Malaysia's opposition reborn
In Malaysia's recent elections, opposition parties managed their strongest showing since the country gained its independence from Britain in 1957, cutting the ruling coalition's parliamentary majority to below two-thirds. Where the country's newly invigorated democracy goes from here rests with one man, Anwar Ibrahim, the deputy prime minister sacked by former premier Mahathir Mohamad and later jailed.
Anwar can finally make the opposition a credible check on the National Front ruling coalition, but knows that he will never become prime minister this way. No one, after all, expects the opposition to win enough seats to form a government in the conceivable future. He can allow himself to be wooed back by his former party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the National Front's leading member.
|Malaysian Opposition People's Justice Party members holding party flags, celebrate in Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia, Sunday, March 9.
UMNO is widely believed to have held talks with Anwar before. Now, more than ever, it needs Anwar to reestablish its credibility. And, to become prime minister, Anwar needs UMNO.
Arguably, being inside UMNO and the government would allow Anwar to better institute the reforms he has so ardently advocated. But, before all that, Anwar needs to get himself elected to parliament again.
Because of his prison term, Anwar was not able to run in the latest election. Instead, he acted as the de facto leader of a loose alliance between the three leading opposition forces - the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the Justice Party, and the Islamist PAS. Political restrictions on Anwar, however, end next month, and an MP from his Justice Party - probably his wife - is expected to step aside to allow him to run in a by-election.
If Anwar were to marry his leadership and charisma to the opposition's newfound heft in the federal legislature - 82 MPs, compared with 20 in the last parliament - serious policy alternatives to the government's might be expected. Until now, the opposition has chiefly acted as an irritant, and voters viewed debates as entertainment, rather than as exchanges that informed policy.
For the same reason, policy platforms have never been important for the opposition in elections. Many who voted for the DAP on Saturday, for example, are unlikely to have known or cared about what the party stood for. Traditionally, people voted for the DAP or the Justice Party to show their displeasure with the National Front. Indeed, if ideas were important, a leftist party like the DAP would have found it difficult to cooperate with the PAS. But cooperate they did.
All this changes now that the National Front no longer has a two-thirds majority - which had allowed it to amend the constitution 40 times in 50 years. Parliament now will have to pay attention to any serious policy that the opposition proposes. But serious opposition will require serious leadership.
Strong leadership also is needed to protect the interests of the five states in which the opposition has now won control for the first time. Because the federal government disburses fiscal allocations to Malaysia's 13 states, the government will be tempted to squeeze opposition-held states. Thus, they will need strong advocacy at the federal level to ensure they receive their fair due.
What makes the National Front's loss particularly dramatic has been its defeat in the state legislatures of Penang, Selangor, Perak, and Kedah - large states with important industrial bases. (Kelantan state, however, was always expected to continue to be held by PAS.)
Urban and middle-class voters such as those in Penang - a predominantly Chinese state with strong opposition sentiment - had always voted to keep the state legislature under the National Front in order to ensure continued funding, while sending opposition candidates to parliament to "pester" the National Front there. This calculation has been abandoned, reflecting deep dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's administration and impatience for change.
Malaysia is now at a crossroads. For five decades, its democracy has not been premised on a daily test of ideas - whether between political parties or through grassroots engagement - that is then confirmed at the ballot box. There is still a newfound opportunity to improve governance, but only Anwar has the experience to provide that direction, because no one else in the opposition has worked in government at such a senior level as he has.
That said, it is also likely that the UMNO, in its hour of crisis, will try to recruit Anwar. Arguably, the best legacy Anwar might eventually leave Malaysia would not be what he can achieve for the UMNO and the National Front, but what role he might play in entrenching a contest of ideas into Malaysian politics - a project he has shown himself keen to promote.
Tion Kwa is a Fellow at the Asia Society.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/The Asia Society, 2008.
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