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Deep Divisions Surface After Landmark Malaysian Elections

  • Rian Maelzer

After this week's closest election in Malaysia’s history, the ruling National Front returned to power with a majority in parliament. The opposition alliance, however, won more than half the votes. The result has left a divided country, with the opposition alleging electoral fraud, and many in the ruling coalition are blaming the ethnic Chinese minority for their poor performance.

Tens of thousands of supporters of the opposition People’s Alliance packed into a stadium Wednesday night in Kuala Lumpur, not to celebrate their best-ever election performance. They were there to protest against what they say is the fraud that robbed them of victory.

Analysts say electoral districts heavily favored the ruling coalition, with many seats for smaller populations in rural areas that are the National Front’s strongholds. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim goes further, accusing the election commission of siding with the ruling coalition.

"Yeah, we have seen the ground swell and they have been translated into the elections only to be stolen by the ruling clique. But now I think what we need to do is to explain and let the people take up from there - what do they want? They want to surrender to the corrupt regime or they want to claim what is rightfully theirs?" asked Ibrahim.

Defending the elections

The National Front maintains that the elections were free and fair.

The opposition People’s Alliance succeeded in cutting the ruling coalition’s majority in parliament; it won many more seats in state legislatures; it tightened its grip on Malaysia’s two most-developed states, which it has ruled for five years.

Prime Minister Najib Razak said the results were caused by a huge swing of support toward the opposition from the ethnic Chinese community that makes up about a quarter of the population.

Political analysts, such as Keith Leong, say other, more decisive factors were at play.

“It’s more of a geographic and a class issue. The fact is that the opposition was also able to make gains in largely urban Malay areas and so it is actually more of an urban-rural divide. The opposition’s message was able to resonate more with the urban dwellers, especially with the young voters,” said Leong.

Playing blame game

Still, many leading figures in the ruling coalition blame the Chinese community for their poor showing and a Malay-language newspaper linked to the ruling party caused outrage with a headline asking “What more do the Chinese want?”

The leader of the ruling party’s youth wing, Khairy Jamaluddi, said such attitudes hurt his coalition in the election.

“We have to rein in the more extremist elements within our own party, within our own media establishment and we must speak against it. If leaders abdicate this responsibility then this nation is going to be further divided. This is a time for us to step up and speak and act on that message of inclusively and moderation,” said Jamaluddi.

Prime Minister Najib said he also is worried about polarization and will seek national reconciliation. But Wednesday night’s huge rally rejecting the legitimacy of the election results indicates just how tough a task that will be.