Making sense of the 2008 general election results

[Updated at 12.15pm, March 9, 2008]

AFTER 13 days of heated campaigning, ceramahs running late into the night and plenty of promises from the candidates, Malaysians cast their ballots on March 8. The results that have come in indicate a milestone in the history of Malaysian elections. talks to several political observers to try to make sense of the 2008 general election results.

The Barisan Nasional (BN) returned to power with a simple majority of the parliamentary seats to form the federal government, but has lost its two-thirds majority for the first time in history since 1969, a Bernama report said. At 5am on March 9 and with only three of the 222 seats in Parliament yet to be declared, the Election Commission announced that the BN has won 137 seats, including eight won unopposed on nomination day on Feb 24, while the opposition has won an unprecedented 82 seats.

PAS has retained Kelantan. The opposition, comprising PAS, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and the DAP, has won Penang, Kedah, Perak and Selangor. The BN retained Terengganu, Perlis and Malacca with a simple majority. For the updated results, go to

BN chairman and caretaker prime minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, in a 2.20am press conference at the BN operations room in Kuala Lumpur, accepted the results and said it was proof of democracy in the country. He was asked if the election results showed that the people had lost confidence in his leadership. “No… this is the people’s stand, to show their stand not to give us a two-thirds majority,” he was quoted as saying by Bernama.

What’s the most significant thing about the results?

Toh Kim Woon: The most significant thing about the results is that, it’s not just a shift in sentiment among the non-Malays towards the opposition but also a shift in sentiment among the Malays. In some of the mixed seats which were considered BN strongholds, the votes from the Malay-majority streams were against the BN candidate.

I actually got wind of a very strong anti-BN sentiment from the ground earlier but the worst case scenario we thought of was that the BN’s two-thirds majority would be reduced in the Penang state assembly. We didn’t expect it to swing in such a major way that the opposition would form the next state government. I’m only hoping that both PAS and PKR will win more Malay majority seats so that the next state government can be a more multi-racial one.

Dr Farish Noor: The most significant thing about the results is that they were what everyone expected but was denied right up to the last day by the government press. This demonstrates the extent of disconnect and misreading of the ground on the government’s part that has never been reached in Malaysian history.

It is clear that after winning the huge mandate of 2004, the Abdullah (Ahmad) Badawi establishment totally isolated and alienated itself from the voice of the Malaysian public. Despite the instances of public protests for free and fair elections, police reform, anti-corruption, etc, the establishment insulated itself by surrounding itself with its own propaganda and misinformation.

But the Malaysian people have finally matured and now realise that change can only happen with political activism. This has been the peoples’ election, and the Malaysian public has won.

I am writing this at the headquarters of PAS in Kota Bharu, and election results are being shown on TV. The PAS supporters, who are Malays, are cheering for (opposition leader) Lim Kit Siang and the other leaders of the DAP and PKR as well. They have crossed the racial divide. Malaysia is now a truly multiracial country. Our nation is finally born.

The results will test the mettle of both the opposition and government. Umno and the BN will have to accept defeat and to take it maturely and sensibly. The opposition will now have to live up to their promises and they will have to cobble together a working coalition that lasts.

It will be a challenge for the DAP and PKR to work with PAS, and my sincere wish is that the progressive agents and actors in PAS will bring their party in line with the aspirations of the Barisan Rakyat.

Tricia Yeoh: The people have spoken.

Wong Chin Huat: [As at 10pm, March 8] The unseating of the Penang state government and the possibility of denying the BN a two-thirds majority; it comes close to the 1990 election when the opposition won 29% of the parliamentary seats.

Ibrahim Suffian: The three major communities moved in the same direction against the BN, not necessarily in the same degree. It calls to question the grand compromise that it is used to be known for, it opens up a new kind of compromise amongst the ethnic groups that can cater to the middle ground of the major ethnic groups.

Dr Francis Loh: Well, very clearly, there’s a revolt (against the BN). The significant thing is that it’s happening in the northern part of the country (Penang, Kelantan, Kedah), which demonstrates that people in the north are a bit cheesed off.

It’s also significant because the revolt is very multi-racial, and it’s taking place in urban areas throughout. But in the remaining states, some of the old patterns (of voting) remain, which means that the ‘tsunami’ (of change) has not reached the entire country. Sabah and Sarawak, meanwhile, seem to be on a trip of their own and are rather unpredictable.

