Reform without Democracy?

Malaysia's moderate Islamist party has suffered a crushing defeat in the country's general elections. By shifting religion back into the spotlight, Prime Minister Badawi has succeeded in winning over countless Muslims. By Charlotte Wiedemann

Photo: AP
Election's winner: Abdullah Ahmad Badawi

​​The reasons for the rise of political Islamic parties differ from country to country. This explains why a collapse in support for such parties is not unknown, even though relations between East and West are so hostile elsewhere in the world.

This may be a simple truth, but it is one that has been proven again by the elections in Malaysia. The opposition Pan-Malaysia Islamic party (PAS, Parti Islam Semalaysia), a comparatively moderate group of Islamists, has just experienced such a collapse. The voters came out in droves and endorsed the secular government policy of Malaysia's prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, even though Badawi has only been in office for five months.

When Malaysia's patriarch Mahathir Mohamad passed the reins of government business to his successor after 22 years in the driving seat, outsiders scratched their heads and wondered which of the two was really the older. Even though he is fourteen years younger, the thoughtful Abdullah looked grey and insipid alongside his astoundingly agile 78-year-old predecessor.

Power of the governing party consolidated again

Now, however, Abdullah has notched up a landslide victory that exceeded all expectations. The opposition party lost the oil-rich state it won four years ago and its share of seats has slipped to below ten per cent. Even its president lost his seat.

The power of the United Malays National Organisation, on the other hand, which recently appeared racked by crises, is now consolidated once again. It remains the dominant (Muslim) force in a coalition that includes small Indian and Chinese parties.

Wrestling for the Muslim vote

The so-called "battle for the heads of the Muslims", who make up 60 per cent of the population, has dominated Malaysian politics for the past few years. For the most part, it was a polemic, superficial battle for the "right Islam" and conceptual hegemony.

Throughout the course of this tug-of-war, Malaysia's Muslim community has become culturally more conservative, and the relationship between it and the non-Muslim community has gradually worsened.

Abdullah succeeded in swinging the vote in his favour by taking a contradictory line: demonstrate more religiousness and promise to clean up politics, but don't permit even a shade more democracy.

Prime minister and imam

A brief scan of the prime minister's biography reveals how easy it was for him to demonstrate more religiousness: both his father and grandfather were Muslim scholars, he himself read Islamic studies, he speaks Arabic, and likes to lead prayers when he visits villages.

In other words, Abdullah gave the Islamic party as little as possible to attack. This was a complete change from his predecessor, Mahathir, whose secular, man-of-the-world act was increasingly viewed as unislamic. Another blot on Mahathir's copybook was the fact that he unscrupulously unseated his deputy from power and subjected him to a humiliating court case for alleged sexual transgressions.

Fighting nepotism and luxury

During his first few months in office, Abdullah Badawi carefully distanced himself from some of the excesses of the Mahathir era. He back-pedalled on expensive prestige projects and threw out plans for a dam project that had been controversial for quite some time. He intends to scrutinize the police force, which is considered corrupt and incompetent, and vows to put future government contracts up for tender.

Nepotism in politics and business goes down badly with many Malaysians. Four years ago, the Islamic party bolstered its following by denouncing corruption and "dirty politics". This is why Abdullah's criticism of the all-too-showy lifestyle of leading politicians in his own party has proven popular.

Whether an active anti-corruption policy will actually follow these initial gestures remains to be seen. The imprisonment of three prominent characters from the twilight zone between state and business has even impressed the government's greatest journalistic critic, Steven Gan. The publisher of an independent online daily newspaper, Gan openly rejoiced at the fact that Mahathir was no longer able to protect his old cronies.

No democratic reforms planned

When it comes to civil rights, however, the victor is just like his authoritarian predecessor. Malaysia remains a state with no freedom of assembly and no independent judiciary; a state where the freedom of the press is heavily restricted. And this doesn't seem to bother the majority of the electorate.

Abdullah was Mahathir's Minister of the Interior. This means that all orders within the scope of the infamous Internal Security Act (ISA) bear his signature. The ISA, which dates from British colonial times, is a tried and tested weapon that is wielded against the opposition: unpopular activists can be interned for up to two years without being sentenced. Twelve ISA prisoners are currently on hunger strike.

The application of this arbitrary act has been given the backing of the international fight against terrorism. While western human rights organisations used to criticise Malaysia for this act; the country now receives applause for every radical it imprisons.

Former deputy still in prison

Nor is there likely to be any reconciliation with Mahathir's most prominent victim. In the case of Anwar Ibrahim, there is no political solution in sight; his appeal has just been rejected. Anwar, who suffers from poor health, has been in solitary confinement for five years and is starting to fade from the electorate's memory.

A small Justice Party, which is run by his wife, Wan Azizah, was almost completely annihilated in the general elections. In other words, if Abdullah Badawi does not deliver on reform, there is no opposition to cry out in protest.

Charlotte Wiedemann

© 2004

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan