Malaysians go to the polls today (Wednesday) in the country’s 14th general election, which has been described as the dirtiest in its history.
In GE14, electors will be choosing between the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition, led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has been in power for the past sixty years, and an opposition spearheaded by the charismatic, 92-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Nearly 15 million people are registered to vote. They will be electing MPs for 222 parliamentary seats and choosing which candidates will fill the 505 seats at stake in 12 of the country’s 13 state legislative assemblies. There will be no state elections in Sarawak on the island of Borneo as those polls were held on May 7, 2016.
Under Malaysia’s simple majority system, the party that gets the most seats in parliament wins even if it does not secure the popular vote.
While it is widely expected that Barisan Nasional (BN) will retain its grasp on power, this election is predicted to be a very close-run race. For the opposition to win, there will have to be a massive turnout and there is concern that election fraud will heavily affect the outcome.
Malaysia’s leading polling organisation, the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research, predicts that BN will win the election, but with a decrease in its share of the popular vote. The campaigning and research organisation Invoke predicts a win for the opposition.
About eighty percent of Malaysians from the Chinese community would be expected to support the opposition and the majority of the country’s Indian community would also be expected to vote against the ruling coalition.
Najib Razak (pictured left) cannot be sure that those who have been loyal to BN in the past will vote for the coalition this time around. While BN has a bedrock of support in rural areas, and the country’s economy had its best annual growth rate for three years in 2017 (5.9 percent), many Malaysians are struggling to make ends meet.
There is huge dissatisfaction about price rises that followed the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) in April 1, 2015.
Mahathir and Najib gave their final election speeches at the same time yesterday night. Mahathir, speaking at a rally in Langkawi, talked about getting rid of corruption and “cash is king” governance.
Najib, whose speech was broadcast live on TV, offered incentives such as full tax exemption for those aged 26 and below, and five toll-free days at the end of Ramadan.
He had already announced additional 1Malaysia People’s Aid (BR1M) payments for three categories of recipients, and two new categories, along with an extra annual salary increment for civil servants.
Najib said BN was a party of the future. “We are not a party of the past which needs former leaders to be brought back to fight for them.”
Mahathir urged voters to come out in force, and to vote for PH “to save Malaysia from kleptocracy, and to restore democracy and the rule of law”.
He told the crowd in Langkawi: “Don’t pawn the future of our country for that little bit of money which will not last.”
Opposition campaigns under old logo
The opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH), which translates as Alliance of Hope, has had to campaign under its old PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat or People’s Justice Party) logo.
The PKR re-formed into PH in 2015, grouping together with the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Parti Pribumi Bersatu, or PPBM), led by Mahathir, the Democratic Action Party, and the Islamic National Trust Party (Parti Amanah Negara or PAN).
In April, the Registrar of Societies (RoS) issued a provisional dissolution order against PPBM, which meant that it could no longer carry out activities or use its name and logo. The RoS said the PH coalition’s application for registration could no longer proceed as PPBM was a component party.
PPBM and the other PH component parties have therefore been contesting G14 under the PKR logo. No photos of Mahathir were allowed in opposition campaign materials.
The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia,or PAS) cut its ties with the rest of the opposition in 2015 and many PAS members broke away and formed PAN.
The editor of The Malaysian Insight, Jahabar Sadiq, says PAS will be the biggest loser in GE14.
“Their star was already on the descent in GE13 when they failed to keep Kedah and several federal seats in the peninsula west coast. They’re nobody in Sabah and Sarawak.”
The Election Commission (EC) has been accused of creating new electoral maps that favour the ruling coalition. BN says the boundary changes are not all in its favour, and that the latest delineation was a normal and necessary exercise.
The Bersih 2.0 Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections says that voters deemed to be a lost cause for BN have been packed into certain constituencies, creating a few superseats that would most likely be won by the opposition.
Numerous smaller seats have been created that BN expects to win because the population is now mostly Malay and the party expects their support.
“The final redelineation report passed by parliament has worsened malapportionment and created super-sized constituencies by packing together opposition supporters, thus violating the principle of ‘one person one vote’,” Bersih said.
“The partisan gerrymandering and malapportionment will unfairly swing approximately 15 parliamentary constituencies in favour of Barisan Nasional in the elections.”
If BN does succeed in holding onto the reins of power, it is highly likely that they will lose the popular vote. This was the case in the last election in 2013. In 2013 and 2008, BN lost its two-thirds majority in parliament, and this is expected to happen again.
If BN fares even worse than in 2013, Najib’s future leadership of UMNO will be in serious doubt.
Najib is mired in an ongoing financial scandal over the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). He is accused of siphoning off huge amounts of public money for his own use, but denies all wrongdoing.
It is alleged that, between 2009 and 2015, more than $4.5 billion in funds belonging to 1MDB was misappropriated by high-level officials of the fund and their associates.
Mahathir points out that the 1MDB scandal is being investigated in many countries including Singapore, Switzerland and the United States, but not in Malaysia.
Writing in the New York Times, Malaysian radio broadcaster and cultural commentator Umapagan Ampikaipakan says 1MDB is “far too vast and far too complex a scandal” for many people to fathom.
