Malaysia's opposition eyes the big prize in GE13 | Asia Pacific

Malaysia's opposition eyes the big prize in GE13

Malaysia's opposition eyes the big prize in GE13

Updated 30 January 2013, 21:33 AEDT

Malaysia's opposition coalition alliance has its eye on the big prize - toppling one of the world's longest-serving governments.


And the signs are that the nation's 13th general election will be a very tight race.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose Barisan Nasional coalition has ruled for over half a century, has kept everyone guessing on the election date.

The government must dissolve parliament and call the polls by the end of April.

Both the ruling BN and the opposition are frantically wooing first-time voters, who make up almost a third of the electorate.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Ben Suffian, programmes director, The Merdeka Centre, Malaysia

SUFFIAN: The figures so far do indicate that the difference between (the opposition) Pakatan Rakyat and (the ruling) Barisan Nasional is very, very close. What makes the outcome of this election difficult to predict, is the very large number of new voters whom the polls continue to show - that many of them are still undecided. But I think as people begin to make their minds closer to the election date, I think the results (trend) will be known. And given that so many young Malaysians are registered to vote, the inclination that we're seeing amongst younger Malaysians is decidedly anti-establishment or pro-opposition.

LAM: And of course you did a survey just a month ago. What did that survey tell you about these young voters?

SUFFIAN: The young voters showed a deep sense of cynicism towards government and also at the same time, a sense of lack of information about the opposition. So that makes the ability for us to predict the outcome a little difficult. But looking at how young people have voted before, and also at how young people right now are responding to the issues that are to be topics of debate in the lead up to the election, it looks as if they are slightly more inclined to the opposition, than the ruling party. The official campaign period is between ten to fourteen days, very very short, but in reality, things have been in campaign mode for at least the last eighteen months.

LAM: Pakatan Rakyat of course needs 112 seats to take power, out of a 222-seat parliament. What are the signs that it might improve on its 82-seat showing back in 2008, in the last polls?

SUFFIAN: Well, the signs are there. We're looking at Pakatan Rakyat making some in-roads into the state of Johor, which was once seen as a stronghold for Barisan Nasional. Likewise, the BN's grip in the (eastern) state of Sabah is loosening, in the wake of recent revelations from a Royal Commission of Enquiry relating to the giving out of citizenships in exchange for votes. So I think that, along with the rising numbers of young voters, makes this election very uncertain - at least for the ruling coalition - and very hopeful for the opposition. At the same time, we also see an inter-play of issues - lingering allegations, scandal after scandal and corruption, weak commodity prices that will have an impact on the rural populace - and at the same time, concerns over the ability of the prime minister to deliver on the reforms that he has promised for the longer term.

LAM: And prime minister Najib of course says the opposition does not have a strong national economic track record, that voters risk the national debt soaring, that Malaysia risks its economic sovereignty rating - Is this view widely shared? Is economics a key test for the opposition Pakatan?

SUFFIAN: Yes, economics is issue number one, because the public is very concerned about rising costs, stagnant wages and declining competitiveness - I mean, that's their perception of the state of the Malaysian economy and how it affects the ordinary consumers. But the performance of the opposition, if they attain power, I think that is still a work in progress - in the sense that I think the opposition gives the impression that they will be spendthrift by the promises they're making, but my sense is that looking at how they run the states of Penang and Selangor, (I believe) once they gain power, they will tend to be more responsible and even more prudent in managing state finances.

LAM: And of course, Penang and Selangor are two of the most dynamic states in peninsular Malaysia?

SUFFIAN: Yes, in running the states, they continue to attract the biggest share of foreign investment, the lowest levels of corruption and all in all, have been given credit by the federal government's general auditor for maintaining prudence in the states' finances.

LAM: Do you think there's still life left in the ruling Barisan Nasional's race-based coalition, or do you think that Malays are now ready to share power ala the opposition Pakatan formula, where Indians and Chinese also have equal say?

SUFFIAN: I think that is the biggest battle ground for contestation right now. I think the Malay community is split in two halves, where in the one half, a slightly bigger, still supporting the ruling government, the ruling coalition, and a smaller proportion supporting the opposition. But I think race-based politics will still be there for a short while, still a mainstay, partly because the nation still looks at things through very ethnic-coloured lenses. But if they are able to break through, this represents a possibility for change, and an opportunity for all Malaysians to be treated as equal citizens.

LAM: So until that day comes, really, (the opposition) Pakatan still has this obstacle to overcome?

SUFFIAN: Yes, and it is the biggest obstacle - convincing the majority Malay Muslim population that equality and freedom work best for all of them in the future.


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