Friday, November 7, 2008

Parallels between US and Malaysian elections

Nov 7, 2008

By Jeremy Au Yong

HISTORIC, a new dawn, a defining moment: These are words being used to describe Mr Barack Obama's resounding victory in the recent United States presidential election. To many in this region, they have a familiar ring.

They were also words chosen to describe what happened during the Malaysian general election seven months ago.

Barisan Nasional, which has ruled Malaysia since independence, retained its hold on power but lost its two-thirds majority. Longstanding Cabinet ministers were unceremoniously dumped out of office by voters wanting change.

Two days ago in the US, the Democratic Party won the presidency and made gains in the Senate and the House, achieving its largest House majority in 15 years.

Political analysts draw many parallels between the US and Malaysian elections, from the issues that mattered to the qualities of key political figures.

Two elements were critical in bringing about the downfall of the incumbents, they note. One is a desire for change, the other the presence of a change-maker.

Dr Johan Saravanamuttu, a visiting senior research fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, notes the role of young voters: 'It is a generation shift. A good number of new voters came on board in both cases and I assert that the vast majority voted against the ruling parties.'

He adds: 'These younger voters didn't have the hang-ups of the past. In Malaysia, for instance, the arguments of racial riots cut no ice with them. There was an increasing concern for universal issues, and less about things like ethnicity and stability. They wanted change, and to move away from old politics.'

The second element is the presence of a charismatic leader who can convincingly carry the message of change.

Mr Obama and, to a lesser extent, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim were such change-makers.

Mr Nathaniel Tan, the Internet strategist for Malaysia's main opposition party, the National Justice Party, believes the sharp voter swing from the previous election was due partly to the absence of such leaders in the past.

'I think in both America and Malaysia, discontent had been building up to pretty high levels. The lack of viable, charismatic alternatives prior to this year's elections accounts significantly for the wide spread in results,' he says.

The view is shared by Mr Ibrahim Suffian, director of independent pollster Merdeka Centre in Malaysia, who says a multi-ethnic nation needs a larger-than-life leader. 'In a diverse electorate, you need a candidate who is able to inspire people beyond their own ethnic group,' he says.

In both instances, he says, the charismatic leaders were able to get voters past their longstanding race-based psychological barriers.

In Malaysia in March, non-Malays readily voted for candidates from the religious pan-Malaysian Islamic party, while Malays in turn were voting for candidates from the mainly Chinese Democratic Action Party.

In the US, exit polls show Mr Obama winning over 40 per cent of white voters.

Another big reason for the colour-blindness, analysts say, is the pressing economic issues - both in Malaysia and the US. Inflation was the top issue during the Malaysian elections, while the very immediate financial crisis was top of the agenda in the US.

'It made race-based rhetoric less important,' says Mr Ibrahim.

But being a change-maker comes with its fair share of pitfalls.

For one thing, Mr Ibrahim believes the wave of goodwill that carries them into office brings with it a burden of expectation. 'I would say more is expected of such a candidate as compared with an incumbent candidate returned to office.'

Mr Tan adds that it is impossible for such a change-maker to be able to meet those expectations. He does not expect every Obama supporter to be satisfied.

'A little hope goes a long way. After a while, people begin to pour every single hope into charismatic figures who inspire and promise a way out. It's humanly impossible to fulfil every single one of those hopes. The best we can hope for is that the said leaders will do all that they can to remain faithful to their promises and make compromises that have only the people's best interests at heart,' he says.

[This article could have been titled, "Does race/ethnicity matter?" or "Why race didn't matter." and fit with the other 3 on style, youth, and internet. But ethnic sensitivities.

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