Laman Webantu   KM2: 6615 File Size: 7.3 Kb *

| KM2 Index |

ATimes: Battle goes to the polls
By Anil Netto

15/1/2002 12:38 pm Tue

January 15, 2002


Battle goes to the polls

By Anil Netto

PENANG - Another key by-election looms in Malaysia pitting the ruling coalition against the opposition, represented by the National Justice Party (Keadilan), led by the wife of jailed ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim. It's the latest in a series of electoral battles for the hearts and minds of voters since reformasi was unleashed in September 1998.

But the by-election on Saturday will be closely watched for another reason. It will be the first held on the peninsula since the September 11 attack in the United States, the "war against terrorism", and the domestic crackdown against alleged Muslim militants. The ruling coalition is likely to capitalize on its renewed strength since September 11 and point to its record of political stability. The opposition, for its part, will be hoping for disillusionment among voters after a factional split within the main Chinese partner in the ruling coalition, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA). It is also expected to highlight a sharp erosion of media freedom.

What makes this election riveting is that both candidates are Chinese-Malaysians in an area where the ethnic composition is evenly balanced. The ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition is fielding Oui Ah Lan, a former headmistress, who will be trying to stave off a challenge from Keadilan's Khoo Yang Chong, an ex-teacher and community leader. But lurking in the background will be the issue of an Islamic state - whether it is the dominant United Malays National Organization's (UMNO) version or that espoused by the Islamic Party (PAS), Keadilan's partner in the opposition alliance.

The election for the Indera Kayangan state seat in northern Perlis state was called when the seat fell vacant after the death due to colon cancer of the incumbent from the ruling coalition on December 19.

On January 4 - less than a week before nomination day on January 10 - the authorities announced the arrests of 13 alleged members of a so-called Malaysian Mujahidin (or Militant) Group (KMM). It was the latest wave of arrests of alleged Muslim militants since the crackdown began last August. Those detained have been held under the feared Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for indefinite detention without trial. Rights groups have persistently called on the government to give them a fair trial in open court.

Analysts will be trying to gauge what kind of impact the September 11 attacks and the domestic crackdown against alleged militants will have on non-Muslim voters in particular.

The Indera Kayangan constituency has 7,976 voters - comprising about 47 percent each of ethnic Malays and Chinese, 5 percent Indians and barely 1 percent others. In the 1999 general election, the ruling coalition won the seat, defeating Keadilan by a comfortable majority of 1,974 votes.

This time the picture is more complicated. The multi-ethnic Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) pulled out of the opposition alliance, Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front) last September over its opposition to PAS's ideological goal of setting up an Islamic State in Malaysia. Analysts will be watching to see whether Keadilan will still be able to pick up the Chinese votes without the DAP's involvement in the campaign.

The factional split in the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the second-largest party in the ruling coalition, could swing Chinese voters to the opposition. If Keadilan, led by Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, does improve its performance among the Chinese voters, it will enhance its multi-ethnic credentials and at the same time raise questions about the DAP's relevance in opposition politics.

Keadilan's prospects are likely to be boosted by the presence of independent Chinese lobby groups campaigning on issues related to vernacular education and media freedom. For instance, two groups are in Perlis to oppose the MCA's takeover last year of a couple of relatively independent Chinese language newspapers. Another group is highlighting a controversy involving a vernacular-Chinese school in Kuala Lumpur.

Much will depend on how the Chinese community in Kangar responds to these lobby groups. In a previous by-election in November 2000 for the Lunas state seat in neighboring Kedah state, the last-minute swing by Chinese voters played a key role in the opposition's upset win. That win was a terrible blow for the ruling coalition, as it deprived it of its two-thirds majority in the state assembly.

If these issues relating to education and media freedom succeed in swaying the Chinese electorate, then Keadilan could reduce the ruling coalition's majority. At this stage, few are predicting an upset opposition victory in view of the ruling coalition's fairly large winning margin the last time around.

Indeed, Keadilan will be handicapped this time by the absence of several of their most effective campaigners, in particular youth leader Ezam Mohd Nor and vice president Tian Chua. Both of them have been detained without trial under the ISA since April for alleged involvement in a "militant" plot to "topple" the government.

The opposition has also protested at clips over prime-time television news suggesting that it stands for Taliban-style rule in Malaysia. The media have so far largely shown that they are willing to be roped into providing lopsided coverage in favor of the ruling coalition's campaign. As in previous election campaigns, the three M's - money, media and machinery - are likely to give the ruling coalition an edge.

But much will depend on the crucial last few days of the campaign, and whether the DAP will eventually make an about-turn and campaign for the Keadilan campaign as it did in Lunas.

Looking deeper at the election, the two Chinese candidates are but the latest contestants in the larger battle among the main Malay-based political parties - UMNO and Keadilan with PAS looming in the background.

Question marks hang over UMNO's ability to win back disenchanted ethnic-Malay voters who deserted the party in droves after Anwar's ouster from government and his jailing for a total of 15 years on two convictions. The polls' outcome will also provide an indicator as to how much influence he still commands among voters despite his long absence from public view. The Federal Court is due to hear his final appeal on his first conviction for conviction.

For sure, it is a by-election in which both sides, especially Keadilan, cannot afford to lose too badly. Keadilan had lost in an earlier by-election in Sabah, and was soundly beaten in state polls in Sarawak. And now, it faces an uphill battle given the constraints it faces - especially the almost total lack of meaningful mainstream media access. But in the end, both sides will probably not be too unhappy if the ruling coalition wins with a reduced majority.