Corruption, race and public weariness combine to give the opposition a real chance, writes Asia Sentinel’s John Berthelsen

If the Barisan Nasional coalition loses the national elections on Sunday and has to relinquish its 57-year stranglehold on Malaysian politics, the seeds of the defeat were sown well before the last polls in 2008, when a rag-tag opposition of three disparate parties with no real affinity for each other did better than anybody thought they would.

The opposition has grown stronger since then and at stake this time around is the future of Malaysia. The country could – could – be moving from being a virtual one-party state in which the ruling elite controls government, the media and business to finally joining the ranks of Asia’s more open democracies. If it happens, the United Malays National Organization, the biggest ethnic party in the coalition, has only itself to blame.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on the campaign trail in Penang on Wednesday. Pic: AP.

In 2008, UMNO’s old bulls blamed then-Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi for the debacle at the polls and drove him from power. Pushed by the increasingly splenetic former Premier Mahathir Mohamad, they installed one of their own, Najib Tun Razak, in his place. He can now be expected to extend his neck for political execution, win or lose.

The power brokers thought that Badawi had veered too far from the old ways of doing things. But the truth was that he hadn’t veered far enough. He set out to close some of the white elephant projects Mahathir had put in place and which cost the country tens of billions of dollars. He tried to implement rational and transparent contracting procedures and to appoint a relatively independent judiciary. And when he began to seriously threaten some of Mahathir’s misguided industrialization schemes, the party elite came down on Badawi and he backed away.

The general public saw what was happening and wanted reform. The opposition, made up of the ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party, the rural-based, Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia and Anwar Ibrahim’s urban-based Parti Keadilan Rakyat, almost won the popular vote despite a lack of cohesiveness. They ran what candidates they could, some of whom had left UMNO not out of principle but because they were jealous at being left out of the trough. Many of them departed after the 2008 election because they found there was no golden goose to pluck.

This time around, the opposition candidates are better, the coalition more cohesive. And the Barisan didn’t learn its lesson after losing its crucial two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2008. The Cattlegate scandal, in which the family of UMNO women’s wing leader Shahrizat Abdul Jalil misused millions of ringgit from a soft loan designated to establish a cattle feeding program, is a good example. But there are others. Asia Sentinel received a long email from a Chinese businessman who wanted to establish an operation to sell pork to merchants. He figured he could do it cheaper and more efficiently than the existing suppliers. But he was frozen out because a cartel run by the Malaysian Chinese Association had its favored rent-seeking pork suppliers. There are dozens of these small cartels.

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