In Malaysia, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s campaign is on song, sometimes literally so. He does tend to remind his massive rallies that it’s “Now or Never.” Even if everyone does not catch the allusion, no one misses the message. Maybe Anwar has at long last found time for a snatch of song after having suffered years of soul-searing, unbelievable injustice and political barbarism, because the mood around him is so buoyant.
I write this on the eve of what could be Malaysia’s most breathtaking election result in 56 years of history as an independent republic. Better men than me have tempted fate by making unnecessary predictions. So let me just quote that ubiquitous taxi driver, the first and last resort of any hack in search of an election forecast. There are two remarkable things about Kuala Lumpur, he said, as I settled down in his vehicle outside the Mandarin hotel and nudged forward a conversation: the city’s infrastructure and the taxi drivers’ brain. I bowed in homage.
The government, he continued without much need of a further prod, had an overwhelming majority in the number of flags and buntings that pockmarked the capital. Anwar had the votes. He laughed with some gusto at his own joke, doubtless not for the first time. There were 30 taxis in his pool, he explained; only five or six drivers were with the ruling party. The rest were with Anwar. How did they express their solidarity? They could not refuse a passenger at the hotel, but if they saw one flagging a taxi outside one of those sparse government public gatherings they just drove on. Let the chap walk. More laughter.
What about the growing talk that government agents were offering 500 ringit [about $160] per vote? “I will take the money,” he chortled. “After all, it is my money. They took it from the public. But voting is private.” The laugh lowered to a meaningful chuckle. Then he added a caveat. He was only talking about Kuala Lumpur and adjacent provinces. He did not know what was happening elsewhere. Anecdotal evidence is in favour of Anwar Ibrahim.
International television channels like CNN and BBC, which prefer to be circumspect, are beginning to broadcast that this election could lead to the first ever change in government. Anwar’s theme is precisely that: change. He has tapped into many levels of discontent, not the least of them being anger against perceived corruption. There is a palpable sense that enough voters are simply tired of the establishment, even when they are not particularly angry over any specific issue.
The establishment will not surrender without a last-ditch stand, in which every weapon from its well-stocked political arsenal will be brought into play. The air is rife with talk of desperate measures. Planes, say some, have been chartered to bring voters loyal to the government to hop and jump through marginal constituencies, to cast bogus votes. There are substantive rumours that mercenaries from Bangladesh have been mobilised to add to their numbers. Each whisper builds resistance among genuine voters.
It is not as if government is bereft of genuine support. The country’s ethnic divisions are sharp: Malay, Chinese and Indians who were brought in by the British as labour for plantations. In a quaint move, these Indians recently petitioned the British monarch for compensation to atone for the sins of her ancestors. Queen Elizabeth maintained her stiff upper lip, but you get the point. Indians, exceptions apart, remain at the bottom of the economic pile, but have still not been persuaded that they need to challenge the establishment. They will decide, said a wealthy entrepreneur, in a typically Indian fashion: on Saturday night. Voting starts on Sunday morning. By Sunday night the Election Commission will announce which of the two antagonists needs prescription drugs for deep depression.
If the opposition is optimistic it is largely because of a new demographic that is going to play a crucial role, the first-time voter. Add this lot to the second-time voter and you get the powerful vanguard that is building momentum for Anwar Ibrahim’s call for change. Its enthusiasm has become infectious in the cities; and there is reason to believe that it is seeping into rural areas as well. This identity operates outside traditional ethnic constituencies. Its momentum is aspirational.
Malaysia is not alone; a similar phenomenon is at play in elections that will sweep across from south east Asia to Iran in the next 15 months. Youth power is rarely good news for the establishment. Imran Khan’s success in Pakistan will be properly measured only after the results are in, but if he is going somewhere it is only because the young are travelling with him. When India votes, the young will make the difference. It is a fallacy to suggest that the young vote only for the young. They vote for whoever can promise a better future. That is the only meaning of change.
The writer is Editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.