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The U.S. Response to Malaysia’s Election

by Joshua Kurlantzick
May 24, 2013

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks during the announcement of his new cabinet ministers lineup at his office in Putrajaya outside Kuala Lumpur on May 15, 2013. Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks during the announcement of his new cabinet ministers lineup at his office in Putrajaya outside Kuala Lumpur on May 15, 2013. (Bazuki Muhammad/Courtesy Reuters)


On May 5, Malaysia held its closest national election in modern history. Although the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition won the largest number of seats, the opposition actually won the popular vote, and only gerrymandering, massive handouts to voters to vote for the BN, and many election irregularities ensured the BN’s victory. This was the first time in history the BN had lost the popular vote. The irregularities allegedly included flying and busing voters from one district to another, where they did not actually live, inflating voter rolls, using pre-election postal voting to help BN supporters vote twice, and many other irregularities. Independent and accredited observers who witnessed the election deemed it “partially free but not fair.” An excellent summary of all the problems with the election has been written up by Bridget Welsh and is available here.

In response to the disputed election, the opposition coalition, led by longtime Malaysian political figure Anwar Ibrahim, has been holding a series of massive rallies across the country, with some drawing as many as 100,000 people. The government has responded with race-baiting—accusing the country’s minority ethnic Chinese population of essentially being unpatriotic—and, increasingly, crackdowns. Last week, the government arrested prominent youth activist Adam Adli, who had been attending the rallies, for allegedly seditious speech. This week, it arrested other prominent opposition figures. The ruling coalition also has announced that it will make more arrests, and threatened that opposition figures who do not accept the victory should simply leave the country.

If this electoral fraud, gerrymandering, and thuggery had happened in Venezuela, a country that the U.S. government regularly (and rightly) condemns for its unfair elections and electoral processes, Washington’s reaction would have been very different. In fact, when similar electoral irregularities happened in the Venezuelan elections last month, the Obama administration announced that Venezuela should hold a recount, rather than simply swear in Hugo Chavez’s anointed successor. But with Malaysia’s electoral sham, Washington has been strangely quiet. Three days after the election, the White House congratulated the BN on its win, only noting “concerns regarding reported irregularities in the conduct of the election.” By contrast, some regional democracies like Indonesia have been more cautious about endorsing the BN’s victory, as have other Western democracies.

Washington seems to believe that Malaysia’s ruling coalition is essential for close U.S.-Malaysia ties, even though Anwar, who would have been prime minister had the opposition triumphed, would likely have been just as close to the United States. In recent years, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib tun Razak and his ambassadors in DC have wooed the Obama administration and the embassy in Kuala Lumpur, suggesting that he alone can deliver the kind of stability necessary for foreign investment, close defense ties, counterterrorism cooperation, and economic growth. During visits to DC, Najib has smoothly portrayed himself as the most competent economic and political reformer in Malaysia, despite the fact that this fraudulent election, and his subsequent race-baiting, shows the reformer concept to be false.

This election was in many ways a watershed for Malaysia; it seems to have ushered in a truly two-party system, and perhaps opened the door to a change in power in the next vote. However, Najib is responding now by arresting opposition activists and covering his right flank with racial attacks. Will the United States respond now?

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Isaac Rizard

    I, for one, have been voting for BN coalition despite being convinced that the PR can do a good job running the country. I am an ethnic Malay too and I am living and working alongside other ethnic groups as well. While I recognised that we are generally a tolerant lot, deep down inside, we still have the interest of our own race close to our hearts. At the same time, we do recognised the need to be more cohesive and united as one Malaysia.

    However, in the recent election, the alternative for BN coalition had failed to address the most basic issue, the position of the Malays should the PR coalition won the Federal Government. In the run up to the Election Day, the campaign had taken a strong tone of ‘Ubah’ (Change) and the spirit of Ubah seemed to be taken strongly by the predominantly Chinese voters. While I understand the sentiment of the Chinese voters and their struggle for more equality in Malaysia, I also share the concern of the Malay voters who have for the longest time, view political domain as their bastion of power.

    My fear of the revolutionary tone of PR’s campaign influenced my choice. I have to admit I was a fence-sitter right up to the door of the voting centre and having seen the transparency of the voting system and how the claims of irregularities flying around in the social media were quashed by my own experience in the system, I dismissed the idea of sending one BN candidate for the State seat and one PR candidate for the Federal seat. Instead, I voted for BN candidates for both seats as a form of protest against what I branded as a disinformation campaign.

    Should PR organised a more subtle and civil campaign and not resorted to disinformation of the people, I would have voted for PR candidates. PR should be getting its message across in a proper and easy-to-digest way rather than shoving the message of ‘Ubah’, which scared away swing voters who want to see a smooth transition of power.

    The fear of ‘Ubah’ was further heightened by the extreme propagation of ‘Ubah’ by PR supporters and its hate campaign against BN, especially UMNO. It was no longer talking about issues but it involved personal emotion and deep-seated hatred against the party, so much so good candidates from BN were no longer recognised and some hardworking candidates were lost in the election.

    Anwar Ibrahim used to be in the ruling coalition before and he used to be the Deputy Prime Minister before he was sacked in 1997. He know it all too well about the gerrymandering. He should know where to focus. 51% popular votes couldn’t guarantee his winning of the Federal Government nor can he dismissed 47% of votes received by the BN coalition. It was a razor-thin popular votes winning and yet, he couldn’t wrest the Federal Government from the BN coalition. The rally that Anwar have been holding throughout the country is destabilising and remove the focus of administrating the country to toppling the government through undemocratic way.

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    The American CIA has conducted quite a few interventions over the years, resulting in the toppling of heads of state and their replacement with “U.S.-friendly” regimes. While this blog cites irregularities of Anwar’s opponents, it fails to examine possible irregularities, such as the funneling of U.S. money through select NGOs, that might have assisted Anwar’s bid.

  • Posted by Michael D. Purzycki

    This is definitely food for thought. Regarding the Malaysia-Venezuela comparison, a major difference seems to be the paths taken by democracy in the two countries. Venezuela, from what I’m familiar with, was a fairly stable democracy until Chavez came along, whereas Malaysia, as you say, is only even coming close to true democracy now. In other words, one country has regressed in recent years, while the other is moving forward, albeit haltingly and at a very slow pace.

    While the US should be more critical of Najib’s fraud and race-baiting, and probably would not have much to worry about if the opposition were to become the government, it is understandable that Washington would not want to interfere with progress, even if that progress is slow. That’s just my opinion.

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