Is Malaysia about to follow the path of Erdogan’s Turkey?

Former Malaysian prime minister and candidate for the opposition Alliance Of Hope, Mahathir Mohamad, waves to his supporters during an election campaign rally in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Thursday. (Stringer/Reuters)
Former Malaysian prime minister and candidate for the opposition Alliance Of Hope, Mahathir Mohamad, waves to his supporters during an election campaign rally in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Thursday. (Stringer/Reuters)

Malaysians will go to the polls on May 9 in the first national elections since 2013. Last time, the opposition coalition, headed by Anwar Ibrahim, came close to defeating the ruling coalition, which has dominated Malaysian politics since independence. The opposition actually won a majority of the popular vote, but massive gerrymandering, among other factors, ensured the opposition got only a minority of seats in Parliament.

Compared to five years ago, the electoral environment today in Malaysia might seem, on its face, to be even more favorable to opposition parties. Prime Minister Najib tun Razak has presided over years of corruption scandals, most notably the problems in the massive 1MDB state fund, which is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice as well as countries in Southeast Asia, Australia and Europe. Malaysia’s economy grew by more than 5 percent last year, but working-class people face income stagnation, and the country still suffers from the flight of talented young people, who see that high-paying jobs are much easier to find in states like Singapore and Australia. Najib also implemented an unpopular tax three years ago.

Yet Najib and his allies are likely poised for victory, although the vote could be close. The ruling coalition has used even dirtier tricks to assure a victory than it did the last time around. It has gerrymandered districts even more than usual to favor pro-government rural voters, and has held the election while Anwar Ibrahim remains in jail on dubious sodomy charges; Najib could win without winning the popular vote. Najib has helped to break off the Parti Islam se Malaysia, or PAS party, from the opposition alliance, and he is likely to use the PAS as a wedge to bring down opposition vote totals. Meanwhile, with Anwar in prison, the opposition is led by 92-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, hardly the person to present a forward-looking Malaysia to young voters.

Najib could lose. He and his coalition tried to depress opposition turnout by scheduling the vote on a work day – but public pressure prompted him to make May 9 a public holiday. This switch could help the opposition. And even at his advanced age Mahathir remains a force on the stump, and has said that, if he wins, he will eventually step aside for Anwar.

But if he wins, Najib looks set to potentially transform Malaysia, which has been a semi-authoritarian state with some degree of the rule of law, into an more illiberal, politically Islamicized autocracy. Najib’s parliament recently passed an anti-fake news law that seems designed to quash discussion of politics and generally chill free speech. The ruling coalition also has overseen, in recent years, a broad crackdown on freedom of expression, jailing civil society activists and writers on sedition and other charges. The government has overseen the shuttering of “The Malaysian Insider,” one of the most independent news sites.

With a victory in the election, Najib would be poised to rule at least until 2023. Such a triumph – and likely congratulations from other regional leaders and President Trump, who welcomed Najib warmly to Washington last year and has praised “elections” in Egypt and Russia – would almost certainly embolden the prime minister.

Najib has made no pretense of picking a successor, and might leave all options open in the manner of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Russian President Vladimir Putin, a tool that increases the leader’s power. Even before the election, Najib also has started to build up his cult of personality, purging other powerful people in the ruling coalition and surrounding himself with sycophants. He might also have more leverage to rein in Malaysia’s sultans, royal rulers of Malaysian states who are constitutional monarchs but who have been critical of Najib’s mishandling of government funds.

After a win, Najib also likely would continue passing out large government handouts to civil servants and other pro-government groups, while increasingly portraying the budget decisions as personal gifts from Najib – a strategy already used by elected autocrats such as Cambodia’s Hun Sen and Erdogan to make budgets look like personal patronage. (In the run-up to the election, Najib announced a new handout to civil servants.)

The demonization of minority groups would probably increase, too. Like many other illiberal populists, Najib, who presents himself internationally as a moderate, tolerant leader, has in recent years focused his rhetoric within Malaysia on “others,” targeting groups he identifies as outsiders. In recent years he has focused his rhetorical aim on the ethnic Chinese and other minorities, portraying himself as a defender of Malay Muslim heartland values. After a big election victory – and especially if, as expected, the vast majority of ethnic Chinese vote for the opposition – Najib could unleash even more poisonous rhetoric.

PAS, the conservative Islamist party that is apparently splintering the opposition, also might prod Najib to allow the broader use of sharia courts, and to pass other measures speeding up the Islamicization of Malaysian society. And by 2023, Malaysia might look a lot less than a country leading a global “Movement of Moderates,” as Najib portrays the country, and more like yet another illiberal, autocratic cult of personality.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Follow @JoshKurlantzick

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