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Fighting chance for Malaysian opposition - Kavi Chongkittavorn


It would be hard these days to say anything about Malaysian politics without the risk of being branded as "fake news". But tomorrow 14,940,624 voters will have the last say, as they are expected to cast ballots at 8,989 polling centres throughout the country. Fake news aside, they will decide who is the real prime minister. After all, the leading contestants are both former and current Malaysian prime ministers, both of whom belonged to the same party, Barisan Nasional (the National Front), which has retained power for the past 61 years.

At the polls, the choice is clear -- the incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak or former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is leading the opposition -- Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope). Watching Malaysian politics from Thailand, it is quite amazing that Mr Najib has been able to stay afloat, facing storm fronts from every which way.

In Thailand, a leader like him would not survive for long because of media exposure and public outcries, not to mention massive demonstrations. Despite press restrictions, Malaysian media have been trying their best to reflect the reality on the ground on a daily basis. They have done a so-so job.

Even at that level of scrutiny, the government still feels pressed to come up with so-called fake-news legislation. This hush-hush law has been criticised as another attempt by the government to gag media exposure of its malfeasance. Even some credible foreign news outlets reporting about the ruling government have been labelled fake news.

In Malaysia, the role of civil society and grassroots organisations are pivotal in keeping elections transparent, free and fair. The Bersih and Aliran groups are unique as they are trying to take up the mammoth task of tackling social justice, electoral reforms and governance-related issues. Other less known groups, including Hindu Rights Action Force, also assert public pressure. But they are not as free as their counterparts in the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand in performing a watchdog role.

As widely reported in the media, the ruling government has manipulated the electoral process, for example, by redistricting voters -- a common practice in Asean politics -- to ensure its candidates get elected. Furthermore, there has been lots of alleged gerrymandering that the government has been unable to explain.

The choice to hold the poll on Wednesday has also been heavily attacked by local opinion makers and media, who've called it a way to dissuade people from voting. Over the past few weeks, individual Malaysians have risen up to challenge the government's electoral plans. They have organised thousands of free trips for potential voters who need to vote in constituencies far away from their workplaces. This kind of citizen participation is a new trend and could boost support for opposition parties.

Indeed, the 14th general election has a different texture than previous ones because of mixed signals, both economic and political. For example, Mr Najib has credited his government with the country's economic growth of 5.9%, which has been generated by enormous investment from China. But so far that investment has failed to produce much-needed trickle-down effects. This time, it might even hurt Mr Najib's voters. The Chinese factor will also play on Chinese-Malay voters, especially in Sarawak and Sabah, considered swing states in Malaysian politics. Beijing has to manage its role and stay neutral in the election as its long-term investment and personalised bilateral ties are at stake.

Besides the Chinese factor, there is the so-called Mahathir effect that can increase rural turnout. Love him or hate him, Mr Mahathir is here to stay and remains an influential figure in Malay politics. In previous elections, opposition parties normally could get support in metropolitan and semi-urban areas with Chinese, Indian and well-to-do Malay voters. But they could not make inroads with the ruling party's hardcore supporters living in constituencies known as Felda or Federal Land Development Authority areas, which are reserved for rubber and palm-oil plantations. There are 54 constituencies in Felda which are now being closely contested. For the first time, the opposition could visit these areas and possibly gain votes. Some diplomatic sources in Kuala Lumpur predict that around 20 seats could be up for grabs. If that's true, it could break the bedrock of Barisan Nasional's heartland voters.

Then there is the rather personal issue involving Mr Najib's wife, Rosmah Mansor, who has served to damage her husband's reputation and political ambitions. Her opulent lifestyle has dominated news headlines at home and aboard. This time around, it could dent support for her husband. What's more, 45 political secretaries under this government have also plundered national bourses. Worse, they don't have any clue how to respond to the Mahathir phenomenon.

For Thailand, it makes no difference who wins because Kuala Lumpur's ties with Bangkok will likely remain unchanged, especially regarding the situation in southern Thailand. Consecutive Thai governments (including the current one) have overly relied on Kuala Lumpur's goodwill for a peaceful solution in the three southern provinces. They have mistakenly expected that Malaysia's political elites would be sympathetic to Thailand's concerns and help reduce the violence in border areas as payback for past assistance in helping combat communism in Malaysia during the 1980s.

At this juncture, Thailand is more realistic in handling the southern crisis, increasingly relying on their own strategies and action plans rather than waiting for their counterparts across the border.