Monday, March 10, 2008

The perfect storm he did not see coming by Abdullah Osman, Today Online

NO MATTER which way you look at it, the Malaysian election was a referendum on Mr Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's leadership and the Prime Minister lost badly. Not only did Indian and Chinese voters rebuff the leader of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, but the fall of Kedah, Perak and Selangor to the opposition is emphatic proof that MrAbdullah's love affair with the Malay heartland is over.

Hurt by a combination of bread-and-butter issues and a poor choice of candidates, Mr Abdullah has come to represent everything negative about the ruling coalition — indecisive and tolerant of excesses.

His biggest mistake: He did not read the signs. He underestimated the gathering of a perfect storm.

Already, the daggers are out and, true to form, the first to take a stab was his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad. Urging Mr Abdullah to resign, Dr Mahathir said: 'He has destroyed Umno, destroyed the BN. He should accept 100 per cent responsibility. I am sorry but I apparently made the wrong choice.'

Quite clearly, given the election results, it will be difficult for Mr Abdullah to stay on as presi-dent of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) or as Prime Minister of Malaysia for very much longer.

In all likelihood, there will be a period of consolidation, during which he will appoint the Cabinet, repair the severely-damaged Gerakan and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), restore a sense of calm to the ruling coalition and country before handing over the reins to his deputy Najib Tun Razak.

As Malaysians survey the debris from the poll, surprise and fear have come together in a heady mix.

Surprise that the all-conquering BN machinery could not secure its customary two-third majority in Parliament. Surprise that the most industrialised state, Selangor, will be governed by the opposition.

But also, there is a fear. Will there be a period of heightened tension, perhaps even riots? Will foreign investors shy away? Will the country's politics become so divisive that nothing will get done?

The answers: No. No. No.

If there is one clear winner, it is Malaysia.

For too long, the country has been going down the road of ethnic polarisation, corruption, racial dominance and religious intolerance. That is why the Chinese and Indians have felt like second-class citizens, and resented the likes of Mr Hishamuddin Hussein and Mr Khairy Jamaluddin, whose kris-wielding acts at the Umno assembly were used to the hilt by the opposition.

For the middle-class, the likes of Umno stalwart Zakaria Deros, who managed to build a palatial home without any approvals, have come to represent the unacceptable face of Malaysian politics.

Perhaps now, with a strong opposition that seems committed to a multi-racial and multi-religious Malaysia, there will be less of a tendency to only see policies through the lenses of one race.

Perhaps, now Malaysian politics will be re-calibrated back on the road to moderation. This election will change Malaysia forever, and as it is dissected and critiqued, here are several early predictions:

A two-party system may be emerging

It is early days yet but Malaysia could be witnessing the start of a two-party system. When Malaysians voted for Democratic Action Party (DAP), or Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), or Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) candidates, they believed that they were voting for an alternative to BN.

Whether this two-party system comes to fruition will depend on DAP-PAS-PKR running their states well and not fighting over the spoils of victory. Still, the Malaysian voter has never had it better.

Voting may no longer follow racial lines

For a long time, the Indian and Chinese voter has not supported PAS, fearing its Islamic agenda. Not anymore. Chinese and Indians voted for PAS candidates across the country, including in urban seats.

For Indians, the rationale was simple: their years of supporting Umno, MIC or MCA candidates had not yielded major benefits for the community, so they were willing to give any opposition the chance.

Meamwhile, the Chinese believe that Umno has become more fundamentalist than PAS in some respects. From a marketing point of view, there is little to separate Umno from PAS these days.

Similarly some had feared that this election might have a polarising effect, with Indians and Chinese on one side, and the Malays supporting the ruling coalition on the other. This has not happened.

Instead, voters from across all races supported change.

This was the perfect storm when issues that have been percolating for two years came to a head.

For the Indians, it was the demolition of temples, marginalisation, cases of Hindus converting to Islam, and the manner in which Hindraf leaders were treated by the government. For the Chinese, it was crime, an erosion of language and cultural rights, nationalism and fear of the revival of the Malay agenda. For the Malays, inflation, crime and the excesses of Umno politicians unsettled them.

These groups were, in fact, united in their belief that Mr Abdullah had fallen far short of the targets he had promised. Yes, the economy grew by 6.3 per cent, but the gains were not felt on the ground.

Voters expect to be heard

When Mr Abdullah announced his line-up, there was an air of resignation even among his supporters. They had been pushing him to drop many old faces and discredited names and to create an aura of renewal around the BN. He dithered, reluctant to unsettle the ground. Many ended up crushed.

Similarly, he was urged to drop MIC chief Samy Vellu but felt he could not desert a friend in this time of need. Mr Vellu was also defeated. Mr Abdullah clearly misread the ground. Malaysians wanted change, and when he could not offer them that, the voters took matters into their own hands.

Anwar Ibrahim is back

Say what you like, but Mr Anwar Ibrahim is back in the fray, this time as a real player. Despite efforts by the media to demonise him, his stinging attacks on the government for corruption, his championing of issues close to the hearts of non-Malays and his charisma have made him a key figure in the election.

His party, Keadilan, won 29 seats in Parliament, indicating that an electorate looking for a strong leader has forgiven his shortcomings.

For the country, the next few months will be challenging. How the BN negotiates its reduced majority in Parliament and deals with a resurgent opposition will hold the key to the nation's political stability. In the longer term, its ability to respond to the aspirations of all Malaysians and make the necessary changes will determine just what Election 2008 really means: An aberration, a defining moment for a less race-based approach to politics, or a sign of worse things to come.

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