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?