Commentary on Malaysia’s 13th General Election

The 13th general election, which was held on May 5th 2013 across Malaysia, was anticipated to be one of the most hotly contested in the country’s history. This was so because of the extremely tight race between the ruling incumbent coalition, Barisan Nasional (National Front) and the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance). Five years earlier, what is now popularly known as a political tsunami swept across the country, in which the Barisan was for the first time denied a two-thirds majority in Parliament and lost a total of five state governments to Pakatan, two of which are the urban and business centres of the country, Selangor and Penang, which together form more than 60% of Malaysia’s GDP.

In the lead-up to the recent polls, the political stakes were high on both sides of the divide. For the first time ever, election manifestos were launched weeks in advance, translated into multiple languages (to accommodate Malaysia’s multilingual society). Separate non-governmental organisations sprung up to monitor the elections, and the social media space was vociferously used to promote policy offerings on a wide range of concerns. The main issues affecting voters, which both the Barisan and Pakatan attempted to respond to, were that of corruption, economic or bread-and-butter woes, and the crime rate.

The reason for the close competition was because for the first time, there was a viable opposition that had branded itself as an alternative federal government, after having achieved key financial successes in the states they govern. Although there were initial criticisms that the three component parties – the Democratic Action Party (DAP), People’s Justice Party (PKR) and Pan-Islamic Malaysian Party (PAS) – were of greatly opposing views over the five years from 2008 until 2013, the coalition was largely able to present a cohesive front, smooth over any major internal flaws and come to consensus on administrative tasks. The coalition also presented a number of common policy documents, including Shadow Budgets in the last two budget cycles that spoke of the ability to agree on a wide range of policy issues.

In this election, Barisan got a further beating by winning a total of 133 out of the 222 Parliamentary seats, 7 less than the 140 it got in 2008. This translates into 59.9% of seats, even though Barisan only received 47% of the popular vote nationwide. The opposition Pakatan won 89 seats, with more than 50% of the popular vote. Amongst the Barisan component parties, the more ethnically Chinese-based parties, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Parti Gerakan suffered the greatest losses, losing 17 seats; MCA was down 15 to 6 parliament seats, and Gerakan is left with one. The opposition’s gains were noteworthy: DAP gained 10 new seats, winning 38 in total; PKR won 30 seats in all, and PAS took 21. This is significant given that Barisan leader and Prime Minister Najib Razak had committed to winning back the two-third majority it lost in 2008.

Barisan had also channelled a large amount of resources into winning back the jewel on the crown, the state of Selangor, but ultimately failed to do so. Pakatan strengthened its grip on three of its states, Selangor, Penang and Kelantan, by winning two-third majorities in each of them, but failed to hold on to Kedah, a rural state in the north of the Peninsular. Maintaining a hold on these dynamic states that contribute to the economic vibrancy of the country is considered a positive for the opposition Pakatan.

Although Barisan will continue to lead the country, this victory was marred by numerous allegations on electoral irregularities, which the opposition claim has cost them a possible victory. On the day of polling, many pictures and videos of alleged foreign voters were circulated on social media, claimed to be illegitimate citizens of Malaysia, given identity cards by the government to boost the support for the Barisan coalition. In the lead-up to polling day, other reports were being spread that foreigners were being flown in with the co-operation of the national airlines company for the same reason, some allegedly receiving money in exchange for their votes.

None of these reports can be considered substantiated evidence yet at this point; electoral reform watchdog Bersih 2.0 will hold a People’s Tribunal to collect such reports, whilst PKR is doing the same on behalf of the opposition. With these in hand, election petitions are expected to be filed in court to seek judicial review of the results of 27 separate parliamentary seats that were considered dubious. The criteria for results analysis were seats where the margin of win was below 5%, spoilt votes outnumber a small margin of win, early and postal votes outnumber the margin of win garnered from normal votes, to the extent that it affected the results of the normal votes, and seats that had reports of fraud. To date, complaints received were categorized into six areas, ranging from voters not being allowed to vote because someone had voted in their name, BN purchasing votes by offering cash vouchers, or disappearing indelible ink (Malaysia used indelible ink for the first time in this election to avoid double voting).

