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Paris, Saturday, November 27, 1999

Malaysia's Election Could Open the Path to a Watershed

By Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune
KUALA LUMPUR - The coming election ought to be a watershed for Malaysia. It should be the voters' verdict on Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad's treatment of his former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, and on the government's conduct of the economy through the Asian crisis and allegations of cronyism. 

Ideally, too, it should define the views of the Malay majority on shaping the succession to Mr. Mahathir, in power since 1981. And it should indicate whether a multiracial opposition alliance can become a permanent feature of Malaysian politics.

 In reality, the election is likely to be or do none of these things. The results will be fascinating and an indicator of the future. But that watershed is still on the horizon.

 The contest at the national level focuses on how many seats are lost by the alliance led by the governing party, the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, which got 65% of the vote in 1995. 

The holy grail of the opposition coalition is to deprive the alliance of the two-thirds majority in Parliament, which gives it almost unfettered power. But even if the alliance loses many seats and control of a couple of state assemblies, there seems to be scant chance that rhino-skinned Mr. Mahathir will read that as a notice to quit. 

It is even less likely that an UMNO leadership purged of overt Anwarists (but not of all his covert supporters) and molded by the prime minister's most loyal supporters, and their business allies, will tell him his time is up. Anyway, the post-Anwar alternatives within UMNO are not inspiring. 

This election is only partly about Mr. Anwar. Many Malay sympathizers may desert UMNO in disgust at his treatment. But non-Malays tend to concern themselves more with issues of national stability and avoidance of Malay/Muslim extremism. On that score, Mr. Mahathir still rates highly. 

For all Malaysia's economic progress over the past 25 years, and the advance of Malays toward income equality, at the social level Malaysia is arguably as racially divided now as it has ever been. For the non-Malays it is the Islamic militants, not Mr. Mahathir's nationalism and rush to modernity, who are to blame.

 The alternative coalition is often perceived as too opportunistic to add to the sum total of opposition votes. The opposition alliance consists of the ultra-conservative Parti Islam, the Democratic Action Party, the traditional representative of lower income Chinese, the Justice Party, the new multiethnic urban middle class party headed by Mr. Anwar's wife, Azizah Ismail, and the Malaysian Peoples Party, a small leftist mostly Malay party. 

The opposition is too disparate to be credible as an alternative government, especially given Parti Islam's commitment to Islamic laws. It covers an improbable left-right as well as a racial spectrum and lacks a common symbol. 

Malays can easily be swayed by the fear that political disunity will be fatal to their hold on power, non-Malays by fear of Malay extremism. The governing alliance may have abused power and be prone to authoritarianism, but politically it is proven to have followed a middle of the road political compromise embracing all races.

 The opposition coalition, however, has managed to agree on a common platform and on which party fights which seat. Parti Islam's agenda is being moderated by the prospects of winning votes. Disillusion with UMNO has attracted urban, middle class Malays who act as a modernizing force and find common ground with counterparts in the other parties.

 They are also united by a sentiment which is shared by many Malaysians who will still vote for the government. That is a belief that unfettered personal power and party connections have undermined many of the institutions of society and government. These have demoralized the civil service and created a dangerous nexus between access to money and power, which has contributed to the economic crisis, and particularly the problems of the banking system. 

A less servile media, greater public accountability, restoration of confidence in judicial independence are goals that the disparate opposition share with each other. And they share it with all those, particularly a well educated younger generation, who believe that Malaysians deserve a higher quality of political life.

 The Anwar trials and the various accusations of corruption and sexual excess that have been riveting Malaysia have engendered a sense that all is not well in the way that society, and UMNO politics in particular, has developed.

 Contrary to most Western views of a predominantly Muslim nation, Malaysia never was a puritanical society, occasional khalwat trials notwithstanding. But there is disgust at the amount of dirty linen that has been revealed. 

Much of this discontent is to be found within UMNO, particularly among middle class Malays who feel the behavior of the leadership has let down the race. It was a sentiment on which Anwar himself sought to capitalize even before his arrest and despite his own ambiguous role. It will not go away.

 Thus, though the UMNO machine and the politics of patronage should ensure a comfortable win at the polls, the underlying issues will still be there. 

While it seems unlikely that the racial basis of Malaysian politics will change, there is a yearning for more of the pluralism that makes the country viable, and which long made UMNO a grass roots party beholden neither to its leader nor its financiers.

 So the watershed is in sight. But there is still some climbing to do.