Poll lessons from Malaysia, Sri Lanka

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Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa (C) waves after disembarking his airplane at Colombo airport May 17, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer

There are valuable and crucial lessons to be learned from the stunning election loss of the ruling National Front (Barisan Nasional), led by Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak yesterday.

That he lost to the loose coalition front led by former mentor turned nemesis, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed, who at 92, is set to become the seventh prime minister of Malaysia (and the first from the opposition in 60 years), is a telling sign of how Malaysian politics has been swarmed by a political tornado across the board.

The electoral results and the switch in allegiance of the people, mostly in the rural Malay heartland which was UMNO’s power base in six decades, can be attributed to a number of factors.

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The results can be compared to the 2015 shocking loss of then Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Both electoral losses had some things in common which could offer valuable lessons for Cambodia. Social media, fake news and the role of external public relations companies such as Berlin Rossen, hired by Sam Rainsy, leader of the illegal CNRM, and Cambridge Analytica, which was hired by Dr Mahathir’s son, Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir, can alter the outcome in elections. The Bucharest-based Majoritas, which describes itself as a “political tech and data company” proudly states in its website that it has “worked alongside six presidents, eight prime ministers and 20 parties”. Some other firms with similar experiences are Aristotle International, Stein Hauser Strategies and Bell Pottinger. These are just some of the acts involved in covert and overt attempts to sway voter sentiments by “changing politics by connecting politicians with voters through a common path,”

In Cambodia, the lessons to be learned are for the ruling party to not overly condemn former key opposition figures and make them relevant when they have been made illegal and have started to fade from people’s memory. The same applies to burning issues of repeated legal tussles with land activists or other protestors involved in what appears outwardly to be ordinary protests but inwardly, to those in the know, are actually part of an organised campaign to create public disorder and lay the groundwork for a regime change or a people’s color revolution. Whatever term one wants to call it, the final goal is the same – regime change.

In some cases, regime change or a change in government was brought about by the electorate – the people, who made their choice through the ballot box, not through violent street protests, not through external interference or through other extreme measures. The change was through a cleverly crafted strategy, mapped out by a public relations campaign and adopted to just topple the leader of a ruling party.

A case in point is Sri Lanka. Three years after being ousted from power, Mr Rajapaksa is now back after voters endorsed his Sinhala nationalist party at local elections in February. The constant demonization of Mr Rajapaksa and his family by the new coalition government of unlikely partners just increased his ‘popularity’ among Sinhala nationalists who were reminiscing about their glory days under the Rajapaksa regime.

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It is still too early to say what may lay ahead in Malaysia’s potential ragtag new coalition government, comprising up to four components with different political ideologies, missions and objectives. One thing, however, is for certain – when race comes into politics, the winners and the losers are still the people.

Cambodia must be wise to study the results of the just concluded Malaysian election, the Sri Lankan general election of 2015 and the February 2018 Sri Lankan local elections and understand, after analysing, how and why the parties in power won or lost their support from the people.

Majoritas said in their website, “more than 10 years of political campaigns have taught us the importance of listening and integrating the fundamental needs of politicians, parties and institutions”. This is indeed a key lesson.

But, are the politicians listening to this mantra? Only time will tell.

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