In an interview with the British daily The Guardian, Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim declared he is confident that Pakatan Rakyat will wrest power in the most talked-about general election due in April 2013.
“The mood is there, the mood for change.”
This is also exactly the pertinent question that has been lingering around in everyone’s mind since the 2008 election.
In the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis in 1997, many scholars expected to see a movement for democracy in the Southeast Asian region. Moreover, with the downfall of Suharto’s authoritarian regime in Indonesia, the transition of the country to democracy was seen as another crucial bit in the successive waves of democratisation that had been sweeping the world since the mid-1970s.
As in the case of Malaysia, despite the mass protests staged in 1998 due to Anwar’s arrest on sodomy charges, the ruling regime was still able to weaken the opposition, which subsequently resulted in its poor performance in the 2004 election.
The Reformasi movement then was unable to bring about democratic transition or political reform as desired.
Transformation of the opposition
If we take a glance at the history of Malaysian political parties, the opposition was pretty much fragmented with its internal rifts since independence until 1998.
Opposition politics emerged strongly at the height of the Asian financial crisis. Since 1998 the opposition had transformed into a reasonable cohesive alliance.
Prior to 1998, regular elections are used merely as a safety valve to curb any societal dissent and to confine the opposition to ensure the Barisan Nasional’s stability. But today, things have changed and an increasingly prominent political opposition has stirred up the electoral arrangements.
Earlier, the Barisan Alternatif did not survive and finally fell apart after a few years mainly due to the internal fracture combined with the suppressive controls by the ruling regime.
Nonetheless, the second transformation saw Pakatan Rakyat coming into play. It is seen to have learnt from past mistakes by moving forward with clearer visions and strategies. Pakatan now has a serious chance of taking over the federal government.
The dynamics of party politics have changed extensively since 1998 and more so since the 2008 political tsunami. Indeed, most scholars of Malaysian politics would agree that since independence, the political regime in the country has remained exceptionally resilient and resistant to change until the 2008 election.
Over time, there are many factors that contributed to the desire for change among the citizens. First and foremost is the increasing pro-democratic sentiments that surrounded the middle class.
We could also observe the intensified interaction of political parties and the civil society forces based on numerous street demonstrations such as Bersih and Hindraf as well as many other forms of political protests.
The emergence of the new media, among other factors, has challenged the existing political landscape. Apart from that, the deteriorated legitimacy within the BN is also among the factors that led to the current scenario.
Moreover, there are also a number of factors that resulted in rising discontent among Malaysians, including rising crimes which caused quite a stir in the media recently. Also, the rising costs of living, money politics, corruption scandals, the inconsistency of the judicial system, and the like.
Expecting a regime change?
Democratisation in Malaysia has been hindered for a long time.
Despite the rapid legislative and policy reforms by the Najib’s administration, the sincerity of the government to effectually implement reforms has repeatedly been called into question.
It is mainly due to the lack of public consultation and most importantly, the hasty time frame within which legislative reforms have taken place. This proved that the reforms were merely political ploys to win back the voters.
The 2008 election and subsequent 16 by-elections may be seen as the extension of the new era of politics in the making. It is rather clear that the ruling regime is struggling to regain its political strength.
Put it in another way, the BN hegemony has become increasingly vulnerable and it is facing a legitimacy crisis – it could no longer firmly represent Malays and non-Malays.
At this stage, it is safe to say that any potential transition to a full-fledged democracy in Malaysia will most probably occur primarily in the electoral arena. Unlike the neighbouring countries, mass protests in Malaysia are often promptly transferred to the party system.
The 13th general election will put Najib’s administration into the final test in providing genuine reforms for the country.
Although the 1999 and 2008 elections may not have initiated a new democratic regime, they have definitely opened important chapters in the struggle for democracy in Malaysia. Anwar’s PKR, which won merely one seat in 2004, emerged as the largest opposition party in 2008 in a short span of time.
The opposition had to some extent managed to build a collective platform for multi-culturalism, social justice, and more equitable development. Most importantly, the major peninsular opposition parties were united and received the overwhelming support of a wide range of civil society.
However, it is not only the BN that is facing challenges. States ruled by Pakatan are also facing a crisis in governance. This will no doubt blow up from time to time.
The central question now is the extent of reforms that Anwar will be able to effect if he takes over Putrajaya.
Major political changes are never assured, but they are often possible as politics is an unpredictable game.
It remains attainable for the BN to restore its hegemony, as it did in the 2001-2004 elections. On the other side of the coin, it would be a historic moment if Anwar succeeds in ousting the current administration.
Anyhow if he fails, the political landscape of Malaysia would still have been adjusted.