Apart from these issues, one of the main problems raised as a result of the elections has been that of malapportionment of constituencies. For instance, there are 15,800 voters for the one Putrajaya parliament seat, but 144,000 voters in Kapar. As a result, there were substantially more voters in Pakatan-won seats (an average of 77,655) compared with those in Barisan-won seats (average of 46,510). The gross imbalance of weightage given to voting constituencies is a deep flaw in the Malaysian electoral system, affecting the ability of the opposition to make greater gains in the future even with a higher popular support. This is a historical heritage of the delineation of constituencies, which is due to be revised this year, the last demarcation exercise having taken place in 2003. However, this time the Election Commission and Barisan politicians will have to negotiate with their Pakatan counterparts since any addition to the number of constituencies will require a two-third majority support in Parliament. This re-delineation process is probably the single most important event that needs to be carefully monitored, as it will have a direct impact on at least the next two to three elections to come.

Several Malay-language newspapers along with some government leaders branded the outcome of the election as a ‘Chinese Tsunami’, which was considered distasteful to many. This was based on the premise that the ethnic Chinese had voted strongly against the government, in favour of the opposition. The messaging would have created the notion that the Malays were pro-government, and Chinese pro-opposition, an unnecessary and irresponsible statement to make given the need for inclusive narratives in the multi-ethnic country of Malaysia. Other analysts, however, have since emerged to critique this, by saying that it was the young and urban voters who chose the opposition, whilst rural voters continued to support the incumbents. This election, for example, saw 25% of all voters being newly registered, with 22% aged 30 and below. This group had no voting patterns to track from previous record, and were the most likely to be urban, having access to the internet, alternative and social media, and therefore more critical minded. Seeing as Malaysia’s population is set to reach an urbanisation rate of more than 70% by 2020, both political coalitions would do be well advised to tailor their messages to this audience.

The coming year will continue to be politically heated as the central party of Barisan, the United Malays’ National Organisation (UMNO), anticipates its party elections in October, along with its general assembly. It has serious rethinking to do, since it now sits as the dominant party in the coalition, due to the failure of other Barisan parties to make positive gains. In the opposition, PKR is also expected to hold party elections at the end of the year, whilst PAS will call its annual muktamar (general assembly) as well. Political observers interested in developments in Malaysia will do well to monitor the goings-on within the parties, as these would have a direct impact on national level politics.

In terms of citizen participation, this election saw a record high voter turnout of 85%. Queues began as early as 7am in many polling stations, an hour before the booths opened to receive voters. Many groups organised their own events, such as a group in urban Bangsar initiating their planting of colourful cloth “Malaysian Spring Flowers” as an indication of the flowering of democracy. Bersih 2.0 put together volunteers to monitor the election process outside polling stations. The Election Commission granted observer status to several local NGOs, who have submitted reports. One such report by the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) and the Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS) concluded that the elections were “partially free and not fair”, to which the Prime Minister’s Department has responded negatively. Public participation in the election process seemed to be encouraging, with a great many young Malaysians excited for the first time at the prospect of voting. This is a trend that must be cultivated over the long-term period.

To conclude, the 13th general election was the culmination of the previous two years’ worth of political angst and upheaval. A period of uncertainty had come over Malaysia as the nation waited for the election announcement date, also affecting the stock market and business sentiment. Now that the results have been announced, things have largely swung back into rhythm, with the exception of opposition rallies that are being held across the country, in rejection of what it considers to be an illegitimate government due to electoral discrepancies. Only time tell if the courts will accede to the election petitions, failing which it is back to the court of public opinion that both the Barisan and Pakatan coalitions will appeal to in the months and years to come, before the next election takes place (either at the state or federal level). Until then, the democratic system of elections and governance will continue to be questioned, and it is hoped that leaders in the country will take cognizance of this in seeking the institutional reform needed for Malaysia’s long-term progress.

(Written for and first published by Freedom Barometer)

Tricia Yeoh blogs on

One Reply to “Commentary on Malaysia’s 13th General Election”

  1. “…things have largely swung back into rhythm”…yes, the stock market had a relief rally but stock markets can be easily manipulated by politically motivated funds…look at how the Japan and the US markets rallied this year amidst challenging economic times.

    Governments and central banks can influence the liquidity that flows into stock markets but they will find it harder to manipulate economic data…just look at how Malaysia’s GDP slowed quickly from a dubious 6.5% in 4Q2012 to a disappointing 4.1% in 1Q2013.

    Without the urban people’s mandate to rule, the incumbent Federal government will have to rethink its political tactics to regain the people’s support for its economic policies especially the GST and fiscal reforms.

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