Malaysia: A ‘people tsunami’ boots out party in power for six decades

On the 9th of May, the country held its 14th general election which saw the humiliating defeat for one of the longest-serving ruling parties in the world – the BN (National Front). This outcome has gone against the predictions of almost all the international and local media who predicted that BN will be once again returned to power. Before the elections, Sosialis Alternatif (CWI Malaysia) analysed that the end of BN rule was expected (Malaysia’s sixty-year ruling party facing electoral defeat ). In the last week of the election, some pollsters in Malaysia also clearly predicted the defeat of BN with the increasing anger of people against BN’s corrupt politics.

Anger against GST (Goods and Services Tax)

It is clear that money politics – ‘Cash is the King’ – and various ‘goodies’ and welfare promises from the corrupt and scandal-filled BN government could not win over the people’s support. Anger over ever-increasing living costs and the anti-GST mood among working and middle class people, which affected people of different races and religions from rural and urban background across the country, pushed them to unite with one goal – to uproot BN from power in this general election.

Many people have proclaimed that this is a victory for ‘people power’ against the tyranny of one party rule since independence from the British in 1957. Messages such as ‘Our nation is reborn’, ‘New dawn’ , ‘Renaissance’, ‘New independence’ and others have been shared widely on social media, minutes after the defeat of the autocratic rule of the BN in the government.  

The BN only won 79 seats out of 222 in this general election. For the first time in Malaysia’s history, a coalition of opposition parties has won the general election and formed a new government. It has an outright majority of 121 seats. The 92 year-old Mahathir Mohamad, who led the opposition Hope Coalition (PH) , has been sworn in as prime minister for the second time. He is returning to power 15 years after stepping down from the post he held under the BN. He was prime minister for 22 years in the BN from 1981 to 2003.  

Depleting support from people and various scandals and corruptions in the government under Najib led to a split inside UMNO, the main dominant party in BN coalitions, in 2015. This resulted in a section of UMNO leaders, led by Mahathir, joining the PH opposition coalition.  Mahathir and PH used the increasing living costs, the anger against GST and corruption in the government to galvanise the support of the majority of the people.

Apart from winning the federal government, PH also won 7 state governments and could form governments in another two states which still have hung state assemblies. (Malaysia is a 14 state federated government).

Mahathir has promised to hand over power to Anwar Ibrahim who was leader of the opposition coalition and is currently serving a prison sentence in a politically motivated case brought by the Najib government. He will be ‘immediately pardoned’ in the coming weeks and eligible to enter politics according to Malaysia’s laws. Mahathir has also promised to investigate and take action against all the wrongdoings, corruption and big scandals such as ‘1MBD’ that involved billions of dollars during Najib’s regime.

The election also showed that another opposition party, PAS (Malaysian Islamic Party), which is not part of the PH coalition, has captured two states –   both in the north east of the country which are among the poorest states in Malaysia with rural agricultural economies. They managed to continuously manipulate religion to get influence and the support of the rural poor by linking it to the social impact of policies of of the BN government.  But PAS only managed to win 18 seats in the parliament and was almost wiped out in other parts of the country which are urban and mostly economically highly industrialised.   

This result of the election could also create new conflicts in UMNO and in BN which could lead to the demise of BN and the creation of new right wing parties to act as the opposition coalition against PH. It also is not be ruled out that a coalition is now formed between UMNO and PAS using ultra right wing  ideas like ‘Malay hegemony’ and ‘Islamic nation’ to garner support from the Malay and Muslim racial groups who constitute a majority – 60% – of Malaysia’s population in order to go against the multi-racial outlook given by the new PH government.

PH to appease ‘market’

In its pre-election manifesto, PH promised reforms within the first 100 days, including a review of major public projects, abolishing GST, increasing the  minimum wage, abolishing road toll charges, creating one million new jobs, free education in public institutions of higher learning and reintroducing fuel subsidies.  They also promised to abolish draconian laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act, National Security Council Act, University and College Act and the Sedition Act to give more freedom to people.

