Anwar Ibrahim believes Malaysia will see a revolution this weekend. The only question in his mind is whether it will be achieved through the ballot box or via street protests.
With just days to go before Sunday’s too-close-to-call election, the charismatic leader of Malaysia’s opposition was buoyed by polls showing his People’s Alliance coalition has pulled even with, or slightly ahead, of the long-ruling National Front bloc headed by Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Mr. Anwar warned the government could face the “wrath of the people” if it somehow kept the People’s Alliance from winning the election. “In a clear case of manipulation, of stealing, I’m sure you can expect the wrath of the people,” he said in a telephone interview.
Malaysia, a country of 28 million people, is often hailed as a success story, having blended moderate Islam with Chinese, Indian and Western values while becoming one of the leading economies in Southeast Asia. But critics see a quietly authoritarian state, where the media, courts and security services are all controlled by a variation of the same ruling party since it gained independence in 1957.
What’s clear is that Sunday’s election will be mark the first time Malaysian voters will go to the polls without knowing the winner in advance. Much of that is due to a mass of younger, first-time voters inspired by Mr. Anwar’s battle cry of “Reformasi!”
A win would mark a long-awaited personal triumph for Mr. Anwar, who has been a thorn in the government’s side since he was dumped from the deputy prime minister’s post in 1998. Along the way, the 65-year-old has survived a relentless smear campaign, including six years in jail on sodomy charges he says were trumped up and of which he was later acquitted.
Mr. Anwar says he’s certain his coalition – which is pledging to end policies that favour the country’s ethnic Malay majority and to eliminate official corruption – would win a fairly held election. But he says he’s already seen evidence that Mr. Najib’s government doesn’t intend to play by the rules.
“Our ‘Malaysian Spring’ and awakening will be translated through the ballot box. We warn the National Front that they should not destroy and steal the elections,” Mr. Anwar said between campaign rallies in the northern state of Perak on Thursday.
Mr. Najib, who is contesting his first election as party leader, is running on a record of sound economic management: Malaysia’s economy has grown steadily since he inherited office in 2009, including an admirable 5.6-per-cent pace last year.
Mr. Anwar’s supporters say the opposition was prevented from monitoring advance polling that allowed 272,000 army personnel to cast their ballots ahead of Sunday’s vote. They’re also worried that the supposedly indelible ink, into which voters are supposed to dip a finger to prevent them from casting multiple ballots, actually disappears in a matter of hours.
Speaking to The Globe and Mail, Mr. Anwar also accused the National Front of flying plane-loads of supporters from safely pro-government areas into hotly contested regions, where a few extra votes could decide who wins parliamentary seats. He also claimed the government was handing out Malaysian identification cards to foreign workers on the condition they vote for the National Front. The National Front has denied all of Mr. Anwar’s accusations.
Pollsters say the ruling coalition is in jeopardy because of growing dissatisfaction among the country’s Chinese and Indian minorities, with affirmative-action policies that guarantee ethnic Malays preferential access to schools, civil-service jobs and government contracts. The policies are credited with lifting the Malay majority out of poverty and creating a wealthy Malay middle class, but they have also inspired an exodus of Chinese entrepreneurs to neighbouring Singapore, which is seen as more meritocratic.
The most recent survey conducted by the University of Malaya’s Centre of Democracy and Elections found that 43 per cent of voters believed Mr. Anwar was prepared to be prime minister, compared to 39 per cent for Mr. Najib.
Many young voters, including young Malay voters – who get their news primarily from the Internet, rather than government-controlled media – are also turned off by allegations of corruption and cronyism within the National Front.
“This is a more demanding electorate. They’re looking for more freedoms – to express themselves and to organize,” said Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Centre, an independent polling company based in Kuala Lumpur.
But Mr. Ibrahim said that older voters, many of whom personally experienced the race riots that left hundreds dead after a disputed election in 1969, still value the stability and economic growth delivered by the National Front. “The [pro-] government vote is predominantly rural, low-income and resides in areas with lower Internet connectivity.”
As polls began showing the opposition had a chance of winning, Mr. Najib began reminding voters of the 1969 violence, hinting that chaos could follow a win for Mr. Anwar. There has already been a spate of minor election-related violence, targeting both supporters of the ruling party and the opposition.
“Certain politicians are talking about change, but what is it you want to change?” Mr. Najib asked at a recent campaign rally. “Do you want to change from peace and harmony to a country full of conflict and violence? Do you want to change the economic success that we have achieved?”