ESSENTIALLY ANTITHETICAL: Malaysia and Pakistan are poles apart politically, socially and economically. Pakistan’s elections will be held on 11 May 2013. Malaysia, on the other hand, has sworn in Najib Razak for a second term as prime minister after his National Front Coalition, which has governed the Southeast Asian country since independence from Britain in 1957, won 133 of the 222 seats in the Malaysian parliament on Sunday’s general elections. Najib took his oath on Monday before the country’s King Abdel-Halim Muadzam Shah in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.
Economic prosperity has failed to bridge the deep socio-economic, racial and ethnic fissures that divide Malaysian society. Poverty has exacerbated Pakistan’s predicament as a borderline failed state. Both Malaysia and Pakistan are facing momentous changes on the social and political fronts. The Malaysian general election on Sunday was a test of the country’s democratic credentials. Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamed, still a powerful figure in the dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the main party within the ruling Barisan Nasional or National Front Coalition, laid the foundations of Malaysia’s economic miracle. The country’s economic prosperity placated its ethnic minorities, predominantly Chinese who compose a quarter of Malaysia’s 28 million people, and the Indians, roughly 15 per cent of the Malaysian population. There is no prospect, though, of an Arab Spring in either Malaysia or Pakistan, but for radically different reasons.
Serial embarrassments around corruption and nepotism in Malaysia have at worst left a scratch on the booming, resource-rich Southeast Asian nation’s reputational gloss. Pakistan is not as prosperous as Malaysia. However, Pakistan also is mired in corruption.
It is high time Pakistan understood that Asia is an opportunity for its talents, its creativity, its wealth and its jobs. And, that India is the key to the rest of Asia, the gateway to the continent. The two South Asian countries are at loggerheads over a number of critically important issues. They are viciously critical of each others’ foreign and domestic policies and relations between India and Pakistan are strained.
What is at stake is climacteric. It concerns South Asia’s capacity to offer a better future for its people. The latest row between the two South Asian nations revolved around Sarabjit Singh, convicted of spying and over his role in bomb attacks that killed 14 people in Pakistan in 1990 and sentenced to death by Pakistan in 1991. Singh died after being attacked with bricks by inmates in Lahore’s jail. Delhi called the attack “barbaric”. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has demanded that the perpetrators be brought to justice.
Malaysia has no such serious issues with its neighbours in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, the paradoxical result of Sunday’s election is rising frustration in an economy that is outperforming both Asia and the world. Najib’s National Front Coalition which has ruled for 56 years held on to power in elections branded as fraudulent by a bitter and disgruntled opposition. The three-party opposition People’s Alliance took seven seats from the National Front, extending the gains it made in the last election in 2008, when the ruling National Front lost the two-thirds majority that had allowed it to amend the Malaysian constitution. Defeated opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim accused the ruling Barisan Nasional Coalition of widespread fraud before and during the polls.
Najib’s ruling party naturally denied the opposition’s allegations. Some 80 per cent of registered voters cast ballots and Malaysia’s Election Commission decreed that the ruling party had passed the threshold of 112 seats in the 222-seat parliament. The question is whether the ruling Barisan Nasional Coalition will govern the country forever. And, if so is Malaysian democracy credible?
Malaysia’s Election Commission declared that the National Front won enough parliamentary seats to form a government, compared with the opposition’s 74 seats, with another 25 electoral races still to be tallied. The poor showing of the ruling coalition in the 2008 vote hastened the resignation of Abdallah Badawi as prime minister, giving way to Najib. It is highly unlikely that Sunday’s results will spell Najib’s political demise, at least not for the time being.
The Malaysian election was poised on a knife-edge.
Najib, a seasoned politician, considers Mahathir his mentor. He served in a series of governments in the 1980s and 1990s, reaching the post of deputy prime minister and heir apparent to the illustrious Mahathir, venerated in Malaysia and across the developing world. Under the stewardship of Najib, a 59-year-old British-educated aristocrat, Malaysia has embarked on a series of economic and social reforms to improve its competitiveness and boost incomes. Sunday’s electoral result will enable him to press ahead with a series of ambitious spending plans designed to accelerate economic growth and help this resource-rich Southeast Asian nation catch up with some of its wealthier regional heavyweights such as South Korea and Taiwan and neighbours, most notably Singapore.
