily for the BN.
Malaysia’s political system has been called many things: competitive authoritarianism, electoral authoritarian, soft authoritarianism, authoritarian populism, pseudo-democracy, and many others. Malaysia has always had a civilian government that holds regular elections and is bound by the rule of law, with the exception of two years of suspended parliamentary rule following post-election riots in 1969.
The issue is that the ruling coalition never loses power, and writes the laws itself. The ruling coalition has many tools at its disposal to protect its tenure. These include UMNO’s impressive patronage apparatus and deep organization and presence in the rural Malay heartland; complete control over conventional media sources; numerous laws that can be used to criminalize political speech, organization, criticism, and collective action and protest; and many others. On the ground observers of GE13 such as Edward Aspinall and Meredith Weiss have indicated that these elections were more or less free, but hardly fair.
In every election except for those in 1969, 2008, and now 2013, the ruling coalition gained a two-thirds majority in parliament. In the other three, the BN received only a simple majority. From the ruling coalition’s perspective, the benefit of a two-thirds majority is that it allows the government to amend the constitution at will, which it has done with some frequency. But a two-thirds majority also has an almost mystical quality in Malaysian politics, signifying the leader’s authority alongside the population’s consent. That the BN failed to regain its two-thirds majority in GE13 is viewed by some as an indictment of the current Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak.
Results: A Preview
In my next post, I will go into some detail about the ways in which GE13 reflects these three fundamental facts about Malaysian politics. As a preview of that discussion, the following maps show the results of GE13 at the parliamentary district level.