Ouch Malaysia! The seat of power remains with UMNO/BN (56-year incumbent); but Pakatan Rakyat's (opposition coalition) showing of winning about a quarter of a million more "popular votes" is telling that the force of democratization and the clamour for reforms are very much alive in Malaysia.
UMNO/BN is criticized for being elected only by 47% of the national electorate and hence not democratically elected by the majority. But who says that the overarching political structure in Malaysia forged by UMNO/BN for more than half a century is 'populist' and 'democratic'?!?! Now, we can evidently see opposing forces in the country between democratization (popular power) and authoritarianism (which heavily relies on coercion but needs some considerable degree — not necessarily a majority — of legitimacy). Historically, the basis of UMNO/BN hegemony has not been 'popular power', but political coercion plus some support from the hegemonic bloc of the UMNO political-business network and its clienteles.
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How did UMNO/BN secure power in the end? We have long suspected that the ruling UMNO/BN would not win the popular votes but only through "gerrymandering" — i.e., the art of manipulating electoral constituency so as to favour the ruling party coalition in the determination of parliamentary seats. There have been allegations of fraud as well. Nevertheless, signs of the times: democratization is an idea and force whose time has come in Malaysia!
We can only look to Malaysia's political history to explain its present-day electoral structure. Some lines re "gerrymandering" and related issues here from my PhD thesis monograph:
" Indeed, the source of strength of the market order as well as elite hegemony had to be state regulation and repression. This dynamic interdependence for survival between the market, elites, and state became more pronounced in times of crises. In fact, the observations have been: that Mahathir’s government even acted more authoritarian (i.e., over both the public and the economy) during the 1997-1998 Asian crisis and its aftermath than during periods of relative political and economic stability; and that the 9/11 event, to a large extent, provided the government the legitimacy to implement repressive laws, to suppress public protests, and to pass new electoral laws conducive to gerrymandering—all of which were hostile to the opposition (see Pant 2002; Pepinsky 2009). "
" The impressive victory of the ruling BN coalition in the 2004 general elections winning an overwhelming majority of votes and securing 199 of 219 parliament seats was often credited to Abdullah’s charisma, his well-received attempts at not living in the shadow of Mahathir or the so-called ‘de-Mahathirization’, and the drawing power of the Islam Hadhari slogan (Khoo 2003b; Chong 2006; cf. Loh 2005b). While this personality-based analysis might had been a factor for the electoral success, an important agential-structural explanation that must not be ignored was the fact that Abdullah and UMNO were the greatest electoral beneficiaries of the regime of authoritarian liberalism that Mahathir and his power clique had instituted for the last two decades. Notably, decades of UMNO dominance of money politics, particularly during the Mahathir regime, made possible: the consolidation of a wealthy and powerful electoral machinery that included the art of gerrymandering; the control of mainstream media; the silencing, harassment, and crippling of critics, dissenters, and opposition; the promotion of the image of a ‘moderate’ Islam especially after 9/11; the normalization of the perception of the conduciveness of neoliberalism and its policies of privatization and liberalization to economic growth and long-term social development; and the popularization of the discourses of ‘Asian Values’ or ‘developmentalism’ that conceptually separates, detaches, or dis-embeds democratization from development (see Loh 2005b). "
" Najib took over the premiership from Abdullah with, notably, [a] the party mandate to regain UMNO’s dominance; [b] the ethnic Islam and Malay agenda for continued political and socio-economic privileges; [c] the capitalist development objective to immediately overcome the challenges of the global economic crisis and to realize the long-term Vision 2020; and [d] a personal interest in crafting his own legacy in Malaysia’s history. As a strategic step towards addressing these demands and objectives, especially the attainment of the latter, Najib (2009b) launched the concept 1Malaysia or ‘1Malaysia: People First, Performance Now’ as a key pillar to his government’s agenda for ‘national transformation’. The methods by which the 1Malaysia concept is being articulated and executed as a socio-political, economic, and electoral project evoke of the usual modus operandi of authoritarian liberalism attuned to the regime’s interests in maintaining the status quo vis-à-vis the current circumstances of the amplified social conflicts and the exigencies of the global and domestic economy.
" What is happening in the present conjuncture in the post-Mahathir and post-Abdullah Malaysian political economy under Najib is complex and can be epochmaking whether at: the sphere of electoral politics; the attempts to revise or perhaps end the NEP; the further entrenchment of reactionary, racist forces in UMNO; the increasing irrelevance (except at an instrumental level) of the ‘Chinese’ and ‘Indian’ parties in the BN coalition; an opposition with the huge advantage of the public’s perception of the government’s hopelessness and yet fraught with its own internal problems; and the impact of the global crisis for domestic economic restructuring. Nevertheless, 1Malaysia is intended and being presented as a continuation of UMNO-BN hegemony since independence—which includes the past development agendas of Najib’s father Abdul Razak, his benefactor Mahathir, and his predecessor Abdullah. "
" Mahathir’s Wawasan 2020, Abdullah’s Islam Hadhari, and Najib’s 1Malaysia are different slogans promoted at different phases in Malaysia’s evolving development discourse and experience with fundamentally the same interdependent objectives of: deepening ruling elites’ interests in perpetual wealth and power accumulation and managing the class, social, and ethnic conflicts that are intrinsically induced by the structural contradictions inherent in the regime of authoritarian liberalism. The relative robustness of Malaysia’s authoritarian-liberal regime is largely due to the ability of the state to balance the acquisition of consent through general elections and parliamentary representations, on the one hand, and the coercion of dissent through repressive means against opposition politics, on the other. This balancing act, however, does not guarantee stability in regime maintenance efforts, but it actually signifies the regime’s conflict-ridden nature. "