Malaysia: Ruling government faces toughest elections ever

Opposition victory possible for first time but workers and youth without genuine alternative

The government is soon expected to call Malaysia’s 13th general elections – considered to be the toughest general elections for them so far – either in March or April, following much speculation on the election date since 2011. The BN (government party) leadership under Najib Razak, desperate to improve its outcome, since the last general elections has been pressured to wait until the end of its five years term. The last general elections, called in 2008, were the worst for BN since independence from Britain in 1957. It lost its two-thirds majority as well as losing power in wealthy states, such as Selangor and Penang.

Early in January this year, 100,000 supporters of Pakatan Rakyat, the coalition of opposition parties, thronged to Kuala Lumpur to advocate a change of government in the coming general elections. The mood is very high among its supporters, which boosts further the confidence of Pakatan Rakyat, under the leadership of Anwar Ibrahim, to capture federal power for the first time.

‘Election Goodies’ versus Populist Agenda

Since the last two years, BN has been distributing many elections goodies in the name of welfare aids, probably the most attractive ever, to people from different races and backgrounds – rural, urban, young, old, women, student, workers and middle class – to win their support. Among them are cash hand-outs of RM500 per person with a household income lower than RM3000, and a RM 200 rebate for youths to buy ‘smartphones’. BN, with the domination of UMNO with its ‘promises fulfilled’ slogan has also been going all out to show that it has changed a lot since the last general elections by ‘reforming’ certain laws such as the notorious Internal Security Act, and introducing welfare programmes to reduce the people’s social and economic problems. But in reality, the public feels that their living standards have not changed much or are becoming worse with the prices of goods and services continuously going up, but real wages stagnating, though the government claims that inflation is still under control.

Although the democratic space has been widened to a certain extent – especially the right to protest – other rights like union or workers’ democratic rights and freedoms are very much controlled. Some reforms have also been made to the electoral systems that favoured the ruling government, after the pressure from the ‘Bersih’ movement. However, the opposition still has suspicions that fraud could still occur, since the Malaysian Election Commission is seen as ‘closer’ to government.

Pakatan Rakyat leaders with their populist agenda promise that they will be a better government with promises such as free education, cheaper cars and reduced petrol prices. They are also giving examples of their success in ruling some of the states since the last general elections, such as the reduction of corruption and improving transparency, and introduction of some welfare aid programmes.

Some people feel that certain government services have been improved in the states under Pakatan control in Selangor, Penang and Kedah since the last general elections. Nevertheless, the five years of Pakatan state governments have not solved fundamental social and economic problems such as wages, escalating housing prices, rights for workers, environmental issues etc, but rather concentrate on giving welfare aid to compete with the goodies given by the BN government. The programme and policies of Pakatan as well as their master plan in their ‘Orange Book’ shows that they are comfortable working within the framework of capitalism, rather than to challenge the profit oriented system to fulfil the fundamental needs of people.

‘Minimum Wage’ to gain working class votes

The BN government has also introduced a minimum wage for the first time to garner support from the working class. But the wage of RM800 in Borneo states and RM900 in Peninsular states that the government introduced in January are far below a real living wage at the present time. Even with that inadequate amount for workers, there have already been many manipulations in the minimum wage implementations by employers that want to retain their low wages policy. The government also succumbs to the pressure of employers to reduce the benefits for migrant workers. Wage exploitation by unscrupulous employers will continue, especially for unorganised, casual, outsourcing/contract and part-time workers for as long as the government’s law and policy implementations cater for the needs of free market capitalism.

Pakatan Rakyat promised that it could implement RM1100 as the minimum wage. Some unions, like the National Union of Bank Employees, have demanded that the minimum wage be set at RM1500 taking the inflations rate at present time into account, which the Pakatan rejected, saying that the ‘free market’ wouldn’t accept it. This revealed the true colour of Pakatan who use populist slogans, such as a ‘people oriented economy’ but are unwilling to confront the profit oriented system of capitalism to increase the living standards of workers and ordinary people.

‘Hung Parliament’ after elections ?

The vast majority of people are not convinced with both parties’ policies and programmes, and are still undecided on who they would vote for. Most of the urban middle class and young people support Pakatan, in the hope that they would improve democratic and social rights. In rural areas the BN still has upper hand with their ‘money, media and machinery’, though Pakatan has also improved its support here in recent times.

