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Malaysia’s Ruling Party In Crisis: Approval Ratings Plummet

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Barisan Nasional, the ruling coalition that has controlled Malaysia since independence, is now facing a crisis scenario. Leaked reports of soon-to-be released poll numbers suggest that Barisan Nasional is facing plummeting approval ratings across all three major population subgroups.

If leaked reports are correct, only 8 percent of Malaysia’s Chinese citizens support the ruling coalition. Chinese make up approximately 25 percent of the country’s population. Meanwhile, approval among Indians, who make up about 8 percent of the population, has also plummeted from 45 percent to 30 percent.

Most importantly, however, only 50 percent of Malays now approve of Barisan Nasional. Malays make up approximately 50 percent of the country’s population and have been the ruling coalition’s source of power since independence. Losing the Malay vote could prove to have dire consequences for Barisan Nasional.

Rising cost of living source of discontent

Malaysia finds itself at a crossroads of sorts. For decades, the country has been able to fuel economic growth and development by using its considerable oil wealth. Now, however, oil supplies are running out while the costs of developing and supporting Malaysia’s economy have only grown.

Increasing costs with gradually declining revenue is a sure-fire recipe for financial disaster. With national debt approaching 55% and having nearly reached its constitutionally mandated limit, the government has been looking to bring down costs and/or raise revenues.

So far, at the urging of Najib, the government has targeted subsidizes for electricity, fuel, and other basic goods, slashing them dramatically. The results have been predictable. Malaysia, already one of S.E. Asia’s most expensive countries, has seen its living costs sky rocket. This has translated to anger from the country’s citizens.

At the same time, the government is looking to install a goods and services tax in 2015. This tax will weigh in at 6 percent and will raise the costs of goods and services across the board. Increasing taxes in combination with subsidy cuts might arguably be necessary for achieving fiscal stability, but will undoubtedly increase pressure on Barisan Nasional.

Najib could be pushed from power

Before the recent spike in living costs, Prime Minister Najib was by-and-large a reasonably popular candidate. With many of the subsidy cuts and rising taxes appearing to stem from his administration, however, he could quickly become a target for frustration. This past December, Najib saw his approval ratings slip to 52 percent, largely due to the aforementioned spike in living costs.

At the same time, rumors are leaking that Najib is facing increasing opposition from within his own party. While Najib won his party election in the fall of 2013, reports indicate that members of Barisan Nasional and his party UMNO are growing increasingly impatient with his leadership.

Najib is now looking to shake up his staff, letting go of some long-time aides and replacing them with younger and more innovative staff members. The Prime Minister is also looking to hold a retreat with top party leaders in order to shore up support.

Still, Barisan Nasional retained power in the last elections only through extreme gerrymandering that places disproportionate power in rural areas. Barisan Nasional has generally performed well in rural communities, but has seen its popularity in major cities rapidly plummet. Indeed, in the last elections, the ruling party actually lost the popular vote.

Now, with the country facing many harsh realities, Barisan Nasional may be running out of time. The leaked poll numbers indicate that if elections were held today, the ruling coalition would lose in a landslide. While elections are over four years away, the political and economic situation on the ground could make it difficult for the ruling coalition to turn the tide.

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