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Politics

Malaysians are demanding change

Change is what many Malaysians had sought when they cast their vote for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in national elections on Sunday. He lost but the days of incumbent ruler Najib Razak could be numbered.

Ahead of Sunday's elections, calls for change resounded across Malaysia.

"I want to see changes; I want a better future for me and my generation," Halimah Salim, a 20-year-old student at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, told DW. "You can't be creative when everything is muted and you have to worry about freedom of expression and opinion."

Worst-ever election performance

Children's therapist Nusrat Jafree had the same wish for change. "After all these years, I hope the Barisan Nasional is finally voted out of power."

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak
MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Prime Minster Najib Razak is under growing pressure

The Barisan Nasional (National Front), which is a coalition of 13 parties, including Prime Minister Najib's United Malays National Organization (UMNO), narrowly managed to extend its 56-year rule by winning 133 seats in the 222-member parliament. But it recorded its worst-ever election performance on Sunday.

Opposition leader Anwar's three-party alliance, which seized the remaining 89 seats, edged the Barisan Nasional in the popular vote by more 200,000 of at least 10.5 million ballots cast, according to initial independent estimates.

The Election Commission estimated a record turnout of more than 80 percent of the multi-ethnic country's 13 million registered voters. Of the country's 28 million inhabitants, half are Malays, with ethnic Chinese making up another quarter. The Barisan Nasional, which has ruled Malaysia since its independence from the British crown, is supported largely by its core Malays voters.

Critics charge that the coalition's gerrymandering allowed it to win seat numbers greater than the support reflected in the popular vote.

'Fraudulent' results

Anwar called the election "fraudulent" and said the Election Commission had "failed" to ensure fair elections, which also involved filling vacancies in 12 of Malaysia's 13 state legislatures.

Voters, too, expressed their frustration. Shortly after the Barisan Nasional declared victory, many of them replaced their Facebook profile photos with black boxes in a coordinated sign of dismay, while others took to blogosphere to vent their anger over the outcome of the election.

Voters queue up
GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Malaysians turned out in record numbers to vote

Political observers agree that it would be extremely difficult to challenge the result but that the government coalition will need to deliver on its reform promises. "Najib, in his new mandate, needs to push on with the reformation plan," Azizuddin Sani, a political analyst from Universiti Utara Malaysia, told AFP. "People need to see change. Like it or not, we will see a new Malaysia."

Faced with rising public demands for reform after taking office in the 2008, Najib has delivered some limited liberalization moves, which critics say are nothing more than cosmetic steps. The Prime Minister called on voters to give him a mandate to pursue deeper reforms, such as rolling back race-based policies and generous social welfare programs.

Fading support

Najib, the son of a former prime minister, has seen his support erode from the MCA, the main ethnic Chinese party within the ruling coalition and also from the ethnic Malays. Observers believe he could face a leadership challenge later this year when UMNO members hold a general assembly and elect their party leader.

"Najib is now leading a coalition that has lost the popular vote, a coalition that will really struggle to prove its legitimacy," Wan Saiful Jan, head of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs in Kuala Lumpur, told Reuters. "My feeling is it's not going to be easy for him."

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