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Monday, 29 November, 1999, 13:49 GMT
Malaysia's poll: Free and fair?
The opposition accuses the government of dirty tactics

By Asia analyst Kieran Cooke

Barring an upset of seismic political proportions, Malaysia's National Front coalition led by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad is sure to secure another victory in the country's general election.

Malaysia's Snap Election
But how free and fair has the contest been?

According to the opposition, these elections are the dirtiest ever. Dr Mahathir, they say, is intent on securing total political dominance and has used every dirty trick available to achieve his aim.

On the surface at least, there seem to have been few election irregularities. There have been no reports of intimidation at polling stations and just a few complaints have been made about fake identification cards and some bogus names appearing on election lists.

One of the main complaints of the opposition is the shortness of the election campaign. In deciding on a snap election, Dr Mahathir limited campaigning to just nine days. The opposition says this has given it very little time to organise.

Well-oiled machine

Government advert Government adverts have been part of a stinging campaign against the opposition
Meanwhile the National Front's well-oiled and financed political machine has sprung into action, totally dominating election coverage through the government's overwhelming control of the media.

The opposition also says that Dr Mahathir's election tactics have disenfranchised 700,000 young first time voters, although government officials say the timing of the poll means they have not had time to process the voting papers.

Many of Malaysia's youth are deeply disillusioned with what they see as the corruption and nepotism of Dr Mahathir's 18-year-long administration and have been at the forefront of calls for reform and change.

Then there have been the often crude attempts by the National Front to frighten voters into turning their backs on the opposition. Their message has been a simple one - vote for us or suffer chaos.

Smear tactics

Opposition parties face an uphill challenge against National Front dominance
The Front has placed full-page ads in newspapers, many using crudely reworked or faked photos, aimed at showing the opposition in a bad light.

Stories alleging corruption and sexual impropriety have been widely circulated in the government-controlled press.

Members of Pas, the opposition Islamic party, say the Front has gone as far as to circulate fake copies of a Pas newspaper, full of reports of how their leaders are secretly in favour of Dr Mahathir.

Whether or not voters will be swayed by such tactics is not clear: the Malaysian electorate is more educated and sophisticated than it once was.

But there are broader issues of concern.

The opposition points to the fact that one of its principal figureheads, the former Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, is in jail on what it says are trumped-up charges.

Tight grip

They say his absence on the hustings is a considerable handicap - although others say a jailed Mr Anwar could generate a sizeable sympathy vote. Above all, the opposition says this election cannot possibly be fair when Dr Mahathir has control of virtually every aspect of life in Malaysia - and cynically uses that control to retain his grip on power.

Wan Azizah on campaign trail Denied media access the opposition has had to campaign through other means
They say he is able to use his direct control of the country's security services to jail his critics without trial using the country's tough internal security laws while at the same time taking steps that severely compromise the independence of the judiciary.

Then there is Dr Mahathir's control of the economic levers of power.

Politics and business are intertwined in Malaysia. Dr Mahathir's own United Malays National Organisation, the National Front's biggest party, directly controls some of Malaysia's largest conglomerates.

Multi-million dollar public contracts are handed to Umno cronies and supporters of Dr Mahathir. Any businessman who might hint at dissatisfaction with government policy or Dr Mahathir's rule soon feels the chill of financial isolation.

Those who dare to step out and oppose Dr Mahathir and the National Front have a great deal to lose. The prime minister ensures that those who oppose him pay a heavy price.

It is this, rather than tales of vote buying and intimidation at the polling booths, which, the opposition says, makes any election in Malaysia unfair.
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See also:
29 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Eyewitness: Malaysia's day of decision
12 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Malaysia's electoral showdown
15 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Analysis: The challenge for Malaysia's reformers
22 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Wan Azizah: Malaysia's opposition torch-bearer
11 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Party guide: Malaysia's opposition alliance

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