“In any event, the administration’s strategy of information suppression and distraction worked. Because here we are, facing the mother of all general elections, and Malaysians still are not paying attention to this kleptocracy scandal, perhaps the biggest in the history of the world.”
Ampikaipakan continued: “This administration now has near-complete control over the government, the various bodies tasked with investigating the scandal and the media … Mr Najib’s administration has successfully wagged the dog and manipulated the electorate into thinking that the scandal doesn’t matter. Come May 9, he may win yet another election in spite of it.”
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Allegations of electoral fraud
Bersih says the EC has failed to maintain a clean and accurate electoral roll. According to Bersih, about 15 percent of voters on the roll have incomplete or no addresses.
“Many voters were deliberately and illegally transferred to marginal constituencies by political parties to sway the results, causing abnormally high number of voters being registered using similar or non-existing addresses,” Bersih said, estimating the number involved to be more than 500,000.
In the past three weeks, Bersih says, many voters have discovered problems with their registration.
“Voters have found that they were removed or missing from the electoral roll, transferred to other constituencies without their knowledge, or registered without their consent, and names of those deceased were still in the electoral roll.”
Such flaws in the electoral system provide opportunities for irresponsible parties to organise phantom voting, Bersih points out.
The EC, Bersih says, has allowed for the registration of more than 3,500 phantom advance voters in three military camps that have yet to be completed.
Mahathir told The Malaysian Insight that about 900 voters were listed in the electoral roll who had the same name and the same date of birth. He said that nine million voters were registered on the roll without their full addresses.
Bersih also says that about 20 percent of eligible voters (3.8 million people) remain unregistered, so are unable to vote in GE14.
“The EC has deliberately made it more difficult for voters to register since 2013 by removing the appointment of Assistant Registrar Officers from political parties.”
Many Malaysians in Australia say that they registered as overseas voters, but have not received their ballot papers. One woman said she had contacted the polling and counting team and the candidate in her constituency directly to ensure that her ballot papers weren’t used by someone else. A large number of Malaysians in other countries report the same problem.
According to Bersih, more than 400 election offences involving bribery and vote buying, treating, and gifting have been recorded before and during the election period.
“The EC has cultivated and allowed for a crippling and corrupt election culture, where money and gifts are condoned and openly used as part of campaigning activities to win votes.”
Bersih also cites the case of two potential opposition candidates whose nominations were blocked – the long-standing MP Chua Tian Chang, better known as Tian Chua, and PKR candidate Streram Sinnasamy, who was due to contest the state seat of Rantau. Both would have been expected to win.
“The EC has acted against a court ruling which declared that Tian Chua is not disqualified as a Member of Parliament and is eligible to stand for elections,” Bersih stated.
Tian Chua, who has held the Batu parliamentary seat since 2008, was disqualified by the EC’s returning officer from seeking re-election on the grounds that he was fined 2,000 ringgits (about 500 US$) for insulting a policeman in 2007.
The federal constitution disqualifies anyone from standing as an election candidate for five years after being sentenced to more than a year’s jail, or a fine of more than 2,000 ringgits.
The Shah Alam High Court, which allowed Chua’s appeal and reduced his fine from 3,000 ringgits to 2,000, spelled out that the MP would only be disqualified if the fine was 2,001 ringgits and above.
Independent P. Prabakaran, who, at 22, is the youngest candidate in G14, is now contesting the Batu seat along with another independent and candidates from BN and PAS.
“In the case of Streram Sinnasamy, the police and election officers physically prevented him from entering the nomination centre because of a trivial administrative issue which has no legal basis,” Bersih said.
The BN candidate Mohamad Hasan has already been returned unopposed as assemblyman in Rantau and his victory was gazetted by the EC on May 3.
Fake news allegation
Mahathir, meanwhile, is being investigated under new “fake news” legislation that was rushed through parliament ahead of the election.
He says that he believes a plane in which he was due to fly to Langkawi, where he is contesting the election, was sabotaged to stop him going there in time to file his nomination papers. The front wheel of the plane was found to be damaged.
The authorities say Mahathir’s accusation is false, and that he was offered seats in another aircraft. Mahathir (pictured below) says this is nonsense.
He managed to reach Langkawi in time to register his candidacy when a friend gave him a ride in a plane he had rented to go to Singapore.
Mahathir said in a press conference on May 4 that BN was making it difficult for opposition candidates to find sites to hold their rallies, but crowds were still flocking to the gatherings, even when conditions were difficult.
“In one rally I was shocked to see people sitting on the wet ground … and it was muddy. People were sitting cross-legged on the floor and they sat there until 12 o’clock. They didn’t move. They wanted to listen to what we have to say.”
Mahathir urged supporters to share his message widely on social media. For the opposition to win, he says, the voter turnout must be the biggest ever. “Nothing less than 85 percent.”
He says the opposition has huge support, “but what we fear is the massive cheating that will be done by Najib”.
