The June by-elections and the politics of losing

Bridget Welsh
21st June 2018

COMMENT The by-election results for Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar are in. Umno held onto their seats, and increased its majorities.

Given the tragedy surrounding the polls stemming from the helicopter accident in Sarawak last month, the fact that by-elections disproportionately favour those with access to resources, and the reality that these contests were three-cornered fights with a divided opposition, these results are not unexpected.

The important implications of these by-elections lies less in the winning, but in the losing – as the shifts in campaigning, voting and political alignments reveal that old dreams are gone. Malaysian electoral politics is shifting, and all indications are that the direction is not toward a stronger, more vibrant polity that offers meaningful choices to the electorate.

Declining engagement

At this marker before the next general election, it is important to identity key trends. Importantly, voters are not engaging as in the past. This is evident in the decline in voter turnout. Malaysians are tired of the politicking and turning away from elections.

The drop in voter turnout from 2013 was a whopping 14 percent in Sungai Besar and 13 percent in Kuala Kangsar respectively. Importantly voter turnout levels were also a drop from 2008. What is even more revealing is the decline in voter registration more broadly, especially among younger Malaysians.

Voters are disappointed with the options provided and tired of a political contest that appears to be about the fight for power rather than the fight for representation. Voter disengagement advantages incumbents, as shown in the by-elections results, and this unhealthy trend reinforces the sense of disempowerment that has deepened with the governance scandals over the last year.

Both campaigns were devoid of any meaningful new messages. They were not about any real reform or policies that help Malaysians. Neither side had anything substantive or new to offer the electorate. Instead the campaign was about fighting enemies, be they Mahathir Mohamad, Najib Abdul Razak or Abdul Hadi Awang.

Battles over personalities dominated over the concerns of ordinary people as the past featured more than the future. If there was any issue that stood out, it was hudud, which was carefully placed by Umno to serve as a distraction to reinforce opposition splits, fears and insecurities – emotions that favour the incumbent.

Umno’s use of race and religion for campaigning is not new. This issue however became less about hudud than about the person who introduced the hudud bill, namely Hadi, as here too the election became about old strategies rather than new ones. The overall shallowness of the campaign speaks to the fatigue in the political system and the widening deficit of new ideas and leadership for moving the country forward.

To fill the vacuum, both sides turned to relying on resources and patronage in campaigning. Buying votes has now become the norm for the BN, especially in by-elections. Yet, the crass exchange of funds for votes was so blatant that it set a new low standard of vote-buying. The Electoral Commission seemed to endorse this practice.

While the BN may relish in their victory, this practice will be difficult to replicate on a national scale, especially given the rising debt and fiscal constraints tied to the economic mismanagement of the Najib administration. This mode is not viable to win GE14.

The opposition on its part has joined the goodie game. In an ‘if you can’t beat, then join them’ dynamic, Pakatan Harapan parties handed out rice and other sundries. The use of state funds (or rather people’s funds) were similarly used to woo electoral support, feeding the practice that elections are about what you get materially in the short term rather than in the long term.

The opposition has adopted a campaign tactic it will always lose, not only for the fact that they do not have the funds to be competitive, but more for the reality that it undercuts the opposition from any advantage they have to fall back on principles. For every bag of rice they distribute, they undercut all criticisms of an unfair electoral process. They are becoming what they said they were fighting against.

Loss of dreams

The move away from campaigning over ideas and defending principles underscores broader shifts in the political disengagement among the electorate at large. The stakes in Malaysian elections have changed. While 2008 was about change, and 2013 about the possibility of a change in government, current elections no longer appear to offer the option of meaningful difference.

Today it is not clear what the opposition stands for. These by-elections did not reveal an alternative political narrative for the opposition, a wasted opportunity to genuinely construct a new foundation. For many voters, the dream of change is dead.

It is thus no surprise that there were political realignments in voting, with some Chinese and Indians moving away from the opposition (although between 5-10 percent in a preliminary study of the data). This lack of viable alternative leadership also contributed to the increasing fragmentation among Malay voters. Malays are more divided than they have ever been, an advantage that works in Umno’s favour. The overall momentum is changing, from anger directed toward Umno moving toward disappointment with the opposition for failing to meet expectations and achieve its promises.

The by-elections do however suggest emphatically that another dream is dying – this is of PAS and hudud. The biggest loser in the campaign was Hadi Awang’s PAS, as the results show that the traditional Islamist party cannot even win second place in a seat where it has repeatedly campaigned and even in a Malay heartland seat in Perak barely scraped through in second place. Preliminary analysis of the data shows that PAS held onto around a third of Malay voters, a record low in recent decades. Its connection to Umno was electorally toxic for the party.

Not only is Hadi Awang undermining any hope of PAS governing, voters have shown emphatically that they care less about hudud, with the majority rejecting it as the centrepiece of a campaign. PAS was not rewarded for pushing its archaic exclusive moralism, a sign ahead that the party under Hadi Awang is heading towards a minor electoral status worse than 2004. The by-elections show clear signs that the dream of hudud is dying, as the voters have spoken what surveys have long shown – hudud does not win votes. Hadi Awang’s leadership is destroying the party – a dynamic that truly makes Umno gleeful.

