Campaigning is off to a controversial start in Malaysia ahead of May 9 elections pitting premier Najib Razak’s ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition against ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad’s upstart Pakatan Harapan opposition alliance.
Expectations of a tight race abound as opposition parties ramp up their bid to win over voters in key constituencies across the country in an attempt to oust Najib’s ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has governed the country continuously for over six decades.
Preliminary forecasts predict a victory for the ruling BN, though observers expect a tightly fought race. While recent electoral boundary changes will benefit UMNO and BN, opposition candidates now face a raft of legal hurdles that are significantly hobbling their campaigns.
Arbitrary restrictions on opposition campaigning are already raising questions about the legitimacy of the upcoming polls and stoking concerns of possible instability if opposition supporters become convinced that Harapan is denied a deserved victory.
Candidates submitted nomination papers at their home constituencies on April 28, marking the start of an 11-day campaign period. Several opposition candidates, however, were disqualified from contesting by the Election Commission (EC) on what many see as spurious and potentially unlawful grounds.
Malaysia’s Election Commission, tasked with managing fair and equitable polls, operates under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Department.
For example, prominent opposition parliamentarian Tian Chua was disqualified from contesting a seat in the federal constituency of Batu, where he sought re-election for a third term, over a minor cash fine he paid several years ago. He had been allowed to contest in Malaysia’s 2013 general election without disqualification over the fine, which was levied in 2010 on charges of assaulting a police officer.
Chua, who is vice-president of Harapan component party Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), has filed a suit against the EC in a last-ditch effort to defend his parliamentary seat, which he has held since 2008. A judgement by the Kuala Lumpur High Court in 2010 had ruled that the fine did not disqualify Chua from holding office.
Meanwhile, police physically blocked Harapan candidate Streram Sinnasamy from entering a nomination center, reportedly because he did not hold an EC-issued candidate pass. Possession of such a pass, according to electoral watchdog group Bersih 2.0, is not required by law, while other candidates were allowed to enter nomination centers without one.
Streram’s disqualification allowed BN candidate Mohamad Hasan to win the Rantau state seat in Negri Sembilan unopposed. At least six other opposition candidates were disqualified on nomination day for paperwork discrepancies or on the grounds of allegedly being bankrupt, a charge at least two candidates denied.
Harapan leader Mahathir, 93, has levelled explosive claims regarding his own nomination day debacle, alleging that a private jet he intended to use was deliberately tampered with to prevent him from reaching Langkawi, an island in his home state of Kedah where he has since successfully registered to contest.
Malaysian authorities promptly ordered an investigation into the ex-premier’s claims, with the country’s civil aviation authority denying Mahathir’s allegation of “sabotage” but confirming that the aircraft was unable to fly due to air leakage from a nose wheel. It described the leak as a “minor and routine technical fault.”
Mahathir claimed the pilot discovered the leak before the plane took off. He also claimed to have contacted “three friends” who refused to lend their aircrafts to him. One of the three, the premier alleged in a recent blog post, indicated he was “under pressure” not to lend his aircraft, presumably in an attempt to prevent the ex-leader from reaching Langkawi.
Abdul Rahman Dahlan, the ruling coalition’s communications chief, derided Mahathir’s claims as an “underhanded tactic to gain sympathy votes.” Vista Jet Limited, the charter company which provided the faulty aircraft, echoed the findings of the civil aviation authority and denied any attempted sabotage.
There are clearer indications of harassment. Last month, authorities blocked registration of Mahathir’s new political party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), forcing the party to temporarily disband for failing to submit required documents and financial statements.
Malaysia’s Registrar of Societies also refused to register Harapan as a formal coalition on the grounds of improper documentation, preventing the alliance from campaigning under a unified common logo. Those registration roadblocks have prompted Harapan’s four component parties to announce they would contest instead using the PKR’s logo.
However, on April 24, the EC issued new guidelines for campaign materials that would effectively block Mahathir’s image from being shown on posters throughout the country.
According to the new stipulations, election posters can only depict two leaders of a political party: the president, deputy president or equivalent and the candidate running for the constituency.
Since Harapan members will now contest under the PKR logo, opposition candidates can only be pictured with party president Wan Azizah Ismail and deputy president Azmin Ali, despite Mahathir being the opposition’s pick as their prime minister-designate should they win power at the federal level.
Mahathir, who helmed the ruling coalition from 1981 to 2003, is an iconic figure in Malaysian politics whose image would be recognizable to voters in key rural constituencies.
Observers allege the new EC guidelines are engineered to ensure Mahathir’s likeness may only be shown on campaign materials in Langkawi, where he is personally contesting.
Since the campaign period started, enforcement officers acting on behalf of the EC have defaced several Harapan billboards by literally cutting out Mahathir’s image. Instances of Harapan billboard defacement have been reported in battleground states such as Johor and Penang and have been widely circulated over social media.
There have been no reports of BN campaign billboards being censured by the Prime Minister’s Department-controlled EC.
Campaign posters depicting incumbent Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai with Chinese President Xi Jinping, a pointer to the benefits the government has won from China’s Belt and Road Initiative, have not been removed by authorities despite seemingly running afoul of EC rules.
“The EC has acted in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner hampering the opposition at every turn, hindering voter participation and manipulating the electoral process to favor UMNO-Barisan Nasional,” said Dennis Ignatius, a veteran Malaysian diplomat, in a recent online commentary.
“All pretense of fair play and even-handedness is gone,” he said, adding how the BN appears “determined to hold on to power at any cost by using the EC and other agencies to advance their agenda.”
The May 9 elections will determine who fills 222 seats in federal Parliament as well as representatives chosen for 12 state legislatures. An estimated 14.8 million registered voters will be eligible for polling, while a record number of multi-cornered fights will take place for 192 parliamentary seats.
The EC has invited electoral monitoring bodies from Indonesia, Thailand, Maldives, Timor Leste, Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan to observe the upcoming election. The commission, however, has denied observer accreditations for Suhakam, a government human rights body established by an act of Parliament.
The national human rights commission issued a strongly worded statement last month citing alleged falling public confidence in the EC, noting its re-delineation of constituency boundaries so close to the poll was “widely seen to be unfair, biased and disproportionate.”
It’s a perception that’s likely to spread ahead of a vote heavily skewed in favor of the incumbents Najib, UMNO and the BN.