Najib Razak: Why Malaysia Faces a Difficult Time Ahead

Despite winning one of the most heated elections in Malaysian history, the ruling coalition faces a challenging time governing the country as it struggles with ongoing allegations of electoral fraud and a restless opposition.

Last Sunday ruling coalition Barisan Nasional, which has been in power for more than half a century since the country’s independence, won 60% of parliamentary seats to form a government despite losing the popular vote to the opposition alliance for the first time since 1969. Barisan Nasional's ability to garner less than 47% of the popular vote will prove challenging for Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose future in the party is unguaranteed given his dismal electoral showing. Razak now has to work hard to win back support for the coalition.

The government is facing a trust deficit. Two think tanks have concluded that the elections were "partially free but not fair," pointing out that the state-owned mainstream media was heavily biased in favor of Barisan Nasional, that there were hundreds of reports of voter fraud and that constituency sizes were unequal, allowing Barisan Nasional to win many smaller seats and form a government. The Economist has also called the election result "dangerous," citing the prime minister's placing the blame of coalition’s huge losses on a "Chinese tsunami." Najib then went on to defend a party-owned newspaper, whose headline encouraged anti-Chinese sentiment when it accused the Chinese of being ungrateful for abandoning the ruling coalition. (In Malaysia, ethnic Malays make up the majority of the population, the Chinese about 25%, while Indians and indigenous groups make up 10%.)

The ruling coalition's loss of the popular vote, however, is not just due to a Chinese tsunami. Analysts show that Barisan Nasional's electoral losses, while partially due to a bigger dip in Chinese votes since the 2008 election, was more accurately a result of an urban swing across all races in support for the opposition, whose platforms are to eradicate corruption and dismantle race-based policies that favor the Malay majority in Malaysia. Najib's move to racialize the election result only hampers, and is inconsistent with, any form of "national reconciliation" that the government has promised in order to heal "racial and political divisions" in the country.

Nevertheless, a "national reconciliation" might be inevitable in the coming weeks as the opposition continues to question the legitimacy of the incumbent government. On Wednesday, the opposition vowed to continue challenging the election result at a mammoth rally attracting over 60,000 people, where people dressed in black to symbolise the "death of democracy." More rallies were held over the weekend, drawing in thousands of dissatisfied voters, who feel that the elections were stolen by the ruling coalition due to the many allegations of voter fraud and the electoral process being tilted heavily in favor of the ruling party.

The gap between urban and rural voters are also indicative of widening economic inequalities, where urban voters have greater access to the internet and are often more liberal in their views. Malay rural voters are frequently promised more development projects and guaranteed special privileges by the ruling party in exchange for political support.

Alongside addressing these divisions, Najib has to figure out how to form a racially-representative cabinet. The Chinese component parties in the ruling coalition have confirmed that it will not accept any government posts, having lost terribly in the elections. With only seven parliamentarians who are ethnically Chinese and four who are ethnically Indian out of the ruling coalition's 133 elected members of parliament, Barisan Nasional might have to form a government with little ethnic minority representation.

The government will also have to act quickly on economic issues. In the months leading up to the elections, the government dramatically expanded spending, offering cash handouts and public sector wage increases to would-be voters. This has contributed the country's soaring deficit and public debt, raising questions about Malaysia's macro stability, especially now that the government has to deliver on billions of pounds of election promises.

A national reconciliation is thus much needed. The question however is whether Najib is able carry out the necessary reforms quickly and effectively enough to hold back a restless urban public intent on political change.