From the economist:
A time of gifts
The benefits of incumbency versus the lure of the unknown
Apr 13th 2013
SINCE Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957, the main question answered by general elections has been the size of the government’s majority. The poll that the election commission this week announced would be held on May 5th, is the first the government faces a real possibility of losing. Even if it does not—and the odds must still be in its favour—the election is likely to have a profound impact on Malaysian politics.
The ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, is dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), whose leader, Najib Razak, is prime minister. He has never led the party through an election, having taken over in 2009 after the humiliation of his predecessor, Abdullah Badawi, in the election the previous year. For the first time, Barisan lost the two-thirds parliamentary majority that enabled it to change the constitution. Ever since, the opposition Pakatan Rakyat, a three-party alliance, has sniffed power. Its most prominent figure, Anwar Ibrahim, was once in line to lead UMNO.
Helped by a strong economy, Mr Najib has been doling out goodies: cash handouts for poorer families; pay rises for civil servants; and promises of affordable housing and new highways. A lot is at stake: simultaneous assembly elections will be held in 12 of the 13 states. In 2008, five elected opposition administrations. More largesse is promised in Barisan’s manifesto. Since its own is equally open-handed, Pakatan accuses its opponents of plagiarism.
The shape of the constituencies gives greater weight to more conservative, pro-government voters in the countryside who are predominantly Malay. To gain a parliamentary majority, the opposition would need to win considerably more than half the popular vote. Accusations of gerrymandering and rigged voter lists are common. But both Mr Najib and Mr Anwar have promised to honour the result.
Pakatan complains Barisan is abusing the perks of office to help its campaign. It is true it has been in power so long that the dividing line between party and government has become blurred. In fact Pakatan’s whole campaign is an onslaught on UMNO for its corruption, which is exacerbated by affirmative-action policies to benefit the Malays and other “indigenous” groups over the Chinese minority (25% of the population) and ethnic Indians (8%). These policies have been debased into vehicles for patronage and cronyism. Mr Najib has chipped away at some Malay privileges, but the strength of UMNO’s right wing has stopped him abolishing them altogether.
Barisan includes ethnic-Indian and Chinese parties, but wracked by scandals, they seem likely to do badly. Pakatan allies Mr Anwar’s multiracial party with a Malay Islamic party and one dominated by Chinese. Whatever the outcome of the election, Barisan’s claim that it represents all of Malaysia’s ethnic groups may become hard to sustain.
If Mr Najib scrapes home, he could still face a challenge from within UMNO. Its right wing would want him out. As for Mr Anwar, he has said that defeat would mark the end of his political career. A controversial but charismatic figure, he has managed to keep his improbable alliance together, but has no obvious successor.