KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – It was hardly the look of the victorious. Wearing a bright blue shirt and a grim expression, Prime Minister Najib Razak appeared before the media on Monday to somberly acknowledge that his coalition had won general elections for the 13th time in a row.
He had reason to be cheerless. The National Front coalition’s victory in Sunday’s parliamentary elections despite losing the popular vote has not only exposed the entrenched racial divide in the country but also a new schism — between the rural poor who preferred the status quo and the urban middle-class who wanted change.
Healing the divisions will be a big challenge for Najib, who took the oath of office Monday to begin his second five-year term after surviving the fiercest challenge to the National Front’s 56-year rule. If left untended, the racial and social divisions could undermine the stability of Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy.
On the face of it, the National Front appears to have done well. It won 133 seats in the 222-member Parliament — down a fraction from the 135 it held before the elections. The opposition People’s Alliance coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim won 89 seats. But look deeper and the numbers carry a grim story for Najib:
— The National Front polled 5.24 million votes to the opposition’s 5.62 million votes, according to the Election Commission.
— The National Front banked heavily on three states with large rural populations — Sarawak, Sabah and Johor — where many people from indigenous groups and the ethnic Malay majority are beholden to the government for handouts traditionally given to them. The three states alone, out of Malaysia’s 13, accounted for more than half of the 133 seats won.
— People in many urban areas — especially Chinese who are Malaysia’s second largest ethnic group — voted overwhelmingly for the opposition, reflecting the huge disenchantment with the government’s affirmative action policies that favour Malays.
Speaking at the news conference, Najib blamed a “Chinese tsunami” for the coalition’s performance.
“On the whole, the people’s decision this time shows a trend of voting polarization,” Najib said. “This worries the government, because if it’s not handled well, it could spark tension.”
Many opposition supporters also believe the coalition resorted to fraud to win, including using migrants from Bangladesh as illegal voters. The government and electoral authorities deny it.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department recognized the election result, calling it the “most competitive” in the Southeast Asian nation’s history, although it did acknowledge the allegations of irregularities.
“We are aware of concerns about voting irregularities and note the opposition parties faced significant restrictions on access to the media. Addressing these issues is important for strengthening confidence in the electoral process. So we call on all parties to peacefully respect the will of the voters,” department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters on Monday.
Despite losing the popular vote, the National Front benefited from gerrymandering of constituencies.
In Sarawak, on Borneo island, nearly all of the six constituencies won by the opposition had between 26,000 and 40,000 voters each. In contrast, only two of the National Front’s 25 parliamentary seats in Sarawak had that many people vote Sunday.
“What we are seeing here is a regime that has used the trappings of power to stay in power,” said Bridget Welsh, a political science professor at the Singapore Management University. “The reality is that many people will see this election as an election bought and stolen. There will be a huge trust deficit for the National Front.”
The results also reflect the complexities of modern-day Malaysia, which evolved from a 1950s backwater of rice paddies and tin mines into a country where cities like Kuala Lumpur and its famous Petronas Twin Towers are only an hour’s drive from rural rubber and palm oil plantations.
In recent years, the rural-urban divide has created groups whose political perspectives lie far apart. Traditional National Front loyalists comprise villagers who receive valuable cash handouts from the government ahead of elections and rely on government-linked TV stations and newspapers for information. Many among the rural Malays also fear the opposition will scrap affirmative action programs that provide scholarships, loans and other benefits for Malays.
In the cities, the opposition has made gains among middle-class voters who read and spread news about the government’s failings including corruption scandals on independent news websites and blogs.
During campaign rallies this past month, the ruling coalition handed out sacks of rice to crowds who came to listen to speeches. Opposition candidates passed around empty bags seeking donations.
The National Front has held power for 56 years through a unique system of race-based politics. The coalition is dominated by Najib’s United Malays National Organization, a Malay Muslim party, and supported by smaller parties representing the other ethnic groups. Traditionally, the Malays, Chinese and Indians voted for these parties, ensuring the National Front won every election since independence from Britain in 1957, usually with a two-thirds majority.
But in the 2008 elections, Anwar’s opposition alliance changed the face of Malaysian politics to bring it in line with democracies elsewhere. It created a non-racial opposition that capitalized on anger against corruption and the abuse of affirmative action policies. That struck a chord not only with the Chinese and Indians but also with a large section of urban Malays who feel the affirmative action often benefits a group of the rich and well-connected elite.
Anwar also played on the anger against the government for two sodomy trials he has had to face. His supporters are convinced they were government plots to destroy him politically.
Following the election result, Anwar sent out a two-word message to his Twitter followers: “Wear black.”
“It is a sad day for Malaysia,” said Renee Choong, a public relations consultant. “Corruption will continue. The Chinese will be even more sidelined from now on. I fear there will be no place in the country for ethnic minorities.”
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s biggest city, Anwar’s alliance won nine of 11 parliamentary seats, losing the other two by slim margins. Farther north, in the ethnic Chinese-majority state of Penang, known for its electronics factories and beach resorts, the National Front was trounced so badly that its state chief immediately resigned.
“The National Front is even more reliant on Malay votes now. It is more UMNO now than ever before,” said Ibrahim Suffian, head of the Merdeka Center opinion research firm.
Najib pledged to soon reveal a “national reconciliation” plan to heal racial rifts. Khairy Jamaluddin, a ruling coalition youth chief, tweeted that the victory was merely a “reprieve” and warned the National Front would lose the next elections if it fails to deliver positive changes.
It must be clear to Najib that to woo the Chinese he would have to take more serious steps than participate in the kind of events the National Front’s corporate allies held for two Chinese constituencies before the elections — a performance by South Korean rapper PSY and a dinner with Bond actress Michelle Yeoh.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.