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Malaysia: Governing coalition weakened by losses in regions
JUNE | JULY 2008 Federations
lthou gh Mala ysian Prime
Minister Abdullah Badawi’s
National Front government
was re-elected in March
2008, it fell short of a two-thirds’ majority
in parliament. With only 140 of the 220
seats, it can no longer amend the
Constitution at will.
The National Front was also ousted in
five out of thirteen state legislatures. They
include the three most industrialized
states in the Peninsula, as well as the
poorest two states in the north. Changes
to Malaysia’s centralized federalism
might be in the offing.
The ruling coalition is led by a Malay
party and also includes Chinese-
Malaysian and Indian-Malaysian parties,
reflecting Malaysia’s diversity. The coalition
was formed following the 1969
election and related race riots.
In 1990 and in 1995, there were concerted
efforts to break the coalition’s
stranglehold on Parliament. Both
attempts failed due to insufficient Malay
support in the first instance and inadequate
non-Malay support in the second.
The coalition used to be able to count
on its component parties to mobilize
cross-ethnic communities to win, especially
in mixed constituencies, but no
Voters switch
Al l thi s changed in the Marc h
elections. A solid swing among Indian-
Malay s ian voter s , t radi t ional l y
pro-coalition, was accompanied by an
equally pronounced switch of Chinese-
Malaysian voters to the opposition. This
dovetailed with Malays rallying behind
the opposition People’s Justice Party.
The People’s Justice Party campaign
was led by the charismatic Anwar
Ibrahim, previously deputy Prime
Minister. He returned to politics after
more than two years’ incarceration on
trumped-up charges of sodomy and
abuse of powers. Under Mr. Ibrahim, the
opposition party moved to the centre and
forged electoral pacts with the Islamic
Party of Malaya and the largely non-
Malay Muslim Democratic Action Party.
The upshot was a surprising swing
away from the National Front coalition in
favour of a loose and informal coalition
among the three opposition parties.
Dr. Jeyakumar Devaraj, of the People’s
Justice Party, said that “when we began
our campaign, we were not hopeful of a
“To our surprise we won on election
night,” said Devaraj, who defeated Samy
Vel lu, a member of the Indian-
Malaysian party in the National Front
continued on page 32
Malaysia: Governing coalition
weakened by losses in regions
Francis Loh Kok Wah has a PhD in Political Science from Cornell University and is a Professor
in the School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi
(right) celebrates his reelection
with his deputy Najib
Razak in Kuala Lumpur on
March 9, 2008. Malaysia’s
ruling party suffered its worst
ever electoral losses as the
opposition won five of 13 state
Mala ysia [from pa ge 28]
and also the federal Public Works
Minister, and one of four ministers toppled
in the election.
Indian-Malaysian anger at their
economic and political marginalization
had manifested itself in a massive demonstration
in Kuala Lumpur last
November, organized by a group calling
itself the Hindu Rights Action Front.
Chinese-Malaysians were unhappy
with the sluggish economy and the
inability of the National Front government
under Prime Minister Badawi to
promote Malaysia’s competitiveness
They were also incensed by the
actions of the Youth leader of the Malay
party in the National Front who,
brandishing an unsheathed doubleedged
Malayan dagger in his party’s
assembly, had called for bringing back
pro-Malay affirmative action policies.
There were also concerns about inflation
caused by the hikes in fuel prices,
rising crime rates, alleged corruption and
abuses by National Front leaders in the
local councils and state governments.
These urban issues perhaps explain
why the more developed states of
Penang, Selangor and Perak, as well as
ten out of eleven seats in the Federal
Territory of Kuala Lumpur fell to the
In Penang, Lim Guan Eng, 47, the
Democratic Action Party’s secretary-general,
has been appointed the new chief
minister. This most unlikely of chief ministers
is now tasked with fostering
harmonious relations with the National
Front federal government that had
detained him.
He has declared that he will review
many of the “megaprojects” that the
National Front state government had
approved. In the state of Selangor, his
counterpart from the People’s Justice
Party is also reviewing the water privatization
project of his National Front
predecessor on grounds that the people
and the state do not appear to be benefiting
from the agreement signed.
For Malaysia to build upon the election
outcome, and strengthen the
federation, it is expected the federal government
in Kuala Lumpur will curtail the
coalition’s practice of encroaching on the
powers of state governments.