Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak urged party members four months ago to learn from the seventh century Battle of Uhud, in which Prophet Mohammed’s army was defeated by the Meccans because his archers didn’t obey orders.
Now, with elections just weeks away and facing an invigorated opposition, party leaders are amplifying Najib’s message: After ill-discipline and sabotage cost the ruling coalition its two-thirds majority in the 2008 election, this time round it could end their 55-year hold on power.
The 13-party governing alliance plans to announce candidates a week before nomination day, a break from past elections when nominees were declared 48 hours in advance, to allow enough time to purge troublemakers, said Khairy Jamaluddin, son-in-law of former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Infighting five years ago produced a flood of spoiled ballots, contributing to the coalition’s narrowest election win since independence in 1957 and Abdullah’s resignation, he said.
“Because of the number of marginal seats, seats with small majorities, it is a serious matter where a couple hundred spoiled votes can make a difference,” Khairy, who heads the youth wing of Najib’s United Malays National Organisation, said in an interview. “In a close contest, even 10 to 20 seats are meaningful in a way that they could decide the election.”
The prime minister dissolved parliament yesterday, paving the way for the Election Commission to schedule a vote within 60 days. Najib told reporters in Kuala Lumpur today that he’s “cautiously optimistic” about winning “big” with a two-thirds majority in parliament. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim also said he was “cautiously optimistic” about his coalition’s prospects in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Susan Li.
Brokerages from RHB Investment Bank Bhd. to Citigroup Inc. expect a closer election result than in 2008, unsettling investors. The FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index has fallen 0.2 percent this year, lagging behind benchmarks in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. The ringgit has dropped 0.6 percent against the dollar in that time.
Party leaders handpick all 222 candidates standing for parliament, a process that risks resentment from members who are passed over. Rejected local leaders may encourage supporters to spoil ballots, withhold campaign funds, refrain from campaigning for the party’s chosen candidate or run as independents.
“We have to work hard” and “make sure we minimize all internal problems within the party,” Najib said, after meeting leaders of his coalition to discuss candidates today.
While difficult to quantify, measures put in place since the last election will lessen the risk that sabotage will hurt the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional coalition this time, according to Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
“Any list of this type is going to leave a lot of people unhappy, and this is more so in UMNO than other parties,” he said by phone. “If something happens from the top that is not popular further down, then you do get silent and rather insidious opposition.”
Najib plans to pick candidates that appeal to the wider public instead of those who are only popular within the party, Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor, secretary-general of Barisan Nasional, said in a March 20 interview in Kuala Lumpur.
“If all of us are united, no one can penetrate us,” said Tenku Adnan, who is also an UMNO member.
Najib invoked the Battle of Uhud at UMNO’s annual assembly in November to underscore the need for organizational discipline. “It is the cornerstone of factors that will determine the success or failure of an organization to achieve the desired goals,” Najib said, according to a transcript. “In the military field, it can determine victory or defeat.”
In the battle, Mohammed’s archers disobeyed his orders and left their positions to look for spoils in the Meccan camp after an initial onslaught, which allowed his opponents to regroup and initiate a surprise attack.
Before the 2008 election, Abdullah faced calls to step down from his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister from 1981 to 2003, who criticized him for canceling investment projects such as a bridge to Singapore. The governing coalition won 140 of 222 parliamentary seats -- eight short of retaining the two-thirds majority it had held for almost four decades, which makes it easier to change the constitution.
In eight of the 82 seats won by the opposition, the number of spoiled ballots exceeded the margin of victory, according to official tallies by the Election Commission. Barisan Nasional lost two constituencies -- Balik Palau in Penang and Padang Terap in Kedah state -- even while winning state assembly seats that fell within the same electoral boundaries.
Of Barisan Nasional’s 140 seats, UMNO took 79 -- a 30-seat decline from the 2004 election. The Malaysian Chinese Association won 15 seats and smaller parties split the rest.
“Support to BN is much better compared to 2008,” Saifuddin Abdullah, deputy minister of higher education, said in a Bloomberg TV interview with Susan Li today. “We lost quite a considerable number of young voters and professional voters in 2008. We’ve been engaging them this time round.”
To prevent sabotage, the coalition set up a disciplinary committee with the authority to immediately expel members suspected of undermining candidates before the election. The additional time between announcing competitors and nomination day will help weed out division chiefs who may shut down campaign machinery, Khairy said.
“With a week, if people start behaving badly, we have time to go down and say ‘Look, we’ve got the evidence, you’re out,’” he said at his office on March 20. “We’re monitoring certain key constituencies for instances of sabotage. I wouldn’t put a figure to it but there could be a sizable number which could jeopardize our victory.”
Anwar, a former deputy prime minister and UMNO member who was expelled from the party in the late 1990s and charged with sodomy and corruption, leads the three-party opposition coalition known as the People’s Alliance. Of the 82 seats it won in 2008, 31 went to Anwar’s People’s Justice party, 28 to the Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party, or DAP, and 23 to the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party.
Internal divisions have also cost the opposition. In 2008, the People’s Alliance failed to contest in eight seats, leading to automatic Barisan Nasional victories because no other parties participated. In five other constituencies, Anwar’s party and the DAP competed against each other.
The DAP accused a member of Anwar’s party last month of trying to undermine it in Johor state, a Barisan Nasional stronghold bordering Singapore, the news website Free Malaysia Today reported, citing the DAP’s state chairman Boo Cheng Hau.
Lim Kit Siang, one of the DAP’s top leaders who plans to contest in Johor, said by phone last week that the opposition is in the “final stages” of drafting its candidate list.
“Of course it’s not easy, but we’ll work something out,” his son Lim Guan Eng, DAP secretary-general, said in an interview last month, referring to nomination lists. “Everybody wants to fight.”