April 29, 2013, by Editor

Ethnic Politics and the Challenge of PKR

Written by Thomas Pepinsky.

As Malaysia’s thirteenth general elections approach, all eyes are on the two coalitions: the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition and the opposition Pakatan Rakyat. Once again, the master scripts of Malaysian politics—ethnicity and redistribution—lie at the heart of each coalition’s platform. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s 1Malaysia campaign endeavors to convince Malaysians that his government is a careful steward of the interests of all Malaysians. The PR Manifesto’s very first promise is to “eliminate racial discrimination and the incitement of antagonism between community groups to ensure the people’s unity and harmony.”

Yet ethnicity remains fundamental to understanding Malaysian political competition. That the BN’s ethnic parties are attentive to their members’ concerns is unsurprising, but even parties that wish to create a Malaysian politics that transcends ethnicity find themselves inexorably drawn towards ethnicity in making strategic decisions on how to compete and where to allocate resources. In Malaysia’s first-past-the-post electoral system, multiparty coalitions like BN and PR must make a single choice as to which party’s candidate gets to contest in each district. So the BN’s Gerakan, for example, is never allocated a seat to contest in a Malay majority districts, and PAS almost always competes in heavily Malay districts. The result is party nomination choices that reflect Malaysia’s ethnic cleavages, even among parties that explicitly reject ethnicity as a basis for political mobilization, for the very simple reason that all parties seek to win elections.

In GE13, however, the basic logic of Malaysian politics is under unprecedented pressure, and not just from the chorus of opposition parties pushing for a post-ethnic politics (which is nothing new). In the upcoming elections, Anwar Ibrahim’s PKR has mounted the most direct challenge to traditional order. PKR is a multiethnic party with a reformist agenda, and like other PR parties, it rejects ethnic particularism. And it is taking the fight to UMNO in bumiputera-majority districts throughout the country.

Sarah Greenberg, a graduating senior in the Government department at Cornell University, and I have produced a series of maps of Malaysian electoral districts that help us to illustrate the spatial variation of the parties contesting in GE13, and the ethnic makeup of each district. Consider first Peninsular Malaysia’s ethnic landscape, focusing on Malays.

tom 1

As is well known, Malays predominate in the north and east of the peninsula, in the so-called Malay belt. Chinese and Indians are found in those districts where Malays are few, in the west and in urban areas near Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and other cities. (Chinese always outnumber Indians in majority non-Malay districts.) We can compare settlement patterns, then, to the parties nominated by each coalition.

tom 2 fix

The urban centers of the Klang Valley and Penang are hard to discern, as their districts are smaller and more numerous. So below we focus in on Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, and Penang.

tom 3In both figures, the map of the BN parties contesting the elections closely follows this pattern of Malay settlement: UMNO (red) in Malay majority districts, with other parties centered in majority non-Malay districts. But the same is not quite true for PR: PAS (green) figures prominently in majority Malay districts, but PKR (blue) candidates appear in these regions as well.

Another way to visualize the PKR’s challenge is to summarize the head-to-head contests between BN and PR candidates.

Parliamentary Matchups, Peninsular Malaysia

Pakatan Rakyat

DAP

PAS

PKR

Total

Barisan

Nasional

GER

8

1

1

10

MCA

25

1

12

38

MIC

1

1

7

9

PPP

1

0

0

1

UMNO

1

61

44

106

Total

36

64

64

164

PKR is facing MCA and MIC in a number of contests, but far more PKR candidates find themselves in head-to-head contests against UMNO. This means that PKR’s strategy for achieving national office rests on its ability to attract Malay votes in Malay districts, even while rejecting UMNO’s ethnic platform and presenting a clear alternative to PAS’s Islamist platform.

Taken together, the nomination data for peninsular Malaysia indicate that PKR is “walking the walk” as a party for all Malaysians. To reiterate, all PR parties have long rejected ethnic politics; the difference is that PKR’s strategy for GE13 puts this to work. And this conclusion is only strengthened by broadening the analysis to encompass East Malaysia.

PKR is facing MCA and MIC in a number of contests, but far more PKR candidates find themselves in head-to-head contests against UMNO. This means that PKR’s strategy for achieving national office rests on its ability to attract Malay votes in Malay districts, even while rejecting UMNO’s ethnic platform and presenting a clear alternative to PAS’s Islamist platform.

Taken together, the nomination data for peninsular Malaysia indicate that PKR is “walking the walk” as a party for all Malaysians. To reiterate, all PR parties have long rejected ethnic politics; the difference is that PKR’s strategy for GE13 puts this to work. And this conclusion is only strengthened by broadening the analysis to encompass East Malaysia.

tom 4PKR’s presence in East Malaysia is striking—and nearly every UMNO candidate in Labuan and Sabah faces a PKR opponent. In contrast to the kaleidoscope of BN parties in East Malaysia, almost all of which (save UMNO) are regionally based, PKR is helping the PR to run a truly national campaign. Even modest PKR gains in East Malaysia might prove decisive in wrestling the Dewan Rakyat away from the BN.

That would be a watershed moment for Malaysia. The BN has ruled since 1971, and UMNO dominance goes back to Malaysia’s independence in 1957. The BN’s main parties represent Malaysia’s three largest ethnic groups on the Malay peninsula because that is how things have always been done. A strong showing for PKR could signify that the alternatives to ethnic politics in Malaysia are real.

That said, even if PKR does enjoy a good showing in GE13, we cannot yet know if this actually means that substantial numbers of Malay voters have chosen PKR. That is because the opposition may emerge victorious by combining PAS wins in majority Malay districts, DAP wins in majority non-Malay districts, and PKR wins in the divided districts (where they could rely on strong showings from non-Malay voters). Indeed, as the following figure shows, even though there are substantial numbers of PKR candidates running in majority Malay districts, most PKR candidates in peninsular Malaysia are still found in those districts that are 40-60% Malay. So while it is true that PKR is taking the battle straight to UMNO in a number of peninsular districts, the bulk of PKR’s electoral effort on the peninsula will remain in divided districts.

tom 5

Taken together, the nomination data illustrate just how thoroughly inescapable the logic of ethnic politics is in contemporary Malaysia. They also show, though, the strong challenge of PKR to the established order. We won’t know until Election Day if that challenge is successful. Even then, it will remain to be seen if a PR victory will mark a transition to a post-ethnic Malaysian politics.

Thomas Pepinsky teaches in the Government Department at Cornell University. You can follow his series of GE13 previews at his blog Indolaysia. He is the author of Economic Crises and the Breakdown of Authoritarian Regimes (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Posted in Asian electionsMalaysia GE 2013