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Secular Dealignment and Party System Transition in Malaysia



The Malaysian electoral behaviour has for some time reflected the ‘partisan identification’ thesis. Since 1999, however, there has been a marked shift towards ‘secular dealignment’. Analyses of electoral and survey data reveal that although a significant number of Malaysian voters remained attached to the party they identified with, most of the electorate, however, are swayed by short-term factors. Though the economic issues played a role in the three elections, it is the leadership of the parties supplemented by the use of mass media that played a significant role in swinging the vote from one party to the other. The three elections in 1999, 2004, and 2008 can be categorized as evidence of secular dealignment: the 1999 elections substantially reduced the margin of gain by the ruling coalition; the 2004 elections reversed the opposition gain, while the 2008 elections resulted in the loss of two-thirds majority seats in the parliament habitually enjoyed by the ruling coalition and the emergence of a strong opposition coalition. This trend not merely continued but was much more stronger in the 13th Malaysian general election.



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1 See Campbell, Angus, Converse, P., Miller, W., and Stokes, D., The American Voter (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1960), Chapter 6. Dalton, Russell and Wattenberg, Martin (eds.), Parties without Partisans: Political Change in Advanced Industrial Democracies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Dalton, Russell (2004) Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices: The Erosion of Political Support in Advanced Industrial Democracies (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

2 Norris, Pippa, Radical Right: Voters and Parties in the Electoral Market (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 219220. Norris's framework distinguishes among maintaining alignments, secular dealignment, deviating dealignment, secular realignment, and critical realignments.

3 Norris, Radical Right, p. 221.

4 See Schickler, E. and Green, D., ‘The Stability of Party Identification in Western Democracies’, Science, 44:1 (1997), 3550; Bartels, Larry, ‘Partisanship and Voting Behaviour, 1952–1996’, American Journal of Political Science, 44:1 (2000), 3550; Dalton, Russell and Wattenberg, Martin (eds.), Parties without Partisans: Political Change in Advanced Industrial Democracies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

5 Dalton and Wattenberg (eds.), Parties without Partisans, p. 51.

6 Population Statistics from Department of Statistics Malaysia, available at (accessed 17 May 2009).

7 Kessler, Clive S., ‘Archaism and Modernity: Contemporary Malay Political Culture’, in Kahn, Joel S. and Wah, Francis Loh Kok (eds.), Fragmented Vision: Culture and Politics in Contemporary Malaysia (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1992), pp. 140141.

8 Means, Gordon P., Malaysian Politics: The Second Generation (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 2735.

9 Muzaffar, Chandra, Freedom in Fetters (Penang: Aliran, 1986); Ahmad, Zakaria Haji, ‘Malaysia: Quasi Democracy in a Divided Society’, in Diamond, L., Linz, J. J., and Lipset, S. M. (eds.), Democracy in Developing Countries, vol. 3 Asia (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1989), pp. 347381; Crouch, Harold, ‘Malaysia: Neither Authoritarian nor Democratic’, in Hewison, K., Robionson, R., and Rodan, G. (eds.), Southeast Asia in the 1990s: Authoritarianism, Democracy and Capitalism (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1993), p. 21; Case, William, ‘Semi-Democracy in Malaysia: Withstanding the Pressures for Regime Change’, Pacific Affairs, 66:2 (1993), 183205; Case, Willliam, Politics in Southeast Asia: Democracy or Less (London and New York: Routledge, 2002).

10 Pepinsky, Thomas B., ‘The 2008 Malaysian Elections: An End to Malaysian Politics?’, Journal of East Asian Studies, 9 (2009), 96.

11 Lorien Holland, ‘MALAYSIA: Political Tsunami’, Newsweek, 10 March 2008.

12 Steven Gan, ‘The Perfect Storm on March 8’, Malaysiakini, 19 March 2008, available at (accessed 11 April 2009); Kwang Yang Sim, ‘New Political Sky: A New Game’, Malaysiakini, 15 March 2008, available at (accessed 15 June 2009).

13 Chandra Muzaffar, ‘Interview’, The Star, 2 December 1999, p. 7.

14 Mutalib, Hussin, ‘Malaysia's 1999 General Election: Signposts to Future Politics’, Asian Journal of Political Science, 8:1 (2000), 6972.

15 See Moten, Abdul Rashid and Mokhtar, Tunku Mohar. ‘The 2004 General Elections in Malaysia: A Mandate to Rule’, Asian Survey, 46:2 (2006), 319340.

16 Hilley, John, Malaysia: Mahathirism, Hegemony and the New Opposition (London: Zed Books, 2001), p. 108.

17 Mustafa, K. Anuar, ‘The Role of Malaysia's Mainstream Press in the 1999 General Election’, in Wah, Francis Loh Kok and Saravanamuttu, Johan (eds.), New politics in Malaysia (Singapore: ISEAS, 2003), p. 65.

