Pakatan’s rising hills, Najib’s declining slope

by Bridget Welsh
Apr 8, 09

The results are in, and the 2-1 victory shows that both Pakatan Rakyat and Barisan Nasional held onto their original seats. But the final tallies do not suggest a status quo. Far from it.

The larger majorities for the opposition indicate serious obstacles for Najib Abdul Razak and BN. Voters have decisively rejected his new leadership less than one week into his tenure. The debate will not only centre on the numbers, but around the factors that contributed to BN defeats.

Allow me to point out 10 factors that stand out.

1) Leadership credibility – Najib has a serious public image problem. Despite hiring public relations firms, his reform-oriented speeches and calls to give him a chance, the new premier has yet to win over the support of a majority of Malaysians. The results show that this problem is across races (even among the Malays), classes and generations.

The sources of the problem are two-fold:

a) The cloud of scandal that surrounds his leadership has darkened his future and unless the issues are addressed squarely, it is unlikely to dissipate. Apparently these unsubstantiated rumours have poisoned Najib’s well.

b) Equally important is that he has yet delivered on reform. Malaysians have listened to unfulfilled promises and are unlikely to be swayed with piecemeal measures, such as the 13 ISA release. They also see him as an integral part of the Abdullah Ahmad Badawi government which had failed to live up to its electoral promises.

2) Umno infighting – Najib faces divisions within his own ranks. Despite the convincing win of his cohort in the Umno polls, this has not translated into a mending of differences within his party. Dissatisfied Umno members joined the independent list of candidates in Bukit Selambau from the onset.

Yet, Najib’s actions since taking office also had an effect. The growing purge of Abdullah people from the party leadership ranks has upset many. This played itself out in the by-elections where Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s remarks deeply offended Abdullah supporters. The sheer number of Umno members – even elected Umno party representatives –who stayed home rather than vote allowed the strong Pakatan’s win to evolve into a landslide, notably in Perak.

Appointing Muhyiddin Yassin, seen as the man contributing to Abdullah’s downfall, as election operation manager and discouraging Khairy Jamaluddin from campaigning had agitated the rifts, but it was Mahathir’s presence that reopened the wound.

Umno remains splintered within and this hampers the party from even gaining back its traditional base. This says nothing about the fact that reforms