Although most analysts predicted that BN could win but with slim majority, some have not ruled out a possible first opposition victory. Some also predict that a ‘hung parliament’ could develop, without either BN or Pakatan with a clear majority. This could create prolonged instability in government.

The BN government has been using economic growth, at around 5%, to garner support and be elected again, but the growth has not been translated into real improvements in living standards for ordinary people, where the gap between the rich and poor is one of the worst in Southeast Asia. Since the world economic slowdown that started in 2008, BN government has pumped billions of ringgits (currency) to stimulate the domestic economy but with the prolonged uncertainties in the global economy, exports and FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) have not much improved. The return of a BN government for another term, alongside a continuing or worsening world economic crisis, would be a government of austerity cuts to counter the budget deficit and increasing debt. This could lead to social explosions that could destabilise the government, and create further political conflicts.

Although an opposition win for the first time would give hope of a better government, this could diminish fast when the Pakatan government fails to significantly improve the social and economic interests of the people.

The ‘Arab Spring’ has been used by former Prime Minister, Mahathir, and others in BN to create fear among voters that the oppositions winning elections would create more instability. But, whoever come to power, if the social and economic needs of the people are not progressing or are worsening, an ‘Arab Spring’ type response from the people is inevitable.

Socialists and Trade Unions

PSM (Socialist Party) which was not formally part of Pakatan but has been friendly towards them has now publicly announced that there are willing to join Pakatan Rakyat coalitions. This decision has been made in order to regain the seats they won in the last elections under Pakatan banner and to avoid a clash with Pakatan Rakyat in the coming elections. Although social, economic and environmental issues that affected the people are highlighted in their programme as well as support for workers demands such as a minimum wage of RM1500, no alternative solutions are given to address issues other than the defeat of UMNO/BN. Their position is like an “Anything But UMNO/BN (ABU)” position! This shows that the PSM has further moved away from the socialists task to adopt a working class independent position and to build a party for working class and the oppressed as the alternative to the pro-capitalist parties.

In the last few years, attacks on workers’ rights and welfare have risen with the BN’s pro-capitalist policies. The pressure from workers has pushed some of the trade union leaders to call for protests. The protests from bank, railway, car and other workers in recent times raise confidence that the workers should unite to struggle for their rights. But the leadership of MTUC has not been building united struggles to defeat the pro-capitalist policies of governments but rather succumbing to either government or capitalist demands.

The workers that feel anger towards BN pro-capitalist policies will choose to vote for Pakatan as in the last general elections with no other alternatives on offer but the character of Pakatan, which supports the free market and capitalism also shows it will not solve the workers’ demands if it takes power. The position of Pakatan, to disagree even with the decent demands of a minimum wage of RM1500 shows that they will not confront the capitalists to further the interests of workers and ordinary people.

This shows that workers and ordinary people looking for a genuine change have no real alternative between Pakatan and BN. This underlines that, for a genuine change, the workers, trade unions and socialists have crucial task to initiate the building of a mass working class party with a programme and policies to enhance democratic rights and the social and economic needs of working class, young people and others oppressed under the capitalist system. Only in this way, a government for 99% that prioritises their needs and rights can be built as the alternative to government for the 1% that prioritises the profits of capitalists and their cronies. This will be the way forward towards building a democratic socialist society in Malaysia and Internationally.

Some of CWI Malaysia’s demands for the elections:

• Clean and impartial elections, including fair access to media and government facilities

• Democratic rights, including the right to assemble and to protest

• Students rights and freedoms to express views and get involved in politics

• Equal rights for women in workplaces and in society

• For sustainable environment and safe power, no to nuclear power

• Workers’ and Trade union rights, and for a fighting trade union leadership

• Need for a mass working class party as the alternative to pro-capitalist parties. This party should also support the struggles of young people and others oppressed under capitalism.

• International solidarity with the workers and oppressed

• For a socialist planned economy as the alternative to the free market economy to plan for the social and economic needs of people

• Socialism as the alternative to capitalism to build a just society to fulfill the needs and rights of everybody regardless of race and religion and for a sustainable environment.

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