18 Kingsbury, Damien, South-East Asia: A Political Profile (South Melbourne: Oxford University, 2001), pp. 283284.

19 Ahmad, Zakaria Haji, ‘Impact of the Economic Crisis on Malaysian Politics’, in The Financial Crisis in Malaysia: The Economic and Political Consequences, Trends in Southeast Asia, No. 6. (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies), pp. 1315; Funston, John, ‘Malaysia: A Fateful September’, in Southeast Asian Affairs 1999 (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1999), pp. 165184.

20 Mahathir Mohamad, ‘Changes in Thinking of the Malays’, New Straits Times, 15 December 1999, p. 12.

21 Abdul Rashid Moten, ‘The 1999 General Elections in Malaysia: Towards a Stable Democracy?’, Akademika, 57, July 2000, pp. 72–73.

22 Hilley, Malaysia,p. 231.

23 Mahathir Mohamad, ‘Changes in Thinking of the Malays’, New Straits Times,15 December 1999, p. 12.

24 Hilley, Malaysia, p. 263.

25 Wah, Francis Loh Kok and Mustafa, K. Anuar (1996), ‘The Press in Malaysia in the Early 1990s: Corporatisation, Technological Innovation and the Middle Class’, in Ikmal Said, Muhammad and Emby, Zahid (eds.), Critical Perspectives: Essays in Honour of Syed Husin Ali (Petaling Jaya: Malaysian Social Science Association, 1996), pp. 96131.

26 ANFREL and FORUM-ASIA, Malaysia: Report of the 1999 Election Observation Mission, 25 November–1 December (Thailand: Asian Network for Free Elections ANFREL and Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development FORUM-ASIA, July 2000), p. 34.

27 Moten and Mokhtar, ‘The 2004 General Elections in Malaysia’, pp. 319–340.

28 P. Gunasegaran, ‘Abdullah Gave Us Back Our Voice’, The Star, 3 April 2009, p. 4.

29 Pauline Puah, ‘Survey Confirms “Pak Lah Factor” in BN Polls Victory’, Malaysiakini, 18 September 2004, available at (accessed 19 September 2007).

30 Moten and Mokhtar, ‘The 2004 General Elections in Malaysia’, pp. 326–328.

31 ‘Budget Building on Success, Investing for the Future’, available at (accessed 18 March 2004).

32 Pauline Puah, ‘Survey: Media Coverage of Elections Slanted’, available at (accessed 21 September 2004).

33 Moten, Abdul Rashid, ‘2008 General Elections in Malaysia: Democracy at Work’, Japanese Journal of Political Science 10:1 (2009), 3840.

34 ‘BN's Biggerst Mistake: Ignoring the Internet’, The Straits Times, 26 March 2008, p. 14.

35 Cited in Moten, ‘2008 General Elections in Malaysia’, p. 38.

36 Chandra Muzaffar, ‘The Polls and the BN Debacle’, The Star, 17 March 2008, p. 12.

37 See Malaysia (2006), Ninth Malaysia Plan 2006–2010 (Putrajaya: The Economic Planning Unit, Prime Minister's Department, 2006), p. 347.

38 Merdeka Center, ‘Voter Opinion Poll 4th Quarter 2007’, available at National(accessed 18 March 2008).

39 E.Ng, ‘Opposition using Internet to raise funds’, New Straits Times, 3 March 2008, p. 17.

40 ‘Internet served a painful lesson’, New Straits Times, 26 March 2008, p. 2.

41 Cited in Moten, ‘2008 General Elections in Malaysia, p. 39.

42 Thomas Fuller, ‘Malaysia's Ruling Coalition Suffers Setback’, The New York Times, 9 March 2008, available at (accessed 20 April 2008).

43 New Straits Times, 4 April 2008.

44 ‘Najib: GE13 will be first social media polls’, The Star, Thursday, 28 February 2013, p. 4.

45 PKR, DAP, PAS, ‘Manifesto Rakyat: Pakatan Harapan Rakyat’ (People's Manifesto: Pact, People's Hope) (n.p., 2013).

46 Wah, Francis Loh Kok, ‘Towards a New Politics of Fragmentation and Contestation’, in Wah, Francis Loh Kok and Saravanamuttu, Johan (eds.), New Politics in Malaysia (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2003), p. 279.

47 Areen Mazlan, ‘Kampung Baru hails “Ketuanan Rakyat”’, Malaysiakini, 15 April 2008, available at (accessed 23 June 2008).

48 Mohd Sabri Said, ‘Guan Eng Umum Tubuh SAR, Kembalikan Bantuan Per Kapita’, Harakah Daily, 6 September 2008, available at (accessed 27 June 2008).

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Secular Dealignment and Party System Transition in Malaysia



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