Votes of (no) confidence

Immediately after the polls there were many groups claiming victory. The first was Najib’s camp, with claims of a ‘vote of confidence’. This is a gross error in interpretation. Polls continue to show that Prime Minister Najib remains deeply unpopular – and his lack of presence in these by-elections (as compared to other senior leaders) was telling.

Supporters of the PM may live in a dream world of believing in confidence, but they are fooling themselves if they think that two by-elections will translate into a national mandate for their leader. The reality is that Umno’s chances electorally are stronger without the scandal-ridden PM.

A second claim of victory came from Amanah, whose first entry into peninsular politics showed that they are a significant new Malay party. They performed well. This performance, however, rested very much on the support and machinery of their allies, especially the DAP. This dependence is not healthy. Although it received multi-ethnic support, considerable support for the party came from Chinese voters.

Amanah has a long way to go to show it is an equal independent partner in the opposition alliance, and faces an uphill battle to bring in mass Malay support. A key step in that regard is to stop its myopic fight with PAS and focus on what it offers on its own and for the country as a whole.

Another claim has revolved around the participation of Dr Mahathir, with Umno belittling his role. The results show that support of Mahathir for the opposition did not translate into cutting into significantly Umno’s political base, as the party held its own. What is not clear is how this happened.

Neutralising dissent within Umno was effective as incentives and intimidation were used in the campaign, with grassroots leaders inside the party feeling the effects. Again, these tactics will be difficult to replicate at the national level. Umno’s greatest enemy has been itself, and divisions within the party and its base remain.

The most substantive vote of confidence surrounded the opposition as a whole. Taken together (PAS and Amanah) the opposition support remained high at 45 percent of the electorate. This is a loss of less than 5 percent of voters moving away from the opposition parties. As such, the opposition’s core support remains significant in what continues to be a polarised polity.

Entrenched losing mentalities

Opposition support is now however more fragmented. Looking ahead, it is unlikely that a pact can be formed to prevent multi-cornered fights in the next election. It is also impossible that Pakatan Rakyat can be repaired. Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall. Pakatan is broken. Even if Hadi steps down or is pushed out as leader in the next PAS party election, old formulas and coalitions are not viable.

As such, the reality is that the multi-ethnic opposition will need to address how it can maximise its support among opposition supporters and more importantly cut into Umno’s traditional base if it to even maintain its electoral position.

These are difficult tasks ahead, especially given the internal divisions in PKR and imbalances among the opposition partners. A new viable national opposition cannot achieve these tasks with a focus on issues and enemies of the past, a lacklustre campaign that relies non-competitively on resources rather than people’s priorities and battles that appear to be about themselves rather than for the people.

If the opposition is to move out of a losing mentality, it will need to address three key issues: a new leadership, a new narrative and revamped principles/parameters for cooperation and campaigning. The burden on the opposition to change is higher than ever, to reject practices and behaviour that has resulted in losses since 2013.

In contrast, the by-election victories show that for Umno, the strategies of maintaining electoral support remain the same – a controlling leader, a reliance on resources, the use of control of electoral bodies (through movement of voters as occurred in both by-elections and the advantages of delineation) and the manipulation of race and religion.

Umno continues to effectively capitalise on fear and insecurity, touting the idea that any viable national alternative besides Umno will result in loss of place and position for its political base. This may appear like a winning strategy for elections, but it remains to be seen how long a campaign based on a mentality of losing actually moves the country forward.

In this climate of economic contraction, the politics of losing is now more dominant than ever. Negative politics and politicking are defining the national landscape. Disengagement and division are eroding the democratic quality of elections. The June by-elections show that these developments are not a winning formula for ordinary Malaysians.

BRIDGET WELSH is Professor of Political Science at Ipek University, Senior Research Associate at the Center for East Asian Democratic Studies of National Taiwan University, Senior Associate Fellow of The Habibie Center, and University Fellow of Charles Darwin University.

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  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Wednesday, 22 June 2016 - 12:13 pm

    Actually what it takes got little to do with the opposition. Najib, destroying institutions and selling valuable assets to stay in power means UMNO need to attract talent or keep finding money to spend to stay in power – not a long term viable strategy. An economic fallout or continue exodus of talent from country and UMNO, will turn things around for the opposition – if they can hold on until then

  2. #2 by An ExM on Wednesday, 22 June 2016 - 1:25 pm

    Great analysis . Well done . Good reading . However the date posted need to be corrected – the year 2018 … are actually thinking two years ahead…..tele-transported to the future ? Seriously hope that by then the Opposition can iron out all their problems to defeat the current ” Cash is King” empire….! Work together please…..Uncle Lim must be involved in this work.

  3. #3 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 22 June 2016 - 2:49 pm

    “Opposition support is now however more fragmented.”
    No need 4 a foreigner 2 tell us

    Even an Ex DPM became a smart strategist

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