Malaysia's Political Tsunami

"Stay calm. Stay cool. Stay home." That was the message on Jeff Ooi's blog following his landslide victory in the election for a parliamentary seat in Malaysia on March 8. After Ooi and dozens of other opposition politicians romped home victorious, they wanted to make sure there were no reasons for "any party to declare an emergency." Text messages warning people to stay home and avoid victory parades have been circulating since then.

The National Front, the ruling coalition in Malaysia, has been in power with a very comfortable majority since the country became independent in 1957, but on March 8 it was blindsided by its worst poll results ever. In the country's 12th general election opposition parties took 82 seats in the federal parliament, compared to 20 seats in the last election, in 2004. Significant political casualties for the coalition included the minister of works; the minister of women, family and community development; and the minister of information. Five of the 13 state legislatures also fell to opposition control. These included Penang, the home state of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, and Kedah, the home state of long-serving previous prime minister Mahathir Mohamed. "There is a political tsunami," says veteran opposition leader Lim Kit Siang. "This is unprecedented."

Abdullah, like most of the ruling coalition, looked dazed and exhausted as the scale of the rout became apparent. He accepted the defeats, saying "This is democracy at work," and urged people to remain calm. But he did not hold his traditional postelection press conference, and he moved up his audience with the king to confirm that the ruling coalition still had enough support to form the next government.

In contrast, former coalition leader turned opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim could not contain his excitement at the turn of events. "This is a defining moment, unprecedented in our nation's history. Today a new chapter has opened," he told reporters at a packed news conference at his house. "The people have expressed in no uncertain terms that they want accountability, transparency and the rule of law." Anwar was prevented from running for office by a five-year ban from official politics that expires on April 15. That ban was part of the sentence handed down to him after an acrimonious political split with Mahathir in 1998.

Back in the 2004 elections, Anwar's Justice Party garnered only one parliamentary seat. But this time around it won 31 seats, plus another 40 seats at the state level. The other opposition parties garnered 51 parliamentary seats and 156 state-level seats, compared to 13 and 51, respectively, back in 2004.

Several major parties lost significant ground. Malaysia is a multiethnic country in which Muslim Malays make up around 60 percent of the population, followed by ethnic Chinese, at about 25 percent and ethnic Indians, at around 10 percent. Political parties are largely divided along ethnic lines. The ruling coalition, led by the United Malay National Organization (UMNO) and including the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), all took a hit. Only the stalwart support of the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo ensured overall victory for the National Front. "This is the biggest defeat," outgoing Penang Chief Minister Koh Tsu Koon told reporters. "I feel sad and surprised. I urge all National Front members to stay calm and not to take any action that could jeopardize peace and security."

Back in 1969 the ruling coalition lost its two-thirds majority in parliament. In the ensuing political jostling, bloody race riots broke out between Malays and ethnic Chinese three days after the polling. One of the triggers had been a victory procession through the streets of Kuala Lumpur, and one of the longterm outcomes was a discrimination policy that favored ethnic Malays and is still partly in place.

In contrast to 1969, this time around Malaysia has been remarkably calm. On Monday, the first working day since the elections, the only action was at the stock market, where a selloff of government-linked companies led to the Kuala Lumpur Composite Index falling by almost 10 percent. That triggered a one-hour suspension of the market, and the value of some construction companies with large government contracts fell by more than 30 percent. "This change of leadership in the state governments could be quite a headache for us," says the head of a large Western mining concern, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We are not certain what will happen to our concessions."

Corrupt officials and the lack of transparency in government contracts were a big issue ahead of the elections, especially since Abdullah romped to victory as prime minister back in 2004 with a clear manifesto to clean up the government.

Abdullah is the successor to Malaysia's strongman, Mahathir, who ruled the country with an iron will for 22 years. Abdullah has done much to promote civil society and a plurality of voices, but calls for more change have been growing louder and louder.

Even Mahathir himself has become a vocal critic of his successor. Right after the elections he led calls for Abdullah to resign, saying that latter had "destroyed" the National Front. "I think the people must have been very angry—all the races, Chinese, Malays and Indians," said Mahathir, adding that he had made the wrong choice in anointing Abdullah as his successor in 2003.

Mahathir's political rival from the '80s, MP Razaleigh Hamzah, also joined in the attacks. "The leadership team must wake from its slumber, face the truth and accept full responsibility for this debacle," he said.

This debacle may, however, have a different outcome. Malaysia marked its 50th birthday as an independent nation last year. The country has already pushed a long way along the road to development, and its people are increasingly sophisticated and connected to the global economy. Maybe the two-third majorities enjoyed by the coalition will never be recovered. Maybe political leaders will be quite happy to win a simple majority of seats at the next elections in 2012. Just like most of the democratic world.