The other significant thing is that (Datuk Seri) Anwar Ibrahim had his ear to the ground better than any other political analyst. He was the only one who thought that something like this could happen. He was most astute in reading and understanding the Malay mind. He read it correctly.

It’s very important to also note that in this election, it’s not just PAS winning in the Malay seats and the DAP in the Chinese seats, but PKR breaking new ground with candidates like Nurul Izzah Anwar (in Lembah Pantai) and (Tan Sri) Khalid Ibrahim (in Bandar Tun Razak). This demonstrates that we are moving into a middle ground that needs to be consolidated. This middle ground has candidates who are very conscious about bridging the gap and about being non-racial. All said and done, the BN has racially-exclusive component parties but now we have political entities which are actually multi-racial in composition and orientation.

Mak Bedah: There is some lag in terms of information coming in on the results from different channels – RTM, Astro, the Internet, etc. But it looks like when the government told the people to take their grievances to the ballot box, we did!

There appears to be a shift of confidence from having a democracy that relies on one virtually unopposed ruling coalition to one that has at least some semblance of a viable opposition.

Why do you think the Malays were unhappy with the BN?

Toh: The Malays are very unhappy with the rising cost of living. Cost of living has gone up but their wages have not. This especially affects the urban-salaried Malays whose real standard of living has gone down. They could also have been fed-up with the abuses of power and with corruption.

Do the results strengthen the BN or the opposition?

Mak Bedah: As far as we can tell for now, it appears to strengthen the opposition in terms of seats won. It is a demonstration of confidence and trust by voters that they can deliver what they have promised in terms of their manifestos, ceramahs and statements.

We’ve heard at least Nurul Izzah (PKR) and Tony Pua (DAP) endorse the Women’s Candidacy Initiative’s (WCI) 10-point citizen’s manifesto, and fully support gender issues such as no more sexism in Parliment, the need for sexual harassment legislation, etc. It is critical now for them to really act true to their words, and advocate for transformative equality so that they are not just tin kosong (empty cans).

However, it can also strengthen the BN if they see this as a message for the need for change; for action that goes beyond the rhetoric of peace, development and prosperity. That democracy and a working government also means taking on all aspects of democracy that has been increasingly eroded like freedom of expression, right to information, right to assembly, etc.

What kind of messages are voters sending through the ballot box?

Toh: The message to the BN is, “Buck up!” Voters are telling the BN to wipe out corruption in a big way. They’re saying, “No more nepotism. No more abuse of power.”

I think Anwar (PKR de facto adviser) also played a big role in mobilising support across all communities. And I think the recent attacks on him backfired and actually enhanced his image further.

With the non-Malays, I think their message is that they are fed-up with the rising cost of living and rising crime rates. The other thing is that the non-Malays really feel that the non-Umno BN component parties are not speaking out for them within the coalition. One other thing, I think the arrest and detention (without trial) of the Hindraf (Hindu Rights Action Force) 5 (leaders) under the Internal Security Act (ISA) angered everybody, not just the Indians.

Farish: The message the voters are sending is a clear one: We, the Malaysian people, have come together united to demand a Malaysia that is plural and democratic, and home to all. Let no single Malaysian ever be marginalised and neglected ever again. We will no longer be patronised, insulted, manipulated by a government that claims to represent us but actually serves only itself.

The fact that so many independent candidates and so many new faces have come to the fore shows that the Malaysian public has grown weary of the old faces, the old discourses and the old mode of politics in the country. We are now a more complex and plural society than before and we need to forge a new politics that reflects this diversity and pluralism.

We need and want a new Malaysian politics where merit, equality, fairness and accountability prevail. The Malaysian people will no longer tolerate empty promises, discredited politicians, bankrupt politics, cronyism, nepotism and abuse of power. The Malaysian nation wants the country back. We will no longer surrender our future to politicians and elites alone.

Yeoh: For the first time, you see urban Malays, who were largely pro-BN, coming out to vote against the BN. The opposition is winning in mixed urban seats. Gerakan acting president Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon’s loss, and MIC president Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu’s loss, mean Gerakan and the MIC are not significant parties in the coalition anymore. The BN is no longer a “barisan” (coalition) but only Umno-strong. The smaller parties need to reconsider their position in the coalition.

A lot will depend on the sort of Umno that is going to return to Parliament, if it is humble enough to take the results as a wake-up call. With the opposition gaining more seats, this will place more pressure on the Umno-led government to be publicly accountable. There will be a stronger check and balance system.

The Anwar factor plays a role. While the people are not sure if they are willing to trust Anwar yet, they are willing to give him a chance. Post election, the opposition needs to work together in a more concerted effort to consolidate their varying objectives and strategies to keep the government accountable.

Wong: We are seeing a realignment and restructuring of the party systems. PPP is history. Gerakan is now the new PPP, and becoming irrelevant. The MIC is either history or the new PPP. The MCA will survive but its relevance will depend on how much concession Umno is willing to make after the election.

The BN will still have to have Indian representation but Gerakan may have a problem getting a Cabinet seat. If the BN punishes its non-Malay members, it would drive them or the community to the Opposition. In the 1999 election, when Umno did badly, it did not lose its strength in the Cabinet. So I don’t think this will reduce the Cabinet seats for the MIC or MCA. The BN has to do some soul-searching and reinventing. It cannot sideline the Chinese and the Indians.

The results also show that Anwar is relevant. It is certainly a victory for Anwar. It will put an end to speculation that Anwar would go back to Umno. It also shows a strong civil society, and the strong discontent among the Chinese and the Indians. Anwar did not single-handedly do this.

The opposition needs to find a way to work together, to prove it is a viable alternative. It has to offer a line-up for a shadow Cabinet. Penang has the opportunity to be a model opposition coalition government. Civil society will keep a watchful eye on the opposition government to see what it does. Will it introduce the Freedom of Information Act, local government election, and a new socio-economic policy to contrast what we have at the federal level?

Ibrahim: They want a government that really listens and performs. The government needs to go beyond slogans and public relations and deliver the reforms that it promises. The people are ready for a new way of dealing with the various communities. We should learn about citizenship, rather than simply power-sharing amongst the different races.

Loh: We have a new set of voters – middle-class, educated, and who are very exposed to global developments, and the use of new technology. Partly because of this new generation of people, people are demanding more than development.

If you compare Malaysia with neighbouring countries, the government, in a sense has done better than others but this generation demands more than development. And even with development, they want a development that is more sustainable and equitable. And they are also asking, ‘What about our democratic rights?’ They want more political participation, more consultation. They don’t want the government to micro-manage so much. In a sense, Malaysians have come of age in the same trend that occurred in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

Mak Bedah: In the simplest terms, that it’s time for some change. With Teresa Kok’s (DAP) massive win over Carol Chew (MCA), they’re probably also saying a resounding ‘no’ to sexist methods and frameworks to win in the elections!

What does this loss mean to Gerakan?

Toh: Well, the Gerakan is almost wiped out. It is now a very weakened party in terms of representation in the state legislature. This is a really bad start for Dr Koh Tsu Koon so soon after he took over as acting Gerakan president. But perhaps, his indecisiveness over whether to remain in the state or move to the federal (level), and over who will take over from him as Penang chief minister, weakened his leadership and eroded the people’s faith in him.

Does this mean that the non-Umno component parties in the BN, such as Gerakan, MCA and MIC, are now weakened?

Loh: Yes, their positions are weakened. It means that Umno has weak partners. But this was what people were alleging anyway – that Umno dominates within the BN. This was already the trend since the 1980s during (Tun) Dr Mahathir (Mohamad)’s time.

The allegation was that there was a kitchen Cabinet, and Umno, including people outside the Cabinet, made decisions that were then taken to Parliament to be formalised. Which is very different from the early days of the Alliance when there was real consultation in the Cabinet. So, there’s been too much centralisation of power (within Umno), and people are saying this is not what they want.

Other comments about voting trends that you observed?

Ibrahim: In the lead-up to the election, the trend with the ethnic Indian and Chinese electorate was a huge protest vote against the BN. There was substantially less fear of an Islamic state. Within the Malay ground, the original assumption was that the Malay electorate was with the BN. Malay support for the BN was comfortable at the point when the election was called.

From the dissolution of Parliament till nomination day, the bickering and horse-trading between Umno candidates started the erosion in Malay support. During the campaign period, the erosion increased because the BN’s communication strategy was out of tune with the electorate. In the final days of campaigning, there was further erosion because the BN went on the attack. The attack on Anwar and the belated attempt to go on an offensive further pushed the Malay electorate away from the BN.

