The race card no longer trumps all. Wealth and class matter more for disaffected, disenfranchised urbanites.
The recent Malaysian election returned the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition to power with a 133-seat majority in the 222-member parliament, but it was also a triumph for the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition. It demonstrated that Malaysia's system of race-based politics is crumbling under the impact of urbanization and the reality of Malay-majority rule.
The power of United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the largest party in the ruling coalition, is now based more on patronage and control of the mechanisms of government than on the loyalty of Malays. This opens the way to a realignment of Malaysian politics during the new parliament.
Large-scale demonstrations against electoral fraud followed the election, revealing real anger among young voters. There seems little doubt that there was cheating, though probably not on a scale sufficient to have changed the outcome. The issue has focused attention on how electoral gerrymandering undermines Malaysia's claims to democracy.
In this election, the opposition received 53% of the vote but won only 40% of the seat. The ruling coalition received only 39,400 votes per seat won, compared with the opposition's 63,200. Thanks to an extreme anti-urban bias and the abolition of rules governing the relative size of constituencies, the largest constituency has nine times more voters than the smallest. On that basis, and taking account of the number of closely fought seats, the opposition would probably have to win at least 58% of the popular vote to get a majority of seats.
This bias was originally aimed largely at reducing the number of seats held by the predominantly Chinese Democratic Action Party, which is strong in inner cities. But it now works just as much against the mixed but Malay-majority satellite towns and suburbs created by urbanization. Most striking is Selangor state, which rings Kuala Lumpur. It has nine seats with electorates of over 100,000 people, or twice the national average. All those seats were won by the opposition.
This massive disenfranchisement of urban voters of all races is helping income and class become larger political issues at the expense of race. This is good news for racial harmony and bad news for the parties in the ruling coalition.
With population growth and urbanization continuing, disenfranchisement can only increase unless new seats are created, which would require the support of a two-thirds majority in parliament. So the ruling BN coalition will likely have to concede some electoral reform, weakening its own advantage. The only alternative is to risk anger among all races by clinging to minority rule to protect its patronage system.
Meanwhile, UMNO is rent with internal discord. Prime Minister Najib Razak's critics, led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, accuse him of making too many concessions to the Chinese and getting no votes in return. Yet Mr. Najib remains more popular than his party for having at least tried to emphasize national unity over ethnic divides with his "One Malaysia" rhetoric.
The new cabinet includes a large number of ministers from Sabah as opposed to from the Malay heartland. It also includes noted UMNO critics of Mr. Mahathir such as Khairy Jamaluddin, son-in-law of previous Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. This suggests that battle lines are being drawn in advance of UMNO elections later this year.
The race card remains powerful in the hand of Mr. Mahathir, the architect of economic modernization who has long been obsessed with the sort of racial theories laid out in his once-banned 1960s book "The Malay Dilemma." The retention of Malay and Muslim special privileges also appeals to the Muslim Parti Islam and to some elements within Anwar Ibrahim's Parti Keadilan Rakyat, now the largest in the opposition.
The extreme wing of UMNO believes that it can win back more votes from these parties by appealing to Malay racial sentiment, than from Chinese voters or from urban Malays now more concerned with economic than ethnic issues. There is a clear danger of prolonged attempts to whip up racial tensions.
Yet the disarray of UMNO and the ruling coalition is a necessary if uncomfortable prelude to realignments reflecting Malaysian society. These will require the non-Malays, too, to place less emphasis on their language and educational rights in return for the phasing out of Malay preferences in the economy and civil service. All parties will need to adjust.
The middle ground of Malaysian politics can still win, but it won't be the old Barisan Nasional of conservative race-based parties. Malaysia is moving toward necessary political and policy transformations that will likely be peaceful and evolutionary, as befits a mostly prosperous and optimistic society—and one that is more tolerant than some UMNO politicians would like to believe. Change now seems unstoppable.
Mr. Bowring is a Hong Kong journalist.
~ The Wall Street Journal