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ATimes: Time for M'sia's opposition to look in the mirror [Ketari]
By Anil Netto

3/4/2002 1:49 pm Wed

April 3, 2002


Time for Malaysia's opposition to look in the mirror

By Anil Netto

PENANG - Malaysia's ruling coalition coasted to victory in a by-election that has left the opposition staring at a vastly uncertain future.

The Barisan Nasional (National Front, or BN) romped home in Sunday's election for the Ketari seat in the Pahang state assembly 7,153-4,949 over the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP). The 2,204-vote majority bettered the coalition's slim majority of 231 votes in the 1999 general election - but fell short of the 2,900 margin achieved in the 1995 polls.

As usual, the BN poured the massive resources, state apparatus, and party machinery at its disposal into this semi-rural seat nestled on a hilly range that forms the backbone of the peninsula. The ruling coalition campaigned on a platform of development and stability - a message that was reinforced over the mainstream media, which predictably largely ignored the issues raised by the DAP. It also tackled local grouses such as delays in issuing land titles to farmers.

The DAP highlighted issues relating to accountability and vernacular-Chinese education rights. It also alleged irregularities in the electoral rolls for Ketari, where the electorate is 54 percent Chinese, 39 percent Malay and 7 percent Indian and others, citing increases in the number of voters in all areas except a DAP stronghold, which saw a decrease. The BN was represented by a candidate from a component party, Gerakan, a multi-ethnic Chinese-based party that heads the Penang state government. Its win suggests that the BN has gone a long way in regaining its lost ethnic-Malay ground.

Few expected the multi-ethnic, Chinese-based DAP to win but the magnitude of its defeat leaves huge question marks hanging over the party's future direction. It had pulled out from the Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front, or BA) opposition alliance last September. The opposition loss is also a severe blow for the BA, which had campaigned for its ex-partner, the DAP.

Though some analysts argue that the September 11 tragedy in the United States turned the tide in favor of the "moderate" or pragmatic Islam espoused by the BN, it is equally valid to argue that the opposition parties shot themselves in the foot through their constant public bickering. The frequent sniping among opposition politicians in the media, the PAS's (the DAP's former partner in the BA) determination to push ahead with its Islamic agenda despite its partners' reservations, and the DAP's pullout from the coalition over differences with PAS all inflicted considerable damage on the opposition.

Then came the controversy and bad blood surrounding the recent resignation of Keadilan (National Justice Party) deputy president Chandra Muzaffar - a huge blow for the BA.

Now outside the BA, the DAP has proved that it still retains significant Chinese support though the BN appeared to gain some ground. In one of the polling areas with a 99 percent Chinese electorate, the BN improved from 28 percent to 34 percent of the Chinese votes. But the DAP can draw comfort from the marked protest vote against the ruling coalition among younger Chinese voters, many of whom were voting for the first time.

Of greater concern for the DAP is its failure to hang on to the ethnic-Malay vote in Ketari. It is hard to tell to what extent the swing in Malay votes away from the DAP was due to the DAP's pullout from the BA, which enjoys significant Malay backing. The slump in Malay votes could also be due to a cooling in the reformasi fervor that was sparked by the disgust over the sacking, jailing, and humiliation of former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim in 1998.

In the 1999 general election, when the DAP was still part of the BA, many Malay voters cast their ballots for the opposition - and the DAP came close to wresting the seat from the BN.

With the Chinese proportion of the national population shrinking, leaving fewer Chinese dominated constituencies, the DAP's future outside the BA looks bleak. The BA, in turn, has been weakened by the DAP's departure.

"Frankly, the DAP is caught in a bind," a senior government official who had campaigned for the ruling coalition in Ketari told Asia Times Online. "And I am not sure if it knows what it wants." He said the DAP had gone into the opposition alliance thinking it could help create a two-coalition system even though they had always been uncomfortable with PAS. "But after pulling out, it realized that it still needed PAS and Keadilan support and that gave the impression that it didn't know what it wanted. I think PAS and Keadilan went in to help the DAP in the Ketari campaign partly to convey a message: 'Let's work together.' If they do work together, of course the DAP will be attacked [by the BN] for their association with PAS but whether the electorate will be swayed by this is another matter."

Others agree that the DAP has to do some serious thinking. "The DAP needs to improve its multi-ethnic image and the only way it can do that is by participating in the BA," an independent political scientist told Asia Times Online. "By pulling out last September, the DAP did a great disservice to the original goal of creating a multi-ethnic coalition of forces against the ruling coalition."

But what of the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the DAP and PAS? "The DAP could have still maintained their principle of opposing an Islamic state but it should have remained within the BA to argue its case. The whole notion of coalition politics is that you can still maintain your identity within the grouping and work on the basis of agreed principles."

Though Ketari leaves Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad looking comfortable, the ruling coalition is not likely to ease curbs on political and civil rights. On April 10, the first anniversary of the arrests under the Internal Security Act (ISA) of a string of reformasi activists, anti-ISA campaigners and detainees themselves are planning to launch a hunger strike.

Mahathir cannot be too complacent either even though Anwar remains behind bars. The Federal Court is reaching the end of its hearing into Anwar's appeal on his first conviction and a decision could be reached before long.