Challenging Elections


Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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With allegations and insults flying, the leadership elections for some of the largest parties in Malaysia's ruling coalition, the Barisan National (BN), have been a rich source of headline material this August.

With party unity a concern throughout, the disputatious hustings brought comments from on high within the BN. Now, though, as the dust settles, and with the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia Party (PGRM) having both elected their leaders, this concern is expected to dissipate, at least until next time.

The race for the top spot in the MCA was the first to be announced, when back in early July one of the party's vice presidents, Chua Jui Meng, made the surprising announcement that he would challenge party President Ong Ka Ting at the polls

Ong came to the leadership post in 2002 after being appointed without election by the outgoing president, Ling Liong Sik. The move came as part of a peace plan brokered by the then prime minister and BN chairman, Mahathir Mohamad.

At the time the party had effectively split into two camps - dubbed "team A" and "team B" - as a result of disagreements over the party acquiring two Chinese daily newspapers in 2001. Mahathir's peace plan meant there would be no contest over nominations, with this issue decided as a compromise between the two camps.

Thus with Ong as president of the party satisfying team A, the deputy president position - senior to the vice presidents - went to Chan Kong Choy to satisfy team B. However, as party unity has grown back since the split, Chan is now widely held to stand firmly alongside Ong, effectively replacing Ong's former protogee, Vice President Chua Jui Meng.

Rumours in July suggested that Chua had been offered the deputy presidency to dissuade him from challenging the top spot; nonetheless, he chose to go for broke and run for party president.

With the announcement having come relatively early, the election fever had plenty of time to build up. Indeed, concerns over party unity were raised again as the rival campaigns became bitter and mud started to be slung.

Things came to a head in the last few days before party members went to the polls. Ong eventually lashed out at the Chinese press and at Chua, particularly in response to claims that delegates had been barred from meeting the challenger in the run up to the election.

"The accusation against me and Chan Kong Choy is most unfair and we demand [Chua] clear our reputation," he told press on the day of the election. "All these statements are believed to be a campaign strategy to elicit sympathy among the central delegates."

This came the day after Ong and Chan held a press conference where they argued against the allegations, saying that party headquarters had published a full list of delegates on its web site and that all candidates had utilised their personal contacts in efforts to meet with party delegates, including phoning and SMS-ing them.

Reportedly only three Chinese language papers were invited to the press conference, all of them with either direct ownership or close linkages to MCA.

However, despite Chua's allegations that he faced restrictions in meeting delegates, some - including former Premier Mahathir Mohamad - were optimistic that party unity would prevail after the poll.

The former Malaysian leader was quoted in the Bernama, the state news agency, explaining that it is normal for candidates to rock the boat with their statements during an election.

"I am confident they will be able to handle the problem. It is common that during elections there will be different factions who make statements to shore up support," he said.

Soon after midday on August 20, the 2353 party delegates began voting and the results were announced soon after 9.00 pm the same day.

Both Ong and Chan retained their posts as president and vice-president respectively. Ong took 64.9% of the vote against Chua's 35.1%, a margin of 696 votes. Chan took 56.6% against his challenger, Ting Chew Peh, who polled 40.3%, with a third candidate taking the small remainder.

Many observers were swift to note that Ong had said he planned to win with at least 80% in his campaign, meaning his majority may have been disappointing. It was however Ong himself who highlighted that the election means the days of team A and team B were in the party's past, since he and Chan held their positions and a united front.

Meanwhile, on the same day the MCA was balloting, a contender for the leadership of the ruling BN coalition's other party, the PGRM, made his bid.

The incumbent PGRM president, Lim Keng Yaik, was in fact actually attending the MCA elections when he heard that his deputy president, Kerk Choo Ting, would be challenging him at the polls in seven days time, obliging him to rush back suddenly to his party headquarters.

Efforts had been made by Lim to avoid any contest too, as he and Koh Tsu Khoon, who stood unopposed to replace Kerk in the number two slot, sought to persuade Kerk to take a post of "national adviser" to the party. The offer was rejected and Kerk further claimed that creating such as post would be against the party constitution.

Kerk had been Lim's heir-apparent, but Koh had come to replace him in recent years amid concerns from Lim that Kerk was not a team player and failed to contribute fully to the party.

Soon after making his move to run in the polls, Kerk gave a press conference at which he was swift to deny that he was running out of a sense of vengeance or frustration with being sidelined. He claimed that his move came as a result of demand within the party for him to keep playing a prominent role.

The contest was soon grabbing headlines across the media as editors smelt blood. The contest was not to disappoint either, with fierce allegations and insults coming from both sides, and various party actors coming out in defence or offence for either candidate.

One of the key issues for the election was one of transition in the wake of Lim, who has held the presidency for 25 years. The choice of delegates, he said, would determine whether the transition took place in two or nine years.

If re-elected he promised to pass the leadership to Koh in 2007. However, party members would have to wait a further nine years for Koh to take over if Kerk were to win since Kerk's stated intention was to hold the presidency for three terms of three years.

On the sidelines, commentators were very critical of the race. Some claimed it had been reduced to the level of farce and that the party leadership's response to the challenge dragged the race into the gutter.

In the week running up to the election, even the prime-minister, Abdullah Ahmed Badawi, who is also the current chairman of the BN, had to step in and ask the war of words to be toned down. Both sides agreed to stop the party's reputation being tarnished further before party members went to the polls.

On the big day there were no surprises. Lim retained his post with a margin of 355 votes, paving the way for him stepping aside in favour of Koh in 2007.

With leadership for the next few years seemingly set, the drive from all quarters will be for unity among and within the constituent parties of the BN. Some, however, feel it is a shame that the spirit of competition becomes so bitter when electing leaders, and with the assumption that a challenge to leadership must be a challenge to party unity.

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