A perception is spreading that Malaysia’s vaunted political stability and economic prosperity is cheating those at the bottom out of what they were promised. Ironically, those at the bottom are not the ethnic minorities but rather the sons of the soil, the Bumiputera or Bumiputra, the indigenous ethnic Malay whom the National Front purports to champion. Indeed, 16 of Malaysia’s 20 billionaires are ethnic Chinese.
Ibrahim’s opposition alliance campaigned hard on speeding up the pace of socio-economic change, pledging to remove a race-based system of quotas and preferences that has characterised Malaysia for decades. Ibrahim likewise pledged to open up Malaysia’s closely controlled political system.
Malaysia’s Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections observed that voters included people from Indonesia, Myanmar, and other countries — a claim which Najib denied — to boost the ruling coalition’s votes. Najib has vowed to accelerate an ambitious $444 billion plan to upgrade the country’s infrastructure by the end of the decade and enable the country to compete more effectively against its regional rivals instead of jostling for export orders with middle-income countries such as Thailand, Indonesia or Vietnam.
MALAYSIAN MALAISE: The United Malays National Organisation, the main party in the ruling National Front, can no longer take victory for granted, even though it poses as the representative of the indigenous Malay people. The three-party opposition alliance led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim offers an alternative for an increasing number of ethnic Malays as well as the ethnic minorities.
After claiming an improbable early victory, Ibrahim later said that he rejected the result because the country’s Election Commission had failed to investigate evidence of widespread voter fraud. He said that the powers that be had connived to “steal an election”. The New York-based Human Rights Watch warned there had been well-planned attacks against the country’s independent media ahead of the polls.
“It is an election we consider fraudulent and the Electoral Commission has failed,” Ibrahim declared. The world, and most Malaysians, knew that Najib was the favourite to win. Disaffection with the ruling coalition is not sufficient reason to dislodge it from power. Ibrahim was abruptly sacked in 1998 and spent the next six years in prison on charges that he is homosexual, a serious drawback in the conservative, mainly Muslim Malaysian society. Homosexual acts are illegal in Malaysia. He has long denied the allegations of his homosexuality. In 2000 he was then found guilty of sodomy with his wife’s driver and jailed for a further nine years, to be served concurrently with his other sentence. It then appeared that his political career had come to an embarrassing even scandalous end.
However, with his conviction overturned in 2004, he made a political comeback. Ibrahim began laying the groundwork for an opposition challenge on Putrajaya, the country’s administrative capital, with his supporters making unprecedented gains in 2008’s national elections. And, he has been a force to be reckoned with in Malaysian politics ever since. On Sunday, Ibrahim refused to concede defeat, accusing the Malaysian authorities of widespread abuses which he stressed had distorted the result of the election. Ibrahim’s Twitter account claimed his People’s Alliance had won Sunday’s vote, and urged the National Front and Malaysia’s Election Commission not to meddle with the result. Election Commission Deputy Chairman Ahmed Omar said the opposition leader was “bluffing” and “talking nonsense”.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that an increasing number of Malaysia’s middle class have turned to Ibrahim and the opposition, attracted by his pledge to tackle corruption. The ethnic Chinese, too, look to Ibrahim for support to end race-based policies pursued by the ruling coalition that favour the indigenous Bumiputera in business, education and housing. Indeed, ethnic Chinese parties affiliated with the National Front suffered heavy losses in 2008 and were punished by voters again on Sunday. Moreover, Malaysia’s incumbent Prime Minister Najib could now come under pressure from conservatives in his own ruling coalition for not delivering a more powerful majority despite a robust economy and a $2.6 billion deluge of social handouts to poor families. Still, the indigenous Bumiputera, after decades of positive discrimination by the ruling coalition find themselves saddled with social ills and particularly with shoddy degrees — especially as the ruling party designated the Malay language as the medium of higher learning, as opposed to English — that do not deliver them the promised prestigious jobs or social status.
