The sudden death of a state lawmaker in the Malaysian state of Negeri Sembilan last week appears likely to set the stage for the first real test of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat's political power since March 2008 general elections, at least partly because of rising ethnic Indian irritation over treatment by the Muslim majority in the country .
In seven of eight previous by-elections since the 2008 general election, the party that previously held the seat reclaimed it. However, the death last Thursday of Azman Mohd Noor, an UMNO lawmaker representing the Barisan Nasional, or national ruling coalition, appears to set up the real possibility that a seat could go to the opposition, analysts say.
Although it is a rural seat in a relatively obscure state legislature, the by-election, whose date has not yet been set, plays into a variety of disturbing national trends in the country, including rising ethnic Malay beliefs that their racial prerogatives are being usurped by other races and questions over the rising political power of the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS.
The 14,000-voter district is more than 20 percent ethnic Indian. Malaysia's Indians, who make up about 8 percent of the total population, are furious over Muslim protests that forced cancellation of the relocation of the 150-year-old Sri Mahamariamman Temple to a site more convenient to them after housing estates had overtaken the onetime rubber plantation in which it had been situated. The obstreperous Muslim protesters paraded a severed cow's head – an insult to Hindus, who venerate cattle — to the local town hall and dumped it in the protest.
Speaking of the violent tone of the anti-temple potests, Mustafa K. Anuar, assistant secretary for the reform organization Aliran, said that "Malaysians of all ethnic and religious backgrounds certainly have no reasons to be overjoyed with the Merdeka celebration, especially when the authorities were warned by these unthinking rebel-rousers of violent, if not bloody, 'retribution' if the demands of the protesters were not hneeded and met. It is of paramount importance to remind ourselves that better ethnic and religious understanding and relations can only come about through mutual respect and tolerance and dialogue – never by losing our heads."
The virulence has put paid to months of attempts by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to woo back ethnic Indian voters to the Barisan National. Najib has been photographed making chapatis with his wife and ostentatiously visited the magnificent Batu Cave, which houses an ancient Hindu temple just north of Kuala Lumpur, during recent Hindu holidays.
Tensions between Chinese and Malays backing the United Malays National Organization, the dominant party in the Barisan Nasional ruling coalition, have been rising for months. But tensions have also been growing between Indians and Malays ever since authorities cracked down on a rally by the Hindu Relief Action Force, or HINDRAF, in 2007 and threw the rally's leaders in jail under the country's stiff Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial. Najib freed the activist pressure group's leaders and had been seen to be making progress in wooing back the Indian community.
Although the rural Negeri Sembilan district has always been a Barisan Nasional stronghold, analysts say the seat could go to the Pakatan Rakyat opposition. Although the Barisan retained power in the statehouse in the 2008 election, for the first time ever it lost its two-thirds majority, with its majority dropping to 21 lawmakers to 15 for the opposition in the Negreri Sembilan statehouse.
The Negeri Sembilan seat that came open last week with Azman's death, apparently from blood poisoning, went to UMNO by a majority of 6,430 votes to PAS's 4,097, a relatively healthy plurality of 2,333. About 10 percent of the district, near the coastal town of Port Dickson, are ethnic Chinese. But rising racial tensions across the country are expected to play a role as politicians on both sides use Islam as a bludgeon against the other.
The ruling national coalition has traditionally relied on the ethnic Indian population to vote solidly for continuity. However, rising Malay-Muslim sentiment has coalesced with Indian disillusion with its own Malaysian Indian Congress, the third major component of the Barisan Nasional, which cratered in the 2008 election over disgust with corruption within the party. The MIC has continued to be riven with factionalism as the party's longtime head, S. Samy Velu, has battled reformers.
The loss of a single seat in a relatively unimportant largely rural state shouldn't ordinarily shake Barisan power. But the Barisan has been reeling from a long string of defeats and from perceptions of a kind of end-of-era deterioration, with the coalition mired in corruption and stultified in paralysis. Its only win among the previous by-elections was for a Sarawak seat with an overwhelming Barisan plurality.*
Najib has acted decisively to attempt to turn around minority sentiment, nullifying some elements of the New Economic Policy, an affirmative action program designed to provide economic uplift to Malays, which form a 55 percent majority of the country but who have traditionally played an economic second fiddle to the Chinese. The program, however, has created a rent-seeking class of cronies who have become known as "Umnoputras," a play on bumiputras or sons of the soil. But Najib faces long-standing questions of personal corruption as well.
In addition to the problems with the Chinese and Indians voters, several UMNO divisions in the Negeri Sembilan state are said to be disillusioned with the chief minister, Mohamad Hasan, a non-politician who was appointed by the former prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. It remains to be seen whether the lack of enthusiasm for Mohamad will cause UMNO stalwarts to sit on their hands, and particularly whether it will drive Malay voters to the fundamentalist PAS, which will field the opposition candidate.
The opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition headed by Anwar Ibrahim has plenty of its own problems, with internal contradictions rising between the fundamentalist PAS, the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and the moderate urban ethnic Malay Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Anwar's own party. PAS has begun to feel its oats outside its own rural stronghold in Terengganu, Kelantan and other northeastern states, demanding that ethnic Malays in urban areas surrounding Kuala Lumpur adopt a much more conservative lifestyle. As many as 60 young people were grabbed by religious police on the first night of Puasa, the Malaysian version of Ramadan.
*We originally called it an UMNO plurality. We apologize.