The business class has started to step up pressure for a move to review large construction and infrastructure projects which have an estimated gross value of about RM100 billion (USD 25 billion), mostly carried out by companies from China. This would have a sizeable impact on the construction sector which is one of the main pillars of the economy. It might also mean a sharp slowdown in investment growth, especially from China, if the PH government planned to stall the projects. Abolishing  6% GST would add RM416 billions (USD 104 billions) to the national debts, and a return to fuel subsidies would put pressure on the budget deficit, which is around 3% of GDP. With uncertainties in the economy, this could increase government expenditure and would give a bad outlook for the ‘market’. With an economy dependent on FDI (foreign direct investment) and exports – especially to China, the US and Europe – the PH government could also come under pressure to alter some of the promises in its election manifesto.  

In the first day after coming to power, Mahathir promised to be ‘market friendly’ and said, ‘East or west, we want access to all markets’ in order to appease the business class. The coalition of PH is expected to carry out some of the ‘market friendly’ economic policies that were already implemented under the previous BN government, but it will be under tremendous pressure from the people to fulfill its promises to raise the living standards of the Malaysian people as promised in its election manifesto.

Opportunism on the left

The Malaysian Socialist Party (PSM) which has been working closely with and supporting what is essentially a right wing opposition coalition since the 1999 election, has been pushed to contest independently this time after the PH declined to provide ways for the PSM to contest under the PH in some seats. The politics of electoral opportunism of the PSM since 1999, in which it portrayed itself as ‘anything but UMNO/BN’ on the basis of ‘unity against the BN’ as the justification to work with right wing opposition parties including PAS in the past, has further undermined their politics. Their tactic of using the strength of activism to negotiate for seats with PH, did not work for them in this election.

When PH showed itself just interested in the ‘bigger picture’ to defeat BN, the PSM as usual tried to use their activism to get support from people. But at the same time, the PSM could not clearly define alternative politics when they propagated the idea of  ‘Vote for us whichever seats we contest and vote PH in other seats!’ or ‘We will support a PH government’. This did not clearly differentiate them politically when they undoubtedly do have some strength from their activism and people-oriented struggles. The PSM lost badly in these elections compared to the last time and failed to even retain the one seat they had won in the last two general elections.

This time, other smaller parties, including the PSM, as predicted, was wiped out, not having the support of the PH, due to the portrayal of PH among voters as the ‘viable and stronger’  alternative to BN to form the federal government.  

As we stated in the previous analysis: “Putting forward ordinary people or activists as candidates should be welcomed, but it should be accompanied by clear alternative policies, programmes and slogans that differentiate them clearly and show the way to overcome the social and economic problems faced by the working and middle classes.   With the vacuum of no mass party of the left, the mood of most voters that are unhappy with BN is to vote for the opposition (in this case the PH). Independent candidates with a clear political alternative to right wing parties would be a platform for building a working class alternative.

Socialist Alternative has been arguing that an independent left, without any links or collaboration with pro-capitalist parties, is the way to build the alternative political party of the working class and oppressed people. PSM should use the support that they gained in the elections, as a platform to build independent anti-capitalist forces with socialism as an alternative to pro-capitalist politics.”

New opportunities for socialists and trade unions

The PH government will come under pressure from people and could possibly create more freedom and democratic space. This could be utilised by socialists and trade unions to propagate and organise alternative policies by working with workers and young people.

But with an opposition coming into power for the first time, the two party system as practiced in many countries could be envisaged as a new kind of politics in Malaysia for the benefit of the business class. At the same time, PH could be in a ‘honeymoon period’ for some time and also could face pressure from the ‘market’ to go against its promises in the manifesto if the economy becomes worse and unbearable. They could even come under pressure to carry out some austerity measures to save the ‘market’.  

The PH government also could use the BN as the ‘black-sheep’ to blame the mess it has created under the Najib rule and could delay or overturn some of the promises. This situation, sooner or later, could open a new era of struggles involving youth, the working class or even middle class against pro-market policies and the government’s incapacity to fulfill the election promises.

Socialists, trade unionists and anti-capitalists should use the opening up in relation to some democratic rights in this new political landscape to build working class struggles and support for socialist policies as the alternative to right wing politics. It can also be time to start the discussion about building a  mass left and working class political party.

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May 2018