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ATimes: Battle goes to the polls
By Anil Netto
15/1/2002 12:38 pm Tue
January 15, 2002 atimes.com
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
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
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
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
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.