PAKISTAN’S PREDICAMENT: If Malaysia is a mainly Muslim nation, Pakistan’s very raison d’être is Islam. It was founded in 1947 as a sanctuary and the political entity of South Asia’s Muslims. Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, is a catalyst for change. Militant Islamists have long threatened the democratic process in Pakistan. And, it is a matter for the Pakistani people and their institutions to determine whether the militant Islamists have overstepped the line in recent years. On the face of it, the Pakistani constitution does not tell against them.
And, some of the issues the militant Islamists address are precisely those Pakistani voters want elected politicians to grapple with publicly. In 2002, 51 per cent of Islamabad’s voters cast their ballots and in 2008, the capital had the highest voter turnout percentage in Pakistan. A little over half of the city’s 482,801 registered voters — 50.01 per cent to be exact — cast their ballots in the previous election. And, the majority of voters in Islamabad voted against the militant Islamists. Indeed, contrary to international misconceptions about Pakistan, the upper echelons of Pakistani society and most of its middle classes absolutely abhor the militant Islamists.
The worry should not be that Pakistan falls into the hands of militant Islamists and their heinous or rather wayward populist ways, but that the very stability of Pakistan’s political economy makes it too rigid to respond to the needs and aspirations of contemporary Pakistanis.
Education is key. A poor educational system is still based in huge swathes of the country in the outmoded madrassa system of religious learning. Tellingly, Pakistan’s Centre for Civic Education Executive Director Zafarullah Khan pointed out recently that Islamabad had relatively high voter turnout figures because the city’s electorate is comparatively well-educated and has access to adequate means of transport.
Democracy in Pakistan or the lack of it, therefore, is inextricably intertwined with, or at least closely related to the levels of education. According to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the number of registered voters in Islamabad has increased by 30 per cent to 629,233 for this year’s election. The new voters include at least 117,892 youth between the ages of 18 to 25. The ECP announced that there will be 550 polling stations across Islamabad’s two constituencies in the upcoming polls.
The party that will control Islamabad will not necessarily govern Pakistan. It is the party that will garner more votes in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, and the country’s largest city Karachi in the southern Sindh province that will determine who rules this riotous country.
“The law and order situation will be a major deterrent for citizens, who may avoid voting in some areas of Pakistan,” Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency Executive Director Ahmed Bilal Mahbub ominously warned this week. “If there is no untoward incident in Islamabad, I expect voter turnout to be the same or higher than 2008,” he concluded.
The port city of Karachi in which the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) has the most support is Pakistan’s most cosmopolitan metropolis. This has been reflected in election results in the post-1985 period when martial law and the ban on political parties were lifted. The MQM has been a part of countless governments at the federal level, yet the manifold problems Pakistan’s most populous metropolis remain unresolved.
Pakistani politicians, again contrary to mistaken global perceptions, take democracy very seriously. The number of candidates in the Pakistani capital will also play a part in voter turnout for next week’s polls. A whopping 77 candidates are contesting for two National Assembly seats, with 51 vying for one constituency alone.
Pakistan’s elite still treat militant Islamism as taboo. In next week’s Pakistani general election, voting will take place in all parliamentary constituencies in Pakistan to elect MPs to seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament and to the four Provincial Assemblies — Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The socialist-oriented, and Sindh-based Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by Bilwal Bhutto-Zardari son of the late Pakistani charismatic politician Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari, the 11th president of Pakistan, is expected to do well. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif proposes the modernisation of federal and provincial hospitals and general health care.
Yet, it is personalities and not social issues that often pre-occupy the collective political psyche of Pakistan. Bhutto-Zardari announced last year that Pakistan asked Interpol to issue a “red warrant” against former Pakistani military ruler Pervez Musharraf for his alleged involvement in the assassination of his mother on 27 December 2007. Bhutto’s assassination in Islamabad’s twin city of Rawalpindi appeared to disrupt the democratic process in Pakistan.
