Political commentators have almost unanimously spelled out doom for Malaysia’s stumbling Pakatan Rakyat government from the three by-elections the coalition has lost since it took power from the Barisan Nasional a year ago.
But although the results in the federal constituency of Cameron Highlands and the state constituencies of Semenyih in Selangor and the more recent Rantau in Negeri Sembilan haven’t been great for a so-called reform government, Pakatan arguably had little or no chance of winning two of the three constituencies. Cameron Highlands and Rantau can be considered traditionally safe Barisan Nasional seats. In fact, Pakatan actually very slightly increased its vote percentage in Cameron Highlands and Rantau.
What is certain from the last few by-elections is that Malaysia is seeing a transformation of the political landscape on both sides. The alliance between the United Malays National Organization, which led the Barisan Nasional to defeat in national elections last May 9, and the rural-based Parti Islam se-Malaysia is working to UMNO’s advantage rather than PAS’s. UMNO’s failure to garner Chinese votes is molding their strategy towards Malay-nationalist narratives, which is where UMNO and PAS see the battlefield for power.
UMNO was the benefactor of the new alliance in Cameron Highlands, with its percentage of the vote rising by almost 14 percent, making this constituency an extremely safe seat come GE15. In Rantau, the gap between Pakatan and Barisan was so wide that there was never any contest anyway, especially with the Barisan nominating the locally-popular three-term chief minister and caretaker UMNO leader Mohamed Hasan as its candidate, raising questions why Pakatan even bothered wasting resources and time to seriously contest the seat even though Mohamad was discovered to have paid RM10 million (US$2.43 million at current exchange rates) for a London flat 10 years ago.
The real casualty for Pakatan was the Semenyih by-election. Any popular government should have been able to hold onto the constituency. However, a massive swing of almost 25 percent went to the opposition. Much of this swing was made up from votes the Barisan gained from its alliance with PAS, rather than the Barisan rising Phoenix-like from the ashes as so many pundits have claimed.
In Semenyih, the percentage of Pakatan votes declined by 5 percent, with voting turnout down by 10 percent in the by-election. This is reflective of some apathy and disenchantment in Pakatan. Strategically, a swing against a government candidate in a by-election of 5 percent could be picked up again in a general election. People make protests in by-elections but have to pick the government of the day in a general election.
Probably the most telling by-election was late last year in the newly-formed constituency of Port Dickson which was in a traditional stronghold for what now constitutes Pakatan. It was won in the 2018 general election by a local candidate, Danyal Balagopal Abdullah, who stepped aside for Anwar Ibrahim so that Anwar could make his move to the federal parliament.
Although Anwar convincingly won the by-election, the turnout nonetheless was 30 percent lower. Voting patterns also indicated that UMNO voters didn’t bother turning out to vote for the PAS candidate. There was a lot of controversy with Anwar’s Port Dickson move and the low voter turnout was hardly a euphoric win for the “prime minister in waiting.” Anwar actually received 5000 fewer votes than Danyal Balagopal Abdullah did in the 2018 general election. What also could be telling is that PAS voters have supported the BN in by-elections but in Port Dickson the reverse didn’t happen.
So what does all this mean for the political landscape over the next four years?
Pakatan should be able to plainly see that 1MDB corruption doesn’t play any role in assisting them electorally, particularly in rural areas. Attacks against Mohamad Hasan, also an UMNO vice president, over his personal wealth had no effect as well. Najib, who has played an active and energetic role in all the by-elections despite his indictment for his part in the 1MDB scandal, needs to be convicted quickly and other UMNO politicians charged and convicted if corruption issues are to have any positive impact for Pakatan. Najib’s newly found social media popularity may be more comic than equating to electoral support.
Anwar was very much involved in the by-election campaigns. However, his performance didn’t bring any gains for Pakatan electorally, not even a swing of any proportion. His own by-election win was lackluster. He was in jail during the 2018 election and crucially functioned as a martyr. The question thus has to be asked is whether Anwar is an election asset or liability. This is crucial to Pakatan prospects in 2022.
Mahathir’s absence from the Rantau election was also telling. From a Malay-Machiavellian view, it could be that Mahathir gave Anwar the rope to hang himself with. Could this be part of a longer-term power play for Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, the upstart party that Mahathir formed prior to the May 9 general election? A poorly-performing Anwar will bring out more tensions within Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which is currently riven between Azmin Ali, the Minister of Economic Affairs who is a Mahathir ally, and Rafizi Ramli, the party general secretary aligned with Anwar’s daughter Nurul Izzah. Political infighting js in Bersatu’s interests.
Bersatu’s recent move to extend its political influence into Sabah is reminiscent of UMNO moving into the East Malaysian state more than 20 years ago. Bersatu Sabah may soak up defecting UMNO members who don’t want to move across to Warisan, aligned with PKR, and become a force in local politics there. This could change the balance of power in Pakatan firmly towards Bersatu, which already carries more influence than its numbers in parliament would suggest.
Already very well known in Negeri Sembilan, Mohamad Hasan’s profile went national during the Rantau by-election campaign. He was a good campaigner in his home territory and even managed to win over a substantial part of the Indian vote, something of a coup for an UMNO politician.
Some commentators claim that Hassan may be just what UMNO really needs, a steady moderate who is a good political campaigner. However, this isn’t what UMNO really wants. UMNO isn’t searching for a reform leader. UMNO has an inner circle of people with well-thought-out plans about where they want UMNO to go. Consequently, Hasan is only a seat warmer for others who are committed to a Malay-Nationalist stance. The only hope Hasan has is to form an alliance with the Khairy Jamaluddin forces and attempt to stage a coup at UMNO’s organizational level. This would mean defeating Najib’s influence, who very much sees UMNO as his lifeboat to maintain his freedom.
The performance of Anwar will be crucial to Pakatan maintaining its direction. However, people within the Pakatan are starting to see that Anwar can’t win votes. There is very little chance of Anwar pulling off a landslide win in GE15, as Ahmad Abdullah Badawi did in 2003 after taking control of UMNO from Mahathir.
Pakatan perceptions over electability could lead to a lot of intra and inter party frictions. It could even lead to Pakatan going into a total overhaul and regeneration with Bersatu calling the shots. The only problem with this scenario is that there is currently nobody within Bersatu who could take over control in any way from Mahathir at present.
Pakatan is likely to go into a leadership vacuum or have a weak leader when it heads into GE15 scheduled for 2022. The next election will be bitterly fought as the fight is not just for power, but survival.
If Anwar is premier, will he be a winner or a spoiler? Will he actually get to the premiership? Politics in Malaysia is full of dark forces. If the Marcos family can make a comeback in the Philippines, it’s not at all impossible for Najib to make a comeback in Malaysia. He made some very bad mistakes last election and appears very much as a comical figure to urban voters now. However, he can make a comeback and be a force to be reckoned with by focusing on the rural electorate if he isn’t in jail by then.
Expect power struggles and infighting going on with both sides of politics within the next year or so. A rumored cabinet reshuffle would bring on inter-party rows immediately as many will feel overlooked in the rank and files of the respective Pakatan parties. Reform will be the casualty of this, and there is great risk the economy will further slip back in its relative position within the region.
Murray Hunter (email@example.com) is a development specialist and longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel