Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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Mahathir hangs on

By Mohamed Khaled

The ruling coalition in Malaysia, the National Front, scored a decisive victory in the country's most bitterly contested election to date. The fierce battle, in which Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed was up against an unprecedented unified opposition -- the first time since the country gained independence in 1957 -- resulted in the ruling coalition gaining 65 per cent of the votes and almost three-quarters of the parliament seats.

The four-party opposition coalition, the Alternative Front, campaigned for sweeping democratic reforms in the country and aimed at breaking the two-third majority the ruling coalition enjoyed. "What is important about the election is that democracy is working," M N Haji Azman, Malaysia's ambassador to Egypt, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Though the government gained a two-third majority, opposition doubled their share of the vote since the last elections. It is good to have a strong opposition, Azman added.

According to Azman, opposition parties made inroads in the northern states of Kedah and Perlis, which are strongholds of the ruling coalition. "Seven ministers lost their former constituencies, and therefore lost their ministerial posts," he said.

Jomo K S, a Malaysian professor of economics and human rights activist, told the Weekly that Mahathir's main success was that he prevented the National Justice Party -- led by Wan Azizah Ismail, wife of sacked Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim -- from getting many seats (only five). Jomo also noted that Mahathir managed to eliminate Lim Kit Siang, head of the mostly Chinese Democratic Action Party and former opposition leader, from coming to parliament. Lim Kit Siang has held his position for the last 30 years.

Stability was the platform the ruling party hoped to cash in on: "A vote for us is a vote for stability," was their election campaign slogan. "Without stability, nothing can work," Azman insisted.

However, Jomo expressed doubts about achieving the required stability, referring to the current misuse of the state-controlled media and threats to non-Muslims -- both of which could result in renewed political instability. "Mahathir may try to form a national government in order to maintain the stability of the country," Jomo added.

Malaysian Citizens Watch, an election monitoring group, complained that hundreds of people could not vote because their names did not appear on the electorate list. The opposition claimed that the election was unfair. Azman countered that the ruling party "also complained about inefficiency of the officially assigned Election Commission."

According to Azman, it is a win-win case. "[Our situation] is similar to a two-party system, with a ruling coalition on one side and a strong opposition coalition on the other," Azman said. However, Jomo pointed out that the unity of the opposition is not yet guaranteed.

"This is an unfair election with no ground level," Syed Husin Ali, leader of the opposition People's Party, told the Weekly. "The media is fully controlled by the government. Despite this, the government majority has been reduced."

However, an unprecedented shift was noted in the Malay Muslims' voting attitude. "Among the important indications is that the Malay Muslims are voting for the opposition in ever greater numbers," Ali stressed. The opposition leader in parliament will be Fadel Nur, president of the Islamic Party, who studied in Cairo during the '60s. "This is a very unusual situation. For the first time, Malay Muslims are leading the opposition," said Jomo. "Voting for the Islamic Party does not necessarily mean support of the hard fundamentalist line, but rather, it is a rejection for Mahathir," Jomo added.

Ethnic Chinese and Indians make up about 40 per cent of Malaysia's 22 million people, while ethnic Malays constitute the 60 per cent majority. "In light of the fact that the Islamic Party won the biggest gains, Mahathir may try in the future to use a bigger dose of Islamic-Malay nationalism," Ali said. He added that this could cause a split in the ruling party between people who want to be more Malay and Islamist-oriented and those who do not.

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