In retrospect, however, it did not. The problem with Pakistan is that most of its politicians are disreputable — including the late Bhutto herself. In April 1999, Bhutto and Zardari were convicted for receiving indemnities from a Swiss goods inspection company that was hired to end corruption in the collection of customs duties. The couple received a fine of $8.6 million. The Swiss and Pakistani governments subsequently indicted Zardari for money laundering. In August 2003, a Swiss judge convicted Bhutto and Zardari of money laundering and sentenced them to six months imprisonment and a fine of $50,000. After his second release in late 2004, he left for exile in Dubai. More recently Zardari left Pakistan for Dubai to undergo medical tests and treatment, reportedly for a “small stroke”.
Another serious problem with Pakistan is the leading politicians’ attempt to interfere with the presumably independent judiciary. For instance, Zardari and Sharif met in Lahore in June 2008 to discuss Musharraf’s removal and the constitutional amendments. Pakistan has never been the same since.
In February 2009, Zardari and the Musharraf-appointed Supreme Court attempted to disqualify Nawaz Sharif from running in any elections. And, again in February 2010, Zardari sparked a standoff by attempting to appoint a Supreme Court candidate without the court’s approval. The son of a large Sindhi landowning family originally from tribal Baluchistan, Zardari has come under scrutiny for his arm-twisting tactics in politics.
Internationally acclaimed cricketer turned politician Imran Khan too has made his mark on Pakistani politics. Indeed, he is the dark horse of Pakistani politics. Khan was voted as Asia’s Person of the Year 2012 scoring more than 88 per cent of the total votes cast. Born in the Punjabi city of Lahore to a family of Pashtun origin, Khan is the chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI).
Ironically, in 1999, when Nawaz Sharif’s government was removed in a military coup and General Pervez Musharraf took over as chief executive, Imran Khan declared that the “man in khaki”, Musharraf, was the answer to Pakistan’s predicament. Disillusionment set in however, and the PTI decided to withdraw its support shortly before the 2002 elections. While the party’s message of justice and accountability appealed to people weary of confrontational and self-serving politics by the mainstream parties, the PTI’s lack of grass-roots organisation weakens it. Next, the PTI marketed itself as a vociferous opponent of Musharraf’s military rule, even after the latter had assumed the fig leaf of democracy. Imran Khan subsequently became one of the most vocal proponents of the lawyers’ movement which sought to reverse Musharraf’s suspension of Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Chaudhry.
Indeed, the theme of the struggle between politicians and the judiciary in Pakistan is often analogous with issues of law and order, on the one hand, and democracy on the other. These issues also correlate with women’s rights. Both the PTI and Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) have, during their campaigns, overlooked the question of championing women’s rights in Pakistan. The PPP takes the issue more seriously. And while the Awami National Party (ANP) talks about crimes against women, Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid’s (PML-Q) manifesto treats women’s rights with a similar disinterest to the other major Pakistani parties.
The MQM does tackle women’s rights from a social perspective from its stronghold of Karachi, a city that has one of the highest standards of education in the country. The MQM manifesto focuses on an increase in staff and equipment at primary and secondary health centres, training of providers at all levels, basic health units, rural health centres and mother and child care centres, and gives a separate section to Family Welfare that talks of bringing down the population growth rate. These are issues that unfortunately do not win votes in much of Pakistan.
Pakistan’s Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), however, is a bastion of the militant Islamists. It is the least developed of Pakistan’s provinces. The Jamaat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) are two critically important parties in FATA. The total number of registered voters in FATA is 1,738,313, including 596,079 women. Yet in a few constituencies such as North Waziristan and South Waziristan, candidates of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Quami Movement have been marginalised and even physically threatened. The militant Islamists lobbed a hand grenade in the office of PML-N leader General Abdel-Kader Baloch in Kharan town of Balochistan, one of Pakistan’s poorest and least developed provinces.
