Malaysia's poll ramifications for Thailand
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Malaysia's poll ramifications for Thailand

Mahathir Mohamad addresses a Langkawi Island election rally on May 8. He is flanked by photos of future prime minister Anwar Ibrahim and Anwar's wife. (AP photo)
Mahathir Mohamad addresses a Langkawi Island election rally on May 8. He is flanked by photos of future prime minister Anwar Ibrahim and Anwar's wife. (AP photo)

It was a vicarious happenstance. When the annual flagship event of Asean's consortium of think-tanks known as the Asia-Pacific Roundtable was scheduled in Kuala Lumpur for May 7-9, not a weekend but the first half of a working week, no one thought it would run into Malaysia's 14th General Election (GE14). But it did, as Prime Minister Najib Razak chose a Wednesday instead of a typical weekend, to stage Malaysia's momentous polls. But the tricky timing failed to help his cause. He lost in a big way that bears far-reaching ramifications for the fate of democracy and authoritarianism in the region and beyond, not least here in Thailand.

The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN, or National Front) coalition of parties, led by the prime minister's United Malays National Organisation, gave way for to the opposing clutch of banners under Pakatan Harapan (PH, or Alliance of Hope), led by 92-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. In one of the latest counts, PH has reportedly garnered 123 out of the 222 parliamentary seats, sufficient to form a government, whereas BN has won just 79 seats. This was a thunderous, first-ever defeat of the incumbent rulers of Malaysia since independence in 1957. Despite the ensuing controversy and political wrangling, as Prime Minister Najib has been unwilling to concede thus far, a sea change in Malaysian politics is now clear and present.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches at the Faculty of Political Science and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

My think-tank counterpart, ISIS Malaysia, had to move up the programme by half a day in order to allow its staff and all other Malaysians involved in organising speakers with an audience that numbered more than 350 policy practitioners, scholars, academics, diplomats, journalists and other segments who pay attention to the geopolitics and geoeconomics of the day, from the Korean Peninsula nuclearisation and the South China Sea to Rakhine's Rohingya. Reflecting Malaysia's political situation, a session on the comparative politics of Southeast Asia, focusing on Cambodia, the Philippines and Thailand, was reshuffled to kick off the entire event on the first day.

Yet despite the big issues on the programme, most minds were fixated and interested in what would happen to Malaysia on Wednesday. Most polls and the conventional wisdom had it that Prime Minister Najib's BN would win by a narrow victory despite his sleazy reputation, accentuated by a huge corruption scandal at 1Malaysia Development Berhad involving some US$681 million that allegedly ended up in the prime minister's bank account.

The power of incumbency just seemed too strong. Mr Najib had been oiling BN's patronage machinery to the hilt. Even on election eve, he promised on national TV more freebies, like tax exemptions for the young, a key segment of the electorate. The Malaysian authorities also appeared to hinder people from voting in time. Overseas voting in countries such as Australia was impeded. Malaysians returning from Singapore by road were slowed and stymied, and some did not manage to vote in time. Just days before the vote, the government introduced a new law against fake news. One of the first to be accused was Dr Mahathir.

And then there was the systematic, infamous gerrymandering of constituency lines that delivered parliamentary majorities to BN in 2008 and 2013 in the face of declining popular votes. Racial insinuations against the Chinese were also par for the course. There was no shortage of BN electoral trickery. Yet the Malaysian electorate had the last word.

What has just happened in Malaysia will be talked and written about for a long time. Elections and their results and consequences are what students and general watchers and stakeholders of politics thrive on. From the ground level, being in the vicinity when it was all happening, I was lucky to be able to soak up the excitement and suspense of the lead-up to the polls. The last time I and many other Thais got to vote, after all, was July 2011.

Seeing my Malaysian friends and colleagues getting ready to have their say on the future of their country was a democratic tonic. It was also a reminder that Thailand is the only country in the region that has no confirmed date for an election. Other countries either don't have multi-party elections (Brunei, Laos and Vietnam) or have polls whose timing is determined by varying electoral timeframes. You can ask people in Cambodia and Myanmar when their next polls have to take place by, and they can tell you. You can't do the same in Thailand.

Several ramifications from Malaysia stand out for Thailand. First, the Malaysian outcome is unlikely to accelerate the poll timeline here. For Thailand, the military government represents the incumbency. Seeing Malaysia's incumbent fall by the wayside so unceremoniously will not entice Thai military leaders to bring on a poll. Second, the digitalisation effects deserve attention. Rural patronage networks in Malaysia and Thailand are deep-seated but social media proliferation in recent years may well have undermined and diluted patron-client relations and vote buying. By the time Thailand votes again, it will have been around eight years, a span when online and digital media have made extensive inroads in people's minds.

Finally, long-established incumbencies can survive only if they remain vigilant against corruption, adept on economic performance, and broadly responsive to their electorates. The contrast here is between Malaysia's Umno/BN and Singapore's People's Action Party (PAP). The latter arrested its decline in popularity by making changes and adjustments to keep up with the demands and expectations of its electorate. The PAP is going strong even though it faces challenges like other ruling regimes. For Thailand's military government and whatever coalition of political parties it stirs up to win the election, what just transpired in Malaysia does not bode well.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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