Prime Minister Najib Razak recently dissolved Malaysia’s 222-seat parliament, paving the way for the country’s next general election, which is now scheduled for May 5. Electioneering in Malaysia has been at fever pitch for many months, and it will only grow more intense in the coming weeks.

In this Q&A, Vikram Nehru and Van Tran analyze Malaysia’s political landscape. They explain why this election, which pits the long-dominant Barisan Nasional coalition against the up-and-coming Pakatan Rakyat, could be pivotal.

What is the significance of the upcoming general election?

Vikram Nehru
Nehru was a nonresident senior fellow in the Carnegie Asia Program. An expert on development economics, growth, poverty reduction, debt sustainability, governance, and the performance and prospects of East Asia, his research focuses on the economic, political, and strategic issues confronting Asia, particularly Southeast Asia.
More >

This election will likely be the most hotly contested in Malaysian history. Since the country’s first vote in 1959, one coalition—Barisan Nasional (BN or National Front)—has dominated the political system and easily won every election.

But the last general election in 2008 foreshadowed a shift in the mood of the electorate. For the first time, BN lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority in the national legislature and thus its power to amend the constitution, as well as five of thirteen state elections (one of them, Perak, later returned to the BN fold). The surprising performance of the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR or People’s Alliance), in the vote added new energy to Malaysian politics and a powerful voice critical of the incumbent administration.

Although according to the latest figures, BN, with 137 seats, still had a commanding lead in parliament, PR came away from recent elections with the most seats it has ever had—76 (see figure 1).

Both coalitions have ramped up their political campaigns for what could turn out to be a pivotal moment in Malaysia’s electoral history. The current consensus appears to be that BN’s majority will be further eroded in the 2013 election, although an outright win by a resurgent PR cannot be ruled out.

While Prime Minister Najib Razak’s approval rating remains above 60 percent, the BN coalition is less popular—its approval rating is 45 percent—and is the target of many allegations of corruption and cronyism. Most recently, a Global Witness report on land grabs in the state of Sarawak highlights the systemic corruption that appears to permeate all levels of government in Malaysia. Not surprisingly, Malaysia’s ranking in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index has slipped steadily over the years from 25 in 1995 to 56 today.

What is the makeup of the two main political coalitions?

BN consists of thirteen parties. The largest of them, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), has traditionally led the coalition and occupied the most seats in parliament (see figure 2).

Prime Minister Najib and Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin are members of UMNO. They are the most viable candidates for the position of prime minister should BN win. Some speculate that Muhyiddin may replace Najib as prime minister if BN once again fails to capture a two-thirds majority .

PR is made up of three major parties: the People’s Justice Party (PKR), Democratic Action Party (DAP), and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). While DAP draws its core support from ethnic Chinese and PAS from Muslims, PKR has been able to forge a more diverse support base across different ethnic groups and is seen as the leading party within the coalition (see figure 3). The current leader of the PR coalition, former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, is also the de facto leader of the PKR and would most likely become prime minister if PR won a parliamentary majority in this election.

How has PR performed thus far?

Compared to BN, PR is a relatively young coalition. It was called Barisan Alternatif when it was established in 1999, but that coalition fell apart before the 2004 election (over disagreements about the role of Islam in the state). It then came into its own after the 2008 election.

PR’s performance in 2008 in the state legislatures was a significant improvement over 2004 (see figure 4). But given Malaysia’s first-past-the-post electoral system, PR’s share of the popular vote, which was within a few percentage points of BN’s in 2008, exceeds its share of parliamentary seats (see figure 5). In 2008, PR won almost half the popular votes (47 percent), but it took just over a third (37 percent) of the parliamentary seats.

PR’s biggest challenge in the upcoming election will be to increase its share of seats, not just its share of the popular vote. Doing so is possible given the existence of several “swing” constituencies in which a small change in the popular vote can significantly alter the allocation of seats.

What makes BN appealing to the electorate?

BN has significant advantages thanks to its half century in power, stretching back to Malaysia’s independence. Not only has it accumulated substantial experience in state affairs and electioneering, it has presided over fifty years of impressive economic performance. Malaysia’s GDP growth averaged 6.4 percent a year between 1961 and 2011, with especially high growth in the 1990s under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Malaysia’s continued strong economic performance at a time when the rest of the world is experiencing economic turbulence is, in fact, BN’s strongest appeal. Success has reaffirmed BN’s competence in economic management and has made Malaysia an attractive destination for foreign capital.

