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Landmark Election Could Bring Big Change to Malaysia

  • Rian Maelzer

Malaysia has been a model of political stability over the decades, with the same alliance of parties ruling the country since 1957. But as Malaysians prepare to head to the polls on May 5, many observers believe that could all change -- with an unlikely alliance comprising of secular and religious parties mounting a strong challenge for power.

It is shaping up to be the closest election in Malaysia’s history. The campaign is pitting the National Front, headed by Prime Minister Najib Razak, against the opposition People’s Pact, led by former deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

The ruling National Front is a long-established alliance, made up of ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indian political parties. The opposition is a more recent, looser and diverse alliance. It includes an Islamist party that wants to impose Shariah law, and a mostly-Chinese left-of-center party that staunchly opposes that goal.

“It’s a landmark election here in Malaysia, because never in this country’s history have we had the opposition being this strong, this poised, and this prepared to take power in the over 50 years since the country gained independence,” noted political analyst Ibrahim Suffian.

Prime Minister Najib pointed to the country’s strong economic growth, and the numerous economic and political reforms he has enacted in his four years in office. His coalition warned that Malaysia’s future prosperity and stability are at stake if the opposition were to win.

Norraesah Mohamad of the ruling party UMNO, said the opposition coalition is too fractured to govern effectively.

“They have very very different ideologies, the three of them. It is really they are getting together as a marriage of convenience," he remarked. "Each one of them are rowing boats in different directions. They do, you know, as we have a saying here, they share the same pillow but they dream differently.”

The opposition may never have ruled the country, but it has governed in five states. Its leaders say they have demonstrated the type of transparent and efficient governance they would practice nationally if they win.

Despite concerns about clashing ideologies, Ong Kian Ming of the Opposition Democratic Action Party, said there is far more that unites his alliance than divides it.

“There are a lot of common points and policies that we do agree with very strongly," he explained. "For example we stand very strongly against the very rampant corruption that has been a scourge to the Malaysian political system for the longest time, since independence. And we also stand very much for the protection of human rights.”

In the 2008 election, the opposition alliance shocked the ruling National Front by winning power in the country’s two most-developed states. This time Anwar and the People’s Pact will hope to go one better and win power nationally.

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