Malay support for the BN is split. In a lot of areas, the support for the BN was not much more than 55%, while in places like Kelantan, the BN support from the Malays was much less. Of course, internal and local factors also come into play. Then on polling day, Malay turnout rates were lower than expected.

Mak Bedah: Until all the results are in, we can’t tell whether the named ex-MPs (in the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality press statement) who have been repeat offenders of sexism in Parliament have won or lost their seats. It will be interesting to check this once the results are fully confirmed, and hopefully, it will reflect the increasing public intolerance for MPs who disregard women’s human rights and dignity.

Going forward, what needs to be done to strengthen democracy in Malaysia?

Toh: Going forward, the government will have to take cognisance of being more sensitive and responsive towards the people. They will have to do away with the ISA and other restrictive laws, and provide people with the space to air their views, including through a more balanced media. And what’s this nonsensical argument that demonstrations equal violence? If you keep denying people the space, then it’s going to explode in the ballot box as it has in this election.

Farish: Now all the parties, both the government and opposition, will need to refer to the terms of the People’s Declaration. We need to develop a new mode of politics where equal representation and accountability are guaranteed.

After half a century of unrestrained power and unlimited control, the old ruling tactics of the BN no longer work, are no longer accepted.

Now with such a large range of parties of varying ideological hues, the only thing that can keep Malaysia together is a common social contract that places Malaysian citizenship before all else; which renders all of us equal partners and stakeholders in the nation-building process. After tonight, the precedent has been set and it is now impossible to return to the mode of neo-feudal politics as before.

Yeoh: We need media freedom to ensure information can be given out freely and fairly. The opposition states can put into place local council elections.

The opposition will need to get its act in order. This is a testing period for the opposition. This is a protest vote against the government. The opposition needs to show the people who supported it that it deserves the support. Civil society needs to continue what it has started to ensure that the people’s voices are heard.

This is also a time for intense self-reflection for the BN and it should be taken constructively, to examine its archaic manner of governance and renew itself according to new sets of demands.

Ibrahim: Both sides should find ways to open room to allow the political process to mature, and not spend so much time on politics and infighting. Specifically political leaders should come across (divides) to begin formulating a new way of doing business that doesn’t rest on the old order of communal politics.

Wong: Electoral reforms, local council elections. Democratisation is not a process of going after the political enemy. We need a new political process where everyone has a basic sense of security.

Loh: I think the PKR Manifesto has a very important clause – about returning local government elections. I would really like to see a finer distinction for the different political roles at the local government, state government and at the parliamentary level. We need to re-establish these distinctions. In more developed democracies, for example India, Members of Parliament don’t take care of drains. Instead, they monitor laws, make sure policies are implemented and public funds not wasted.

Having local government elections will re-establish these distinctions, and we should push for local government elections.

Mak Bedah: The next step for real democracy is for the opposition to undertake amendments to the Constitution to change the first-past-the-post system and make the upper house proportional to the voting proportion.

We also need to closely monitor and see how many women actually won, how far we still are from the 30% critical mass needed for women’s political representation, and what both the opposition and BN will do to address this in the next election, as well as women’s participation in public and political life in general.


Datuk Dr Toh Kim Woon is a retired Gerakan politician based in Penang.

Dr Farish A. Noor is senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and one of the founders of the research site.

Tricia Yeoh is the director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies. The centre is part of the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute, which tries to foster open-minded and respectful dialogue about important issues in Malaysia.

Wong Chin Huat is completing his PhD in the University of Essex on the electoral system and party politics in West Malaysia. He is also chairman of the Writers Alliance for Media Independence and resource person of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections.

Ibrahim Suffian is the programmes director of the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research, which has conducted surveys on voter sentiments and other socio-economic and political issues.

Dr Francis Loh is a political scientist at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang.

Mak Bedah is the Women’s Candidacy Initiative’s (WCI) symbolic ‘everywoman’, with a larger-than-life personality that inspires and urges the public to engage and participate actively in the election process. WCI is a civil society initiative, bringing together women and men who want to see civil society involved in the process to push the democratic boundaries, yet remain independent of political affiliations.