Malaysia’s Election Faces Scrutiny After Australian Expelled

Malaysia’s deportation of an Australian lawmaker who criticized its democracy may increase global scrutiny of an election set to determine whether the ruling alliance can maintain its 55-year grip on power.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon arrived in Melbourne yesterday after being deported for allegedly participating in an illegal pro-democracy street protest in Kuala Lumpur last year. Australian leader Julia Gillard said she was “surprised and disappointed” by the incident, which comes weeks before Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak must hold an election.

Najib has faced protests from groups pushing to overhaul the country’s electoral system as he fights to retain power for a coalition that has governed the nation since independence in 1957. Protesters, backed by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, have called for voter rolls to be cleaned up, wider use of absentee ballots and a campaign period of at least 21 days.

“What they’ve done ironically is illustrate to the world how scared they are, and to bring attention to electoral issues as opposed to being seen as working to address them,” Bridget Welsh, a political science associate professor at Singapore Management University, said by phone. “The electoral process is very important because the race has the potential to be very close.”

Xenophon had been scheduled to meet politicians, including Anwar, ahead of a planned visit by a delegation of Australian lawmakers, which is now canceled. They were also due to meet de facto law minister Nazri Aziz and officials from the Election Commission, the senator said in Melbourne yesterday.

‘PR Disaster’

Xenophon was denied entry for violating Malaysian law during a previous visit, the Southeast Asian nation’s immigration department said in a Feb. 16 statement, claiming he took part in an illegal street rally in Kuala Lumpur last year.

“Malaysia is a free and democratic country, but no one is above the law,” Alias Ahmad, director-general of the Immigration Department, said in the statement. “Authorities will take the appropriate action against any individual deemed to have violated national laws.”

Tengku Sariffuddin Tengku Ahmad, Najib’s press secretary, declined to comment by text message yesterday.

“This is another public relations disaster for the government,” James Chin, a professor of political science at the Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University, said by phone. “Malaysia overreacted badly. The best thing they could have done was to let him in and let him say what he wants and leave the country quietly.”

Market Slide

Najib, 59, must dissolve parliament by April 28 for polls to be held within 60 days. The governing National Front, or Barisan Nasional, coalition won the 2008 election by its narrowest margin. A poll will be “very soon,” the state news service Bernama reported Feb. 15, citing the premier.

The FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index fell 0.4 percent at the close in Kuala Lumpur today. It has fallen 4.3 percent after hitting a record on Jan. 7 on concern Barisan Nasional may win fewer seats in parliament. It’s the worst performing benchmark stock index in Asia Pacific this year.

“The prime minister is talking about transformation and has a more liberal and welcoming message, but on the other hand the civil service machinery isn’t following his lead,” Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive officer of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, said by phone. “What they have done is damage Barisan Nasional’s image not just in Malaysia, but internationally.”

Economic Growth

Malaysia’s economy has expanded by more than five percent for each of the last five quarters through September thanks to resilient domestic demand and increased investment. Fourth-quarter data is due Feb. 20.

Najib, who has embarked on economic and government transformation programs since 2010, saw his popularity rating fall to 63 percent in December from 65 percent a month earlier, the lowest level in 16 months, according to the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research.

Police fired tear gas and clashed with protesters during a rally last April by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, a group of non-governmental organizations known locally as Bersih. Najib’s government banned street demonstrations after a similar rally in 2011.

The Election Commission has since said it will use indelible ink to mark fingers to prevent multiple voting and use ballpoint pens instead of pencils to mark ballot papers. It’s also been cleaning up the electoral roll to remove dead people and reflect changes of address, it said.

Xenophon, who has criticized Malaysia’s democratic processes in Australia’s parliament, said yesterday he met with Anwar in Australia in 2010 and last year as an observer attended his trial for sodomy, in which the opposition leader was acquitted. The senator said he is on an immigration watch-list and banned from re-entering Malaysia.

“The deporting of Senator Xenophon underscores the paranoia of the authorities about our elections,” Ambiga Sreenevasan, Bersih’s co-chairwoman, said on her Twitter page. This “speaks volumes for the state of our elections.”

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