Malaysia: Electoral break-through to test socialists

On March 18, Peter Boyle, the national secretary of the Democratic Socialist Perspective — a Marxist tendency in the Socialist Alliance — interviewed S. Arutchelvan, the secretary general of the Malaysian Socialist Party (PSM), about the PSM's electoral successes in the March 12 general elections. This interview was originally published by socialist e-journal Links at .

The PSM has received growing media attention since it won its first federal and state parliamentary seats in the March 8 general elections, under the banner of the Justice Party (PKR). Due to legal restrictions, the PSM was barred from contesting the elections under its own logo.

The elections registered a strong swing against the right-wing neoliberal National Front (BN) coalition government, with a number of high-profile BN candidates experiencing shock losses. In a March 18 article posted at Links, entitled "The protest vote: Permanent or temporary?", Arutchelvan wrote that the election results sent "shock waves" throughout the nation.

"As the results were coming out, one after another giant just slumbered to the ground ... Who could have imagined."

Arutchelvan wrote: "The poll saw the ruling [BN] coalition, lose its dominant grip on power after 40 years. Opposition parties won 82 out of the 222 seats in the parliament, a dramatic increase from the 19 seats they had held. The opposition also gained control of five of Malaysia's 13 states ... The swing was nationwide ... an unprecedented result."

"The voters just got fed up with {BN], its leaders, its promises and its lies", Arutchelvan explained. "The people went on to punish the Government of the day, sending them packing ..."

He wrote that voting along ethnic lines, a long-term feature of Malaysian politics, was less of a factor in the result. "The people were not bothered which symbol they voted for as long as it was opposition."

The vote was "more a protest vote [against] the ruling party rather than an endorsement for the opposition". He explained that the election "also saw a lot of inexperienced, first timers winning the election because of the swing, sending a clear message that the candidates were not important but rather which side the candidates belong".

Arutchelvan has also been surprised by positive media coverage the PSM has received, including in the Star, Malaysia's leading English-language newspaper — owned by a component party of the governing BN coalition.

Another pleasant surprise for the PSM came when it held a post-election meeting in its office in Semenyih, Selangor — in the seat that Arutchelvan contested but lost by just 1000 out of 21,000 votes.

"We had a gathering at our service centre in Semenyih", he said. "We expected 300 to attend. To be safe, we ordered food for 500 but 1000 came! Fifty people became members."

On the other hand, the governing BN has begun to organise street protests ostensibly in defence of "Malay rights" — a menacing echo of events in May 1969 when opposition electoral wins were met with bloody race riots organised by government politicians. This then became the excuse for a period of martial law (until 1971) and the entrenchment of discriminatory laws against half the population of Malaysia.

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How has the BN government reacted to the considerable losses in the recent general election? Was the recent "Malay rights" demonstration outside the Komtar building in Penang a warning that the ruling party may be contemplating a 1969-style backlash against opposition electoral victories?

They seem to be trying. But their demonstrations are not bringing in the crowds. Their divide-and-rule tactics among Chinese and Malay are not working as the Islamic Party (PAS) as well as PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim and other Malay leaders have come strongly to defend why they want the NEP [New Economic Policy, the name for the discriminatory policies against non-Malay citizens introduced in the 1970s by the BN government] to go.

Unlike previously, when the Malays were forced to support the NEP, this is not happening this time.

PSM candidate Nasir Hashim's election under the PKR logo to a seat in the Selangor state legislative assembly places him nominally as part of a state government. What challenges does this pose?

First there is a strong lobby among civil society movements that Nasir has to be given an exco [executive committee — state cabinet] position, which will make him directly part of the state government, but there seems to be some hesitancy among the opposition, including PKR, because he is PSM. He will have to wait and see.

Based on his track record, Nasir deserves an exco position, but the PSM will also wait and see. If he becomes an exco, then we will have more resources and this will help the party, but on the other hand we have to be careful as not all in the new Selangor government share the same aspiration or ideology with us.

Nasir will have to choose when he agrees and when he doesn't. That is going to be difficult. However, based on the manifesto of the PKR, we are fine with this position.

Jeyakumar Devaraj, who won your first federal parliamentary seat, is now widely known and applauded as the nemesis of the notorious former minister of works Samy Vellu. Are there plans to capitalise on this extraordinary projection?

Kumar has an easier job as he is in opposition in the federal parliament. But Kumar's role in opposing the Free Trade Agreeement with the US, neoliberal policies, etc would make this interesting because not all the federal opposition would share his political sentiments on these issues. We expect Kumar to make headway in parliament and show some differences.

What were the underlying reasons for the electoral swing against the BN? Was a rebellion against corruption a key issue and if so is it likely that the opposition-run state governments might make serious inroads to the ingrained culture of corruption in government?

It was a protest vote against Prime Minister Abdulla Ahmad Badawi, where people don't have confidence in him. Other issues were rising inflation, corruption and the high crime rate. Anwar also did play a role.

My biggest worry is the culture of corruption and the fear that the opposition can get sucked into it. It will be the biggest challenge.

Are there any prospects for political transformations in a left-wing direction in the PKR and other opposition parties?

Very unlikely. The left within the PKR is very weak, but these are the people we have to work with. There is also a left component within the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP).

It is also a testing time for the PSM to service our base areas in Sungai Siput, Jelapang, Semenyih and Kota Damansara and see how we can build our local power base with the people and see if it can be a model for PSM to play a bigger role nationally, in the future.