By Murray Hiebert
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on May 5 held onto power in the toughest election fight the ruling coalition faced in over 40 years, but the challenges are far from over. For the first time since the tumultuous year of 1969, the ruling coalition lost the popular vote, while the opposition increased its seats to 89, up from 82 five years ago.
The ruling coalition won 133 seats in Parliament, seven less than it snared in 2008, when the poor showing forced Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Badawi, to step down. Droves of ethnic Chinese, who make up a quarter of the country’s population, voted for the opposition, as did many urban and young voters including significant numbers from the ethnic Malay majority that has long supported the ruling coalition.
Najib recognized in a victory rally speech the night of the elections that the country faced political polarization. “We are afraid that if this is allowed to continue, it will create tensions,” he said. He called for “national reconciliation,” urging that “extremist ideologies” be “put to one side.” He added that “racial harmony is imperative for us,” an oblique reference to the deadly race riots in 1969.
The elections revealed a country with a stark urban-rural divide and significant class divisions. The opposition increased its mandate in the wealthier, more urban states of Selangor and Penang and had a stronger showing in urban areas of Johor, next to Singapore. In the urban areas where the opposition did best, voters appeared to be attracted by its calls for further dismantling the affirmative action program for Malays, stepped up political and economic reform, and tackling corruption.
After becoming prime minister in 2009, Najib started to move away from Malay-only affirmative action programs, launched economic reforms, and repealed the draconian Internal Security Act. But he had faced considerable opposition from conservatives within his ruling coalition for these changes. The fact that Najib won the elections thanks largely to support from generally conservative rural Malays may make his task of continuing reform more difficult.
Investors were relieved that the ruling coalition survived its challenge, pushing up the country’s stock market nearly 8 percent the day after the elections. Foreign and domestic businessmen are looking to Najib to press ahead with economic liberalization, abandon costly fuel subsidies, introduce a value-added tax, and step up spending on infrastructure to make the country more competitive and avoid the “middle-income trap,” which the prime minister fears is holding Malaysia back.
Nonetheless, some analysts expect Najib to be challenged for leadership of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the dominant party in the ruling coalition, when the party meets late this year. Najib’s predecessor Abdullah was pressed to step down when the ruling coalition lost its two thirds majority in Parliament in the last elections. Former chief editor of the UMNO-owned New Straits Times, Kadir Jasin, said the ruling coalition’s less than stellar showing has made the prime minister’s position within the party “wobbly.”
Though the elections are over, it seems the biggest challenges for Najib are just beginning.
Murray Hiebert serves as senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.