By Chuin-Wei Yap
A 22-year-old university student is challenging Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak for the premier’s hometown parliamentary seat of Pekan in the country’s May 5 general elections. But analysts say Mohamed Bukhairy Bin Mohamed Sofian’s campaign may be quixotic.
Running on an independent ticket, Mr. Bukhairy, a political science major at the University of Malaya who is also chairman of the federal student legislative body called the National Students Representative Council, is setting up a three-corner fight with Mr. Najib’s ruling National Front and the opposition coalition.
He faces a steeply uphill slog. Historically, independent candidates have gained no more than about 1.5% of votes in three-corner fights with the two dominant opposing coalitions, said Ibrahim Suffian, a political analyst with the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research.
“It’s also hard to campaign in rural areas, because the logistics are more expensive and it’s tough to establish patronage networks,” Mr. Suffian said.
Pekan, a royal seat in Malaysia’s eastern Pahang state is a typical Malay hinterland that is dotted with palm plantations and has a population dominated by ethnic Malay Muslims, the traditional voting bloc of the United Malays National Organization, the centerpiece of the 13-part ruling coalition. A strong military presence that traditionally backs Mr. Najib also bolsters his chances of retaining the seat he has held since 1976, Mr.Suffian said.
Mr. Bukhairy is keeping his message simple: Both the government and the opposition have to guarantee academic freedom.
“We want universities to be free from political interference,” he told The Wall Street Journal.
Malaysia has a history of quashing dissent even from those with a claim to independent opinion. State-backed Bank Islam Malaysia in January suspended its chief economist, who later resigned, after he suggested Mr. Najib’s coalition would lose power in this year’s elections.
In taking the fight to Malaysia’s leading politician, Mr. Bukhairy is carrying on a rich Malaysian tradition of student protest movements. Students from the Sultan Idris Training College, a training ground for Malay teachers, were a key force in the independence movement against British colonialism in the 1930s. Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the Malaysia’s opposition coalition, cut his political teeth as an Islamist student leader and was arrested in 1974 while leading student protests against rural poverty.
But Mr. Bukhairy’s bid now risks splintering the cause with Mr. Anwar’s opposition coalition. The opposition is fielding People’s Justice Party councilor Fariz Musa in Pekan. Mr. Bukhairy said he’s running as an independent because neither the ruling National Front nor the opposition responded to a call by his student organization to debate its manifesto. Mr. Bukhairy is aware that his bid is causing some consternation in opposition circles, where it is feared he could siphon off some of the anti-establishment vote.
“We hope (the opposition) can give way for students to participate in the election,” he said.
Officials from the two main coalitions weren’t immediately available for comment.
Despite the difficulties, social media will help, Mr. Suffian said. Student voters account for about 15% of the 13.3 million national electorate this time, though they would not be a significant force in Pekan, he said.
But the campaign has symbolic value for Mr. Bukhairy.
“Maybe (Mr. Najib) thinks running against a student is a simple thing, that maybe he can win easily,” he said. “All I can do is try.” - Wall Street Journal