Malaysia Political Situation

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Oscar Arribas
11:52am Tuesday 1 December

Malaysia Political Situation

The Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition has been in government since independence. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) forms the backbone of the coalition. By convention, the President and Deputy President of UMNO are Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister respectively.

The most recent Malaysian general elections took place on 8 March 2008. The BN won a comfortable parliamentary majority. However, it suffered its worst electoral showing since independence; the BN saw its control of the federal parliament slashed from more than 90% of seats to 63%. Such an outcome was not predicted in advance, even by opposition parties, which reached a last-minute agreement not to contest against each other in individual constituencies.

The opposition's seats in the 222 member federal parliament increased from 20 to 82. More significantly, at the state level, the opposition won control of five of Malaysia's 13 states, including the two most industrialised and wealthiest states of Penang and Selangor, as well as the rural Malay "heartland states" of Kedah and Kelantan. The outcome was acknowledged as a significant evolution in Malaysia's political history.

Robust debate on the future of Malaysian politics has followed. The balance of opinion has concluded (among other messages) that the results reflected the growing maturity of the Malaysian electorate. The influence of alternative media has been noted. Many analysts believe these elections could initiate a shift to a ‘two-party' (or ‘two coalition') system in Malaysia.

Prime Minister Abdullah's government has been under pressure since March 2008 to demonstrate it can respond positively to the March election results. Adding to that pressure, on 26 August Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim won a by-election in his former seat of Permatang Pauh in Penang to regain a place in parliament following an enforced ten year absence. Anwar thus entered Parliament for the first time since 1998, and for the first time as an opposition Pakatan Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) member. (In 1998, Anwar was Deputy Prime Minister and a member of UMNO. He was banned from standing for 10 years following conviction in 1999 for corruption and sodomy, the latter subsequently over-turned.) He has claimed to have the support of a sufficient number of crossover MPs (over 30) to oust the incumbent government. He has also been charged again for sodomy and trial proceedings have begun.

As pressure intensified, the Prime Minister announced a plan to hand over leadership to Deputy Prime Minister Najib in mid-2010, and on 17 September he took over the defence portfolio from Najib, while Najib replaced him as Minister of Finance. Subsequently, the Prime Minister confirmed on 8 October that he would not seek re-election as UMNO President at party elections due in March 2009 and would therefore relinguish his position as Prime Minister at that time. Najib is the clear favourite to succeed Abdullah.

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Last updated: 04 December 2008