Mahathir was once Najib Razak’s mentor, and many opposition supporters remain wary of the former authoritarian who was in power during the infamous Operation Lalang crackdown (know as Ops Lalang) in 1987. More than 100 activists, politicians, and academics were arrested under the now-repealed Internal Security Act (ISA) that year.
Mahathir and the jailed former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who served as Mahathir’s deputy from 1993 to 1998, have now buried their differences and are working together as allies.
Anwar (pictured left) was sacked and arrested in September 1998, and subsequently charged with corruption for allegedly interfering with police investigations into claims of sexual misconduct made against him. He is now serving a five-year jail sentence on a sodomy charge. He says the case against him was fabricated by his political enemies and the verdict has been strongly criticised both locally and internationally.
Mahathir is the opposition’s candidate for prime minister if the coalition wins a majority of the seats in parliament in today’s election. He has said he would hand over the position to Anwar, who is due to be released from prison on June 8. If Anwar receives a royal pardon, he will be able to contest a by-election.
In a letter from hospital, where he is being monitored by doctors and undergoing physiotherapy on his right shoulder, Anwar urged Malaysians to support Mahathir in GE14 to “fix the rot” in Malaysia.
“From Cheras Hospital, under strict observation of prison guards, I urge you to stand with the people’s movement to demand change in the 14th general election,” the letter read.
Anwar said UMNO and BN were worried about his cooperation with Mahathir, and had even aired his past speeches attacking the former prime minister.
He said his family was initially wary of Mahathir, but they chose to place the interests of the nation first.
“Mahathir has proven his determination to the cause, accepted his past limitations, apologised, and sacrificed his time and energy for the people and country.
“He has patiently faced UMNO and BN’s insults and focused on strengthening the Harapan machinery.”
Anwar continued: “I would like to urge the people to show support so as to allow him to fix the rot facing the country as a result of corruption and abuse of power by the UMNO-BN government under the leadership of Najib Abdul Razak.”
Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar (pictured below), says the opportunity to defeat Najib’s coalition is what matters most. “It took us many years to get to this point, and if you’re not smart or wise enough to join all these forces together, we might lose the chance at wresting power from BN,” she told Reuters.
She told the Associated Press: “We have to face a lot of onslaught against Mahathir especially in the lead-up to the election, but we are not apologists. Like it or not, he is now doing his bit at the age of 92 …”
The leader of the DAP, Lim Kit Siang, says G14 is “the only one opportunity and possibility in sixty years to save Malaysia from being a failed, rogue, and kleptocratic state and to be a great and united plural nation”.
In an “Open Letter to all Malaysians” former ambassador Dennis Ignatius called on his fellow citizens to vote for the opposition. He said the stakes had never been higher.
“There are those who say that change is too risky, too dangerous,” Ignatius wrote on his blog. “They point to the instability and chaos that followed a change of government in other countries. They hint at a recurrence of experiences that traumatised our nation before.”
Malaysia is different, Ignatius says. “We have experienced and capable leaders in Pakatan Harapan who are able to usher in change without the chaos and instability that those other countries experienced.”
Ignatius cites the states of Selangor and Penang, where the opposition has been in power since 2008.
Nurul Izzah Anwar says the opposition coalition’s performance in Selangor and Penang is proof that it is not making empty promises. There have, she says, been tremendous positive changes in the two states.
The campaigning and research organisation Invoke has predicted that Pakatan Harapan will form the next federal government with a simple majority. The organisation, which is headed by PKR vice-president Rafizi Ramli said that, according to a survey carried out in peninsular Malaysia, Pakatan will win 111 of the 165 parliamentary seats being contested in the peninsula and BN will secure the remaining 54 seats.
Invoke predicts that PAS will not win a single seat – either parliamentary or state – in peninsular Malaysia.
It further predicted that PH would win 253 state seats in peninsular Malaysia and BN would win the remaining 192 seats.
The survey was conducted among 11,991 registered voters in peninsular Malaysia over the course of two weeks and was updated last Thursday.
The Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research predicts, however, that BN will win the election, but that its share of the popular vote will drop to 37.3 per cent from 47.4 per cent in the 2013 election.
The centre’s projections were released yesterday (Tuesday) evening and were derived from polling conducted in peninsular Malaysia between April 28 and noon yesterday. A total of 1,579 registered voters in seventy marginal seats in peninsular Malaysia were interviewed by telephone.
The centre predicts that PH will win 43.4 per cent of the popular vote and PAS will get 19.3 per cent, winning just two parliamentary seats .
The polling firm predicted 100 “safe seats” for BN and 83 for PH. A total of 112 parliamentary seats are needed for either side to take federal power.
“The high number of marginal seats (37) implies that voter turnout will be a critical factor in determining the outcome of many seats on election day,” the Merdeka centre said.
The pollster found that voters’ main concerns were the cost of living and governance issues.
“This has been an election propelled by a voter revolt over the GST as well as concerns over rising cost of living, running parallel alongside perceived governance shortfalls.”
A total 43 percent of those questioned said economic concerns were most important to them, 21 percent said issues of corruption concerned them the most, and eight per cent cited weakness of leadership as their main concern.