Islam and the Middle East in the Far East: Now Malaysia Prepares for Elections

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ISLAM AND THE MIDDLE EAST IN THE FAR EAST: Now Malaysia Prepares for Elections

Infidel, Pharaoh, clown, transvestite, frog. These are some of the names which leading Malaysian politicians have thrown at each other recently. There's no doubt about it: election time is approaching.

No date has yet been named, but speculation is rife that Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad will announce one in the next few weeks. This looks set to be among the most fiercely contested elections in Malaysia's history.

Just under half of the country's inhabitants are Malays by national origin. There is a large Chinese community (making up over 30 percent of the population), as well as an Indian minority of about 10 percent. Virtually all Malays are Muslims, as are a few Chinese and a significant proportion of the Indians. Together with non-Malay Muslim peoples living in Sarawak and Sabah (East Malaysia), they give Malaysia a Muslim majority and Islam is its official religion.

The distribution of the Chinese and Indians in the country is very uneven: in 30 out of a total of 192 parliamentary constituencies, there is a clear Chinese majority and a further 26 are regarded as mixed. In West (peninsular) Malaysia, these seats are concentrated in the south and east. Kelantan, Terengganu, Perlis and Kedah, the northern states of the peninsula, are overwhelmingly Malay. This has shaped the way elections are fought: much of the campaigning takes place within specific communities and is conducted by parties seeking to appeal to them on a religious or "ethnic" basis.

Since before independence, the strongest party among Malays has been the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). It works in alliance with smaller parties based within the two non-Malay minority populations. Since 1971, UMNO has headed a coalition known as the National Front. The 14-party coalition claims a membership of over four million today, of whom 2.7 million belong to UMNO. The National Front has won every general election since by convincing margins, but opposition parties feel that this time they have a chance of making inroads into its support.

The past two years have been difficult for Mahathir's government. The East Asian economic crisis brought a stock market slump, bankruptcies and increased unemployment. In September 1998, Mahathir sacked Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who had been regarded by many observers as his heir apparent. The former deputy prime minister was tried for corruption and sentenced to six years' imprisonment when convicted this April, but the case attracted international attention. Western governments criticized the trial and U.S. Vice President Al Gore provoked indignation among Mahathir loyalists by voicing his objections publicly while on an official visit to Malaysia.

Anwar Ibrahim's supporters established the Parti Keadilan Nasional (PKN -- National Justice Party), headed by Anwar's wife, Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. It has formed an alliance with two other opposition parties to challenge the National Front, which some see as an attempt to mirror that UMNO-led coalition.

The opposition's problem is that, whereas the incumbent Front's participants are in fundamental agreement on maintaining the national/religious status quo, its rivals want to change it in ways that are mutually incompatible. The PKN wishes to secure Anwar's release and has a vaguely reformist agenda; the mainly Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) advocates equality between Malaysia's different communities and a meritocratic society; and the largest partner, the Parti Islam (PAS), wants the country to become an Islamic state. Scarcely had the alliance been formed before the DAP began to talk about PAS's central objective as a stumbling block to a united front.

The incumbent National Front is probably right to be confident about its constituent parties' support in East Malaysia (Sarawak and Sabah) and in the southern peninsula, but UMNO faces tough competition from PAS in the northern peninsula, where it has controlled Kelantan's state government since 1990. …