By LIZ GOOCH
New York Times
December 3, 2012
KUALA LUMPUR — Bathed in a sea of the party’s signature red, the headquarters of the United Malays National Organization swarmed with thousands of party faithful last week, eager to hear from their leader as the clock ticked toward Malaysia’s next election.
UMNO, the largest party in the National Front coalition, which has governed Malaysia for more than half a century, is preparing to contest what many analysts predict is likely to be its toughest election yet.
Vowing that the government would fight for every vote, Najib Razak, the prime minister of Malaysia and president of the party, said Thursday that it would be “no ordinary election.”
“It will be the defining point for the destiny of the people and country,” he said during a spirited speech to flag-waving party members at the UMNO General Assembly in Kuala Lumpur.
With the wounds inflicted by the opposition during the last elections still fresh in the minds of party members, the next election, which must be held by June, will mark the first time Mr. Najib will seek a mandate from voters.
Observers say he will confront an influx of unpredictable young voters and a stronger opposition, setting the stage for a tight race.
Mr. Najib, the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, was installed as party leader in 2009, replacing Abdullah Ahmad Badawi after the National Front lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament in 2008 for the first time since independence in 1957.
Mr. Najib, 59, has sought to present himself as a reformist, abolishing a number of restrictive laws and implementing a comprehensive program known as 1Malaysia to bolster national unity among the country’s ethnic groups.
But analysts and critics say that many of the reforms have not gone far enough to improve civil rights and that UMNO has failed to embrace genuine change and become a truly inclusive party that addresses the concerns of all Malaysians, regardless of ethnicity.
Formed in 1946 in what was then a British colony, UMNO became known as the organization that helped achieve independence and represented ethnic Malays, the country’s dominant ethnic group.
In its early political incarnation, it formed an alliance with the parties that became the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress, drawing in the two largest ethnic minorities in the country, with other small parties joining in later years.
“When they put together the National Front coalition it was just about impossible to beat them because every major party except the D.A.P. went into the coalition,” said Barry Wain, a writer in residence at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and former journalist, referring to the opposition Democratic Action Party.
“There wasn’t any real, strong opposition for a long time.”
The National Front has presided over impressive economic development, transforming what was a largely rural agricultural society marked by high levels of poverty in the 1970s into one of Southeast Asia’s success stories, with extreme poverty now rare among the country’s population of 29 million.
But the political landscape has changed markedly.
UMNO remains Malaysia’s largest political party, with more than three million members, but the opposition has gained strength in recent years, led by Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister under Mahathir Mohamad.
Mr. Wain, the author of the book “Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times,” believes the party has been in “long-term decline” since the late 1990s.
He said that Mr. Mahathir, the former prime minister who led UMNO for 22 years, had a “profound impact” on it because of the length of time he held office and his authoritarian rule.
In the party’s early days, Mr. Wain said, people joined because they wanted to improve the country. Now it has become a “patronage machine” that dishes out contracts to its followers and lacks long-term ideas about how to improve the country, he said.
Wan Saiful Wan Jan, the chief executive of the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs in Kuala Lumpur, said that the opposition, which won five states in the 2008 election — with one state since returning to the National Front — had shown the public that it can govern.
Another challenge for the government is likely to be the large number of first-time voters, he added.
“They grew up in an environment where UMNO has been increasingly accused of being corrupt, and at the same time the economic situation of the country makes it not that easy for them to get a job anymore,” Mr. Wan Saiful said.
“They grew up in a different environment from the older generation. They don’t feel indebted to UMNO, and being young, they’re not afraid to experiment.”
While the Malaysian economy grew 5.2 percent in the third quarter, Mr. Wan Saiful said that wages were not keeping pace with the rising cost of living. He said young workers were particularly affected, which could lead to dissatisfaction with the government.
Clive Kessler, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia and a longtime observer of Malaysian politics, said the last election, in 2008, showed it was clear that “the old regime framework,” which promoted Malay supremacy through a range of affirmative action measures favoring ethnic Malays known as the New Economic Policy, could no longer work.
Mr. Kessler said that after the 2008 election, when the government lost the support of many non-Malays and urban voters, the party needed to become a “genuinely centrist, progressive party” but instead, “it capitulated to the hardline Malay right.”
But leaders of the party insist that it has done much to address voters’ concerns.
During his speech Thursday, in which he warned that the country’s economy would be destroyed if the opposition were to win, Mr. Najib outlined how the government has undertaken political and economic transformation.
Among other changes, he said the government had abolished the Internal Security Act, which allowed for indefinite detention without trial, amended a law to allow university students to join political parties and removed the need for newspapers to obtain printing licenses annually — changes that critics argue fail to go far enough to protect civil liberties.
Mr. Najib appeared to take stock of the “bitter experience” of the election in 2008, adding later in his speech that “we put our palms together in apology for any oversight.”
While he said that the government had never been complacent in defending the rights of all races, Mr. Najib also vowed “to give priority to the well-being of the people, uphold the Malay race, fortify faith and safeguard Islam.”
Analysts also noted that some party delegates continued to call for action against those who engage in homosexuality, pluralism and liberalism.
Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor, the party’s secretary general, said that the government had made a number of changes to help non-Malays, like making more government university scholarships available, and that the National Front had performed well in by-elections since 2008.
“This is a trend to show us what we are doing since the 2008 election, we are moving on the right track,” he said in an interview. “I think the citizens of Malaysia realize we are a party that they can trust.”
Mr. Tengku Adnan acknowledged that UMNO was not a “perfect party,” but strongly denied allegations of patronage.
“It’s not fair to say we are a party of patronage,” he said. “We are open for anyone. If you feel that the party is wrong, you come in and correct the party because we are a democratic system.”
While most analysts are expecting tight elections, some said the opposition may have a chance of victory for the first time.
Bridget Welsh, an associate professor at Singapore Management University who specializes in Malaysian politics, believes the government may have a slight advantage over the opposition, but said that the situation was fluid and that there was no guarantee that the UMNO-dominated National Front would retain power.
James Chin, director of the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Monash University Malaysia, said that while there had been an increase in support for the government among Malays in rural areas because of a number of government cash handouts, winning over urban voters would remain problematic for the governing coalition.
Despite the government’s assurances that it had taken steps to improve the electoral system after three large street protests calling for free and fair elections, some analysts remain highly skeptical.
But Mr. Tengku Adnan insisted that the opposition could not have won five states in 2008 if elections had not been conducted fairly.
“It’s been a fair election from the first election through until today,” he said.