Such incidents of violence have increased in the past decade, ironically a period that witnessed the advancement of Pakistani democracy. Baloch said five PML-N workers were injured in the attack. The blast also damaged the electoral office of PML-N. Militant Islamists also targeted the electoral office of National Party (NP) Mach town of Balochistan. Police said militants hurled a hand grenade at the NP office.
There is no guarantee that the forthcoming elections in Pakistan will be free and fair. Indeed, already there are signs of widespread attempts at rigging. For instance, a police team recovered and confiscated the National Assembly ballot papers during the search of a vehicle and that the papers were not carrying the seal of the Election Commission of Pakistan and appeared to be fake.
Predominantly Sunni Muslim Pakistan has witnessed a spiralling wave of violence against the Shia Muslim minority and other religious minorities such as the Christians. It is not clear how confessional conflicts will impact the vote. What is crystal clear, however, is that most of Pakistan’s political parties are highlighting the country’s socio-economic shortcomings, and coming up with measures to combat poverty and underdevelopment. “The convergence of all the manifestos on attaching priorities to the critical areas shows that the political parties are aware of the gravity of the situation,” suggested a study by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE). Political parties, accordingly, have paid heed to policy advice coming from the Planning Commission, observes the study entitled “A socio-economic assessment of manifestos: election 2013”. Still, the child and infant mortality rate in Pakistan is exceptionally high, and maternal mortality rate is even higher, and because the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for maternal health are unlikely to be met in the near future, quality health, education, living, social security and justice remain a challenge for most Pakistanis. The PIDE study curiously noted that tackling the country’s energy crisis topped the agendas of almost all the Pakistani political parties’ manifestos — a preposterous bet on a perennial Pakistani problem.
BANGLADESHI BEDLAM: Politically speaking, Pakistan and Bangladesh are on the same wavelength. Like Pakistan, overwhelmingly Muslim Bangladesh does face serious tensions between the mainstream political parties — the ruling Awami League and the rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — and the militant Islamists. Other major political parties include the moderate Islamist Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (BJI).
Traditionally, the Awami League has aligned itself politically with smaller secularist and leftist parties while the BNP collaborates more closely with Islamist groups. Bangladesh, was however, founded as a secular and multi-party parliamentary democracy in 1971 when it broke away from Pakistan after the bitter Bangladesh Liberation War. Like Pakistan, Bangladesh soon after independence descended into political turmoil, and successive military takeovers shook the foundations of the nascent democracy.
Scores of people were killed in maniacal clashes between police and militant Islamist protesters in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, on Sunday and Monday, compounding the trauma in the country that is struggling to come to terms with the collapse of a textile factory that killed more 650 people, mostly women workers, late last month. This week, a leviathan demonstration, spearheaded by the Hefazat-e-Islam, a movement of teachers and students of religious schools, descended into chaotic scenes of pandemonium on Sunday evening when the militant Islamists and police and ruling Awami League activists fought feverishly over the insistence of the Islamists to implement an anti-blasphemy law and their demands for the severe punishment of alleged “atheist” bloggers who they claim have insulted Islam and the Prophet Mohamed. Several hundred shops were torched and vehicles were burnt during pitched battles that raged into the night.
More assertive militant Islamists and myriad social ills are a most dangerous powder keg. Islam and politics have become badly entangled in two of the most populous Muslim nations — Pakistan and Bangladesh. Malaysia is not immune to militant Islamism in its own backyard, but because it is considerably more prosperous economically than either Pakistan or Bangladesh, the urgency of the struggle between secularism and militant Islam is less apparent. Malaysia, though, is not entirely immune to the menace.
It should be said, however, that all three Asian predominantly Muslim nations are not behaving as if they are under imminent attack from the militant Islamists or living in the shadow of the destruction of democracy. Regardless of the rhetorical fusillades of local politicians and an over-excited international media, all three are trying to cope, with varying degrees of success, with the dynamics of, and collision between secularism and political Islam, between moderate and militant Islam.