NAJIB RAZAK has finally picked his moment. On April 6th Malaysia’s prime minister declared that parliament would be dissolved the following day. That paves the way for an election within 60 days, most likely before Ramadan begins on May 15th.
The announcement came just a day after a government agency ordered Bersatu, a political party founded in 2016 by Mahathir Mohamad, a former prime minister who is now leader of the main opposition coalition, to suspend activities. The order was more of a hassle than a death knell. Dr Mahathir will continue to blast Mr Najib, while contesting the claim of the Registrar of Societies that there were omissions in Bersatu’s paperwork. But it is an indication of how stacked the poll is against the opposition.
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The election is for both the 222-seat national parliament and assemblies in 12 of Malaysia’s 13 states. The ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), has held onto power for more than six decades. But its grip is weakening. At the previous election, in 2013, the ruling coalition failed to win the popular vote, retaining power because of a wildly unfair electoral system. The leader of the opposition at the time, Anwar Ibrahim, was subsequently jailed on flimsy evidence for sodomy, which is a crime in Malaysia.
Racial politics will dominate the poll. About 69% of the population are either Malay or members of other indigenous groups, collectively referred to as bumiputra. About 24% are ethnic Chinese and 7% Indian. The bumiputra have long been the beneficiaries of a system of racial preferences originally intended as temporary measures to combat their relative poverty, including easier access to university and jobs in the civil service. UMNO casts itself as the defender of the system, earning the loyalty of many Malays.
Whether this quid pro quo will endure is uncertain. Politicians and pundits whisper of a hung parliament. Since the last election, news of the disappearance of $4.5bn from a state development fund, 1MDB, has embarrassed the government and touched Mr Najib himself: almost $700m entered his personal bank account. He denies any wrongdoing, saying the money was a gift, later returned, from an unnamed Saudi royal.
The fact that Mr Najib managed to keep his job in spite of the scandal at 1MDB amazes many. The fact that he may win another term at the election flabbergasts them. But as 85% of the Malaysian workforce pay no tax, many felt little outrage at the disappearance of state money, reckons Wong Chen, a politician aligned with Pakatan Harapan (PH), the opposition coalition. Besides, corruption allegations also dog some of the opposition’s most prominent figures, including Lim Guan Eng, the head of the government of the state of Penang.
Instead, voters seem most exercised by the rising cost of living. Higher fuel prices bother the poorest. Expensive housing irks the middle classes. Graduate unemployment is high, and credit is hard to come by for small businesses. All despise a goods-and-services tax of 6% introduced in 2015. The opposition has offered to scrap it in favour of a less efficient sales-and-services tax. Mr Najib says doing so would push Malaysia into deficit; the tax brought in 45bn ringgit ($10.5bn) last year.
To soothe the disgruntled, the government has promised tens of billions of ringgit to poorer people, veterans, entrepreneurs and others. Its most recent budget, presided over by Mr Najib, saw a 15% increase in cash for “subsidies and social assistance”. Handouts can be effective. “When people give you a freezer, you don’t worry too much about the make or model,” explains Zaidul Ahmad. He lives in Lurah Bilut, a rural settlement founded almost 60 years ago in the state of Pahang with the support of a government agency, the Federal Land Development Authority. Similar communities exist across Malaysia, many built specifically to house poor Malays. In recent months high-speed internet, a shared workspace and attractive graffiti murals have been installed in Lurah Bilut. “If things are good, why change the prime minister?” asks Mr Zaidul. He shrugs off 1MDB, although he does express more concern about local corruption.
The opposition hopes that other rural Malays will see things differently. The plan is that Dr Mahathir will attract Malay voters who have shunned the opposition in the past. He used to head UMNO, and was Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, but left the party in disgust at its handling of 1MDB. The 92-year-old retains a political base in the northern state of Kedah, but is energetically touring battleground states such as Johor, to stir support.
Dr Mahathir insists that “a Malay tsunami” could win the day for the opposition, and is hoping to increase turnout. Eyes are also trained on the eastern state of Sabah, which is dominated by local parties within the ruling coalition. Since the last election Shafie Apdal, formerly an UMNO leader who had helped to keep Sabah in the fold, has formed a new opposition party there. He was sacked as a minister three years ago for criticising the government over 1MDB.
Alliances are shifting for UMNO too. It is cosying up to the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which has fought against its policies for decades. PAS governs the poor, rural state of Kelantan, and wants to impose more traditional Islamic punishments such as caning. This agenda concerns those, such as the Sultan of Johor, who fear rising religious intolerance. He spoke out last year after a launderette in his state tried to bar non-Muslims. Mr Najib, in contrast, seemed little troubled by the episode. UMNO might inveigle PAS into splitting the opposition vote in certain constituencies where it might not previously have put forward a candidate.
In the house in the town of Kuala Lipis where Mr Najib was born, now turned into a museum, there is little sign of devotion to the man himself. Attendants will not say whether they support him, pointing out that the government pays their salaries. In the very busiest periods they estimate that 300 visitors a month walk under the villa’s wooden rafters, in which snakes like to nestle. In quieter times it is just 100. Very occasionally Mr Najib himself pops by. If the electoral obstacles in the path of the opposition prove insurmountable, the prime minister may be too busy to visit much in the coming years.