(File pix) People queuing up to vote at SJK (C) Lee Rubber in Jalan Gombak, Kuala Lumpur, during the 13th general election. The nature of Malaysian electoral politics suggests that voter swings are not intrinsic to local political culture. Pix by Salhani Ibrahim

THE Dewan Rakyat is dissolved. The Election Commission (EC) is finalising the nomination date for candidates and the date for polling day — anytime within the next 60 days.

The electoral battleground is laid as Malaysia enters its 14th General Election (GE14), arguably its most important since the country gained independence from Britain in 1957. The fact that the opposition has reduced the GE14 into a battle between personalities instead of issues is a sad indictment of the state of the opposition’s politics, especially with the emergence of Pakatan Harapan (PH).

PH is a hastily cobbled self-styled Barisan Alternatif, comprising a group of unlikely bedfellows — Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), a Malay nationalist party launched by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his allies; the “reformist” PKR, led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Dr Mahathir’s once arch-nemesis whom he jailed for corruption and sodomy; DAP, led by the 77-year-old Lim Kit Siang; and, Parti Amanah Negara.

Even Pas, the Islamic party, which initially joined in the fray, had extricated itself following the nomination and appointment of Dr Mahathir by PH as its prime minister candidate.

A strong government and opposition are essential components of any self-respecting liberal democracy. In the specific case of the opposition, the democratic deficit seems to be piling up in recent years in democracies including Britain, United States and Malaysia.

Poor and ineffective opposition is bad for democracy, especially in a rapidly changing world dominated by social media, the digital revolution and rising inequality between states and individuals within societies. Added to that is the “clash of politics” where traditional politics seems to have been displaced by disillusionment with mainstream politics and the establishment, as characterised by the wave of populist support which resulted in Donald Trump being elected as the 44th US president.

The hope is that this is a transitory phase in democracy. The reality is that the opposition is just as responsible as governments for what many observers, rightly or wrongly, believe to be a decline in democracy.

In Malaysia, PH has protested against the constituency boundary changes adopted last month by the EC and Registry of Societies’ temporary dissolution of PPBM because of missing and incomplete paperwork. These are regrettable, sometimes necessary and happen in any democracy.

In the US and UK, there are currently fierce disagreements between the main parties about proposed constituency changes in front of the Boundary Commission.

The malaise of Malaysia’s opposition, however, runs much deeper. The fact that nonagenarians and septuagenarians are still dominating opposition politics speaks volumes and smacks of hubris and a wanton disregard of the younger generation. What hope is there for the country’s Generation Z aspiring to enter politics — another election, another missed opportunity?

Equally puzzling is how elements of the Western media see Dr Mahathir’s antics as “a stunning return to frontline politics” and “breathing life into the pre-election period”.

The reality is that the opposition is much weaker today than it was during GE13, when the opposition under the Pakatan Rakyat banner won 89 out of the 222 seats in the Dewan Rakyat and deprived Barisan Nasional of the two-thirds majority.

Lest BN be complacent, GE14 is all about numbers. For Najib, the election is a personal challenge and could decide both his future and legacy. Umno insiders are confident that BN, bolstered in the last two years inter alia by strong economic growth, will prevail. The burning question is whether BN will pass that two-thirds majority or will have to make do with a simple majority. After all, it only needs 112 seats to get a majority.

Najib is keen on a two-thirds majority, which would be a vindication of his policies and the direction BN is taking the country to. Failing to reach that target would not be the end of the world. But, any figure less than the 133 seats from GE13 may put his premiership under pressure. Such is the reality of politics.

For Malaysia’s 14,968,304 registered voters, the crucial number is also about voter turnout. Pundits stressed that a higher voter turnout would favour the opposition. They cite GE13, when voter turnout rose to 86 per cent with 11.05 million Malaysians casting their votes — the result, BN did not get the two-thirds majority. But, the figures don’t add up.

In the 2008 general election under then premier Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the voter turnout was 76 per cent. Yes, BN lost its two-thirds majority, the first time since the 1969 polls, securing only 140 seats. As such, voter turnout may not be as impacting.

The nature of Malaysian electoral politics suggests that voter swings are not intrinsic to local political culture. In the cauldron of Malaysia’s racial politics, when Malay unity is at stake, it would take a political earthquake for the Bumiputeras to change the status quo. PH’s so-called “Alliance of Hope” and its ambition of being a “government-in-waiting” seems to be more an “Alliance in Disarray”, and does not seem to be the basis of any pending seismic change in Malay voter sentiments.

As such, the warning of Datuk Onn Jaafar, Umno’s first president, at the party’s inaugural meeting in May 1946, that, “Malays can be safe only when they are strong, and they can be strong only when united”, is as relevant today as it was then!

Mushtak Parker is an independent London-based economist and writer

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