June 29, 2016
Malaysia: By-Elections Postmortem
by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee
Getting out the younger voters in force, building up the grassroots leadership, a lesser dependence on big names and big ceramah, focusing on local issues that resonate – together, they may reduce the odds which have now tilted against the opposition. But there may not be enough time, resources or goodwill within the fragmented opposition to make these happen.–Lim Teck Ghee
The two by-elections outcome was never in doubt. However, the size of the Barisan (BN) majorities has produced an outpouring of analysis from all sides and shades of the political spectrum.
From the government and its support side, there is undoubted relief, especially for the embattled Prime Minister. A loss would have imperiled – perhaps toppled – Najib Razak. It was a victory that was savoured as it was larger than most had expected.
But was it really “such landslide results” as exulted by the Prime Minister? And so grievous a loss as lamented by the opposition leaders?
One way of looking at the outcome is not simply to view the BN majorities obtained in the two constituencies. The Sungai Besar majority of 9,191 and Kuala Kangsar’s 6,969 were certainly a vast improvement over the simple majorities of 399 and 1082 obtained in 2013. However, the combined BN votes for the two constituencies was 29,453 as against the combined opposition vote of 25,114.
This is a margin which should not provide much comfort to BN leaders and strategists given that its resources will have to be more thinly deployed at the decisive national election in 2017 or 18. Winning big in 222 parliamentary seats is an entirely different proposition from winning big in just 2.
Cohesive BN, Fragmented Opposition
Whichever way one wants to look at the voting numbers and the conclusions to draw, it is clear that the final margin was made wider by a numerically, materially and tactically superior BN electoral machinery up against a splintered opposition lacking resources, losing credibility, and for all intents and purposes, fighting against each other more than against the BN.
We have now a revitalized, more cohesive and confident BN. As for the opposition, the two losses have produced hand wringing, finger pointing and a search for answers on how and why it lost so badly; and what it means for their future prospects.
For both government and opposition sides, it is clear that Dr. Mahathir is no longer the political force or influence that the internet media and his band of “Citizen’s Declaration” loyalists have made him out to be. The 1MDB issue resonates little or not at all with ordinary voters in the two constituencies.
Throughout the nation, 1MDB and the USD700 million deposit in the Prime Minister’s personal account can be expected to recede more and more in the background of voter political sentiment and concern unless there is some massively incriminating disclosure which makes it imperative for the Prime Minister to ease himself into early retirement.
It also appears that UMNO’s grip on Malay voters – farmers, fishermen, smallholders, petty traders, small business people – in rural and semi-rural areas has tightened.
This is amidst rising living costs and difficult living conditions for the lower classes, and unresolved scandals and management blunders affecting Felda, Lembaga Tabung Haji (with its over 9 million depositors) and other UMNO dominated agencies, seems to run against political sense and logic. One could have expected that the present current socio-economic situation is tailor-made for exploitation by the opposition.
Why PAS and Amanah parties were not able to make better headway with Malay voters on both religious (and moral) and bread and butter issues is a puzzle which observers close to the ground during the campaign do not seem to have figured out.
Was it because UMNO had trumped PAS and thrown the opposition into disarray with its preemptive strike approving Hadi’s hudud bill for debate in Parliament? Was it because PAS was holding back its attacks on UMNO in the quest for Islamic unity and inter-party union? Was it because opposition leaders were obsessed with big names and big issues? Was it because of the dependence on the internet and a lack of local election workers and rapport with grassroots voters? Was it because Malay Muslim voters were little or unaware of issues such as Tabung Haji being on the brink of collapse due to mismanagement and its link with the 1MDB crisis? Or that if they were aware, were they persuaded that they could expect that the Government would ensure a bailout by other taxpayers?
Deciphering the answers to these questions will probably hold the key to success and victory in the next general election.
As for the Chinese, the return to the BN camp – even if partial – was not a surprise. The opposition implosion and incessant public squabbling as well as the community’s antipathy towards Dr. Mahathir and distrust of his motives resulted in fewer Chinese voters returning to cast their votes; and a smaller final turnout in both constituencies. Total turnout for Kuala Kangsar was estimated at 71 percent and at Sungai Besar, 74 percent; well down from the 88 percent and 84 percent respectively attained in 2013.
For those who voted, it was probably a case of “better the devil you know than the deep blue sea”, especially since Dr. Mahathir’s main objective in his efforts to bring down the Prime Minister is to save UMNO and ensure the continuity of UMNO’s leadership of the country.
There are few, if any, positives that the opposition can take away from the two by-elections. BN’s hold over the nation’s voters seems secure even with the serial mis-governance and abuses of power that have taken place.
Getting out the younger voters in force, building up the grassroots leadership, a lesser dependence on big names and big ceramah, focusing on local issues that resonate – together, they may reduce the odds which have now tilted against the opposition. But there may not be enough time, resources or goodwill within the fragmented opposition to make these happen.