The modern state of Malaysia was founded in 1969 after independence from Britain. The political system is designed after the Westminster system, though it puts significantly more emphasis on the executive than the legislative branch. Elections for the lower house, the legislative body, are held every five years. The Sultan is the official head of state and is nominated from among nine state rulers, who take turns every five years.
In the 2013 election the National Front (Barisan Nasional; BN), a coalition of 13 mainly ethnicity-based parties, only gained 133 of the 222 lower house seats (down from 140 seats in 2008) with a share of 47.38% of the popular vote. Within the BN-coalition, the United Malays United Association (UMNO) is the dominant party. Since Malaysia gained independence,
UMNO and precursor parties dominate politics with their so-called “Bumiputera” policy that favours Malay Muslims over other ethnic groups.
The three-party opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) campaigned on issues of religious, social and ethnic equality and demanded reforms and increased transparency in the electoral process. PR supporters and a large number of civil society organisations criticised the unfairness of voter district demarcation in favour of the ruling coalition. The National Election Commission was accused of being biased and was widely criticised for not accommodating demands to verify the correctness of the electoral roll and investigate reports of foreign citizens holding false IDs that allowed them to cast their votes.
The 2013 election result can be seen as a great victory for opposition parties, given the fact that civil liberties are significantly constrained through various laws which limit the chances of contesting opposition parties to reach and mobilise potential voters.
The government strongly curbs the right to assembly, regularly using police force against mass demonstrations under the pretext of maintaining national security and public order. Assemblies of more than three people require a public permit and police may arrest participants without warrant.