Prime Minister Najib’s Economic Transformation Program and Government Transformation Program, which aim to make Malaysia a high-income economy by 2020, have received favorable reviews at home and internationally. Malaysia’s standing in international surveys of competitiveness and the investment environment have improved under his watch, private investment picked up dramatically last year, and economic growth has remained steady.

Prime Minister Najib’s economic policies have been accompanied by some deft political moves. These included repealing unpopular laws curtailing human rights (such as the Internal Security Act) and dealing firmly with a recent invasion by an armed Muslim group from the Philippines.

BN has also used the budget to improve its appeal with the electorate. For instance, the BN government introduced a rebate program for smartphone purchases and the 1Malaysia People’s Aid program that doles out cash to low-income families regardless of race—a significant move in a country that has long been divided along racial and ethnic lines. BN’s newly released manifesto also promises a million housing units, rural infrastructure, and higher civil service salaries.

BN enjoys the solid support of Malaysia’s dominant Malay community, which accounts for 60 percent of the population. That support has, in part, stemmed from an affirmative action program called the Bumiputera—or sons of the soil—policy. Under the policy, which BN says it will continue if it wins, Bumis (ethnic Malays and indigenous groups) get preferential access to a range of economic opportunities, including jobs, education, business ownership, real estate, procurement contracts, and finance. As important, two parties in BN’s coalition—the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malay Indian Congress—covering Malaysia’s two other important ethnic groups, have also helped broaden BN’s political base.

What has PR done to boost its chances with the electorate?

PR is striving to demonstrate its viability as an alternative government that has strong credentials in managing the affairs of state and that is prepared to clean up corruption.

It has shown over the last five years that it is capable of running a successful administration, at least at the state level. States run by PR have by and large been managed competently even though, as some have alleged, the BN-run central government has limited their authority and reduced federal funds for some projects.

More importantly, Anwar Ibrahim is the opposition coalition’s strongest weapon. Notwithstanding allegations against him for homosexuality (a crime under Malaysian law) that have been largely discredited as maneuvers to ruin him politically, he is regarded as an accomplished politician with an impressive career. He served in many ministerial positions under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and eventually became deputy prime minister before a falling out with his boss.

Since then, Anwar Ibrahim has survived much travail—including imprisonment and mistreatment—to emerge as a leader of the major opposition party. But he and his PR coalition partners have found it difficult to resolve their ideological and strategic differences. While some progress has been made—for example, PKR and DAP have persuaded the Islamic PAS to adopt a more moderate platform—the three parties appear to be united more in their opposition to BN than in their support for any common political platform.

Even so, PR’s recently issued election manifesto contains many sensible proposals. It starts with a call to “eliminate racial discrimination and the incitement of antagonism between community groups,” which can be read as the coalition’s intention to end the divisive and anachronistic Bumiputera policy.

What potential obstacles lie ahead?

With so much at stake in this election and with the likelihood of a tight race, every vote will be valuable. As a result, many observers in Malaysia believe that this may be the dirtiest election that the country has seen in a long while. Although violence is unlikely, allegations of electoral malpractice could mar the postelection announcement of the results.

In response to concerns expressed by Malaysian NGOs over the years about the flaws in the electoral system—especially by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih)—the prime minister established the Parliamentary Select Committee on electoral reform in 2011 that was made up of five members from BN, three from PR, and one independent. The committee submitted its report to parliament in April 2012 and most of its recommendations were accepted by the Election Commission. Reforms included allowing Malaysians living overseas to vote, providing equal media access to all parties, and using indelible ink to prevent voter fraud.

Recently, for the first time, the Election Commission also selected sixteen local NGOs (five from peninsular Malaysia, three from Sabah, eight from Sarawak) to monitor the upcoming elections and invited NGOs from ASEAN countries to do so as well.

While these reforms have gone some way toward assuaging government critics, there remain significant concerns in the NGO community about the fairness of the electoral arrangements, particularly with respect to discrepancies in electoral rolls, restrictions on NGO monitoring activities, and the lack of detailed instructions on how parties can use government-controlled media when campaigning.