Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

The word “tsunami” became politically controversial in the aftermath of Malaysia’s 13th General Election on May 5, which saw the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) receiving a fresh mandate to lead the country, albeit with reduced votes and fewer parliamentary seats. BN has ruled Malaysia since the 1950s, making it one of the longest-running elected party coalitions in the world.

The word “tsunami” is being used to refer to the wave-like surge in votes coming from the urban areas of Peninsular Malaysia in favor of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition, which almost toppled the BN majority. In fact, PR won 51 percent of the popular votes but due to distortion in the distribution of parliamentary constituencies, it only got 89 seats, to the BN’s 133.

Prime Minister Najib Razak sparked the controversy when he attributed the loss of several BN candidates to last-minute support given by Chinese voters to opposition candidates. He called it the “Chinese tsunami”. Election analysts have debunked this assertion.

While it is true that many Chinese are dismayed by some BN-led government policies, in particular the affirmative programs that gave preferential treatment to Malay citizens, their numbers are actually not significant enough to affect voting results. What really hit Najib’s administration was an urban tsunami, in which a swelling of votes for the opposition came from the nation’s multi-ethnic urban areas.

These votes reflect the declining popularity of Najib’s administration among urban professionals and young voters. Significantly, these voters comprise the demographic in Peninsular Malaysia who are very vocal, both offline and especially online, about public issues like corruption, good governance, human rights, election fraud and media freedom.

Making matters worse, Najib made the “Chinese Tsunami” remark while also calling for national unity and reconciliation. How can he now appear to be sincere? Beyond damaging his own support base, the comment could inflame race-based political sentiments, creating yet more divisions in multiracial Malaysia.

But Najib is plagued by a bigger problem. The opposition has refused to accept the voting results. On May 8, PR organized a protest near Kuala Lumpur that was attended by more than 60,000 people. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim vowed to hold more rallies in other parts of the country to prove that the popular sentiment in Malaysia is that of disgust with the fraud and other voting irregularities allegedly committed by BN and its supporters.

“I want to show Najib this is not a Chinese battle, this is not a Malay battle,” Anwar said before the crowd of 60,000. “We will go to every corner of this country to show we have the support of Malaysians.”

If this were an ordinary election, it would be easy to dismiss PR as an arrogant party refusing to concede defeat. But election watchdogs, scholars, and many in Malaysia share the suspicion that the recent election may have been less than fair and clean. Even the United States government has advised Malaysia to probe the alleged irregularities.

If BN truly intends to remedy the matter, it must immediately undertake electoral reforms. Otherwise, public discontent might unleash a backlash that the BN-led government cannot handle. Last year BN survived the Bersih (Clean) election reform rallies, Malaysia’s answer to the Arab Spring movement. But can it withstand the “Malaysian tsunami”?

Philippine Midterm Polls Give Preview of 2016 Presidential Race

Written for The Diplomat

Filipinos will go back to the polls on May 13, 2013 when the nation will hold its midterm national and local elections. In terms of numbers, there are 52 million voters out of a population of 92 million. They will be voting to fill 18,000 elective positions, including 12 senators, 229 district members of the House of Representatives and 80 provincial governors.

At the national level, the 12 senators who will be elected or re-elected will gain instant electoral advantage if ever they decide to run for president or vice president in the 2016 elections. Bearing in mind that the last three presidents, including the incumbent, were senators first, incumbent senators are aggressively competing for the top ranking in the senate race. In other words, this year’s senatorial election is a preview of the 2016 presidential election. This explains the attempted power grab underway by major parties in Congress, especially in the nation’s local government units.

In addition to serving as a preview of the next presidential race, midterm polls are often used to gauge the public approval rating of the incumbent administration. So far, administration candidates are doing well in surveys, reflecting the continuing popularity of President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III. In fact, the ruling Liberal Party has named its senate slate as “Team PNoy” (President Noynoy) in the hopes of winning votes from the president’s supporters.

The high public trust rating of Aquino is attributed to the reforms he has implemented since assuming the presidency in 2010. Perhaps the absence of a strong opposition bloc has also boosted Aquino’s popularity. Vice President Jejomar Binay, who comes from a different party and acts as the titular leader of the United Opposition (UNO), has chosen to be a quiet collaborator in the Aquino government.

Further, the opposition senate slate is not united by a clear political platform and their proposed policy reforms merely echo the programs offered by the administration. In short, the choice of voters is limited to officially sanctioned administration candidates and other candidates belonging to minority parties who are not necessarily opposed to the programs of the ruling coalition.

The lack of alternative candidates in the elections has frustrated many people and led to the rise of a citizen movement opposed to the dominance of political dynasties in Philippine politics. This year’s election is perhaps the first in Philippine history when politicians are being forced to defend the practice of enlisting members of the same clan to run for various political positions.

In the senate race alone, candidates include the nephew of the president, the daughter of the vice president, the son of the senate president, and the brother of an incumbent senator. Political dynasties are still expected to win big this year but at least there is a nascent political movement that is beginning to challenge the oligarchic control and feudal nature of Philippine politics.

One issue that emerged during the campaign period that deserves to be seriously addressed even after elections is the credibility of the automated election system. For the second time, the Philippines are conducting elections using an automated system, but there are growing concerns about the accuracy and reliability of the voting machines procured by the Commission on Elections. It didn’t help that the agency has refused to allow a third-party source code review of the software that will be used in the counting of election results.

On a positive note, compared to 2010 this year’s elections have featured less political intrigue and, bickering among candidates, and fewer fiery speeches. Be that as it may, next week’s voting results will determine the country’s political landscape in the next few years and will give a glimpse of what to expect in the 2016 presidential race.

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