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 atimes.com
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
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
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.