Malaysia will go to the polls on March 8th. Although the ruling coalition is widely expected to win, three main opposition parties have promised to put up a tough fight. The short election campaign is likely to be dominated by the slowing economy and racial and religious tensions.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is angered by election timing
Well over a year before elections were due, Malaysians are being called to vote once again. Over 10 million voters have already registered for the March elections.
Opposition parties have criticised Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi for dissolving parliament during the Lunar New Year celebrations and calling early elections.
Critics say the prime minister has called them well before the May 2009 deadline so that victory is guaranteed. They say if he waits much longer, his ratings are likely to fall so much that he could lose.
Badawi’s ratings have dropped dramatically as the electorate has expressed its anger against rising fuel and food prices, street crime, corruption and ethnic tensions.
Religious minorities have complained of discrimination as Malaysian society allegedly becomes more Islamised. Non-Muslims complain that their rights to worship are being restricted. They also allege that the government favours the majority Malay community.
Malaysia’s population of 27 million is made up of 60 percent Muslim Malays, 25 percent ethnic Chinese, who are mostly either Buddhist or Christian, and almost 8 percent ethnic Indians who are mainly Hindu.
Malaysia’s ethnic Indians, who in the past have tended to vote for Prime Minister Badawi’s multi-ethnic Barisan Nasional, which they thought was the best guardian of its interests, are threatening to use the ballot box to vent their frustration. They were angered by the government’s heavy crackdown on protests against discrimination in autumn 2007.
Thousands of ethnic Indians took to the streets to demonstrate against discrimination in education and business. They were led by the non-governmental Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf.
The government sent in the police, which used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protesters. It also used the controversial Internal Security Act to jail five Hindraf leaders for allegedly inciting violence.
But experts say that even if the entire Indian community decided to vote for the opposition, Barisan Nacional would still win.
Nonetheless, Malaysia’s opposition is putting up a challenge to the government and hoping to cash in on voter dissatisfaction with the economy, as well as win over the votes of ethnic minorities.
The main three opposition parties are the left-leaning Democratic Action Party, the Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia and Keadilan, which is headed by former Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.