Where the biggest battle lies this GE

How Malays in rural areas vote will largely determine the outcome of GE14.

Every general election is important, for that is when democracy gets to show off; that is when democracy sends her representative to the poll booth to have a say in the direction the nation is to take, at least in theory. The latest iteration of the dance of democracy takes place tomorrow, May 9.

And this general election is turning out to be the most contentious in Malaysia’s history, with the battle starting long before the gong announcing the election was struck. A total of 1,333 candidates are vying for the 222 parliamentary and 505 state seats that are being contested.

On the surface, it is a tussle for power between two coalitions – one led by Prime Minister Najib Razak and the other by former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad. It is a battle of wills between two political giants. But it is also much more than that.

It is an election that will decide the fate of not just Najib but leaders on both sides of the divide. The opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) has declared that if it comes to power it will go after Najib for alleged graft and abuse of power, within the first 100 days. PH has warned that officials who have had a hand in abuses, especially in the 1MDB scandal, will not be spared.

Although BN has not stated any such intention, nobody would be surprised if a victorious BN harasses or arrests those in the opposition, and critics in NGOs, under the plethora of laws available to it.

That makes this contest even more crucial for the main players, as it will define their personal future.

Also, the dynamics of local politics will see a seismic shift if BN loses, for it will mean that Umno, the dominant force in BN, and before that the Alliance, will no longer call the shots for the first time since Malaya gained independence. If that happens, there will be internal upheaval, not just soul-searching in Umno. Further, if any of the other main BN partners – MCA, MIC and Gerakan – or all of them are wiped out, BN will be shaken to its roots.

A defeat for PH may result in PPBM, formed as a result of Mahathir, former Umno deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin and other Umno leaders and members falling out with Najib, becoming irrelevant. Coalition partner Amanah too, if it does not do well, may become irrelevant. DAP is a survivor and will continue. So will PKR, as Anwar Ibrahim will be back to lead it after he is released from prison in June.

The battle is also over how free Malaysia should be and whether a citizen will enjoy freedoms and justice as guaranteed in the constitution. Under Mahathir, critics say, the nation began sliding into authoritarianism. But now, under Najib, there is increasing fear among some segments of society, particularly the urban and educated groups, that the situation is getting worse. They point to the fact that even cartoonists get arrested for doing what they do best, and say there is a climate of fear in the nation.

For this segment of the population, this election is about stopping the onslaught of authoritarianism and a further weakening of government institutions such as the Election Commission, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, and the Attorney-General’s Chambers. PH has pledged to bring back professionalism in the civil service and integrity in the administration, which they find attractive.

Importantly too, the outcome of the 14th general election will decide whether hardline Islam becomes the norm. In past elections there was a good mixture of rich vs poor, urban vs rural, and Muslim vs non-Muslim elements in the contest cauldron. But a new element is now in play and it pits progressive Muslims against Muslims who think a conservative stance is best for the nation.

This is where the biggest battle is being fought.

On one side are Muslims who think moderation marks Islam and who do not want hudud (Islamic penal laws) implemented; on the other is a group that holds the “Islam above all” philosophy, and a rather exclusivist take on Islam. It wants to see the implementation of hudud.

Over the last 20 years, those who champion a conservative interpretation of Islam in all aspects of Malaysian life have been slowly gaining ground and have planted roots in the country’s administration. But over the last five years, Muslims who fear Malaysia might become another Pakistan or Afghanistan, have begun to fight back. This group sees the government of Najib as tolerating or condoning, if not encouraging, the hardliners, although in public the government says it stands for moderate Islam.

In the last couple of years, in order to woo hardline Muslim support, Najib has been “working” with PAS, the Islamist opposition party that wants hudud implemented. It could be an election strategy on the part of Najib, but moderate and liberal Muslims, as well as non-Muslims, fear they will be impacted and that their interests as citizens are not being given due respect.

Urban and educated Muslims – just as educated non-Muslims – are very clear about what they want: more freedoms, no hudud, and an end to corruption. This group is more likely to vote for PH than BN.

Those in the rural areas – almost all Muslims – want more Islam, although not necessarily hudud, and a better standard of living. They are also grateful for all that Umno has done for the Malays over the years, a fact that cannot be denied. The sense of gratitude of this group favours BN.

As the electoral boundaries have been drawn in such a way as to give more weightage to rural votes, how this group votes will largely decide who wins. That explains why younger, urban Malays are trying to persuade their relatives back home in rural areas to vote for change.

So, how the Malays, who make up about 55% of the population, dance in this election will decide the direction of the nation, not just whether it is Najib or Mahathir who sings the blues.

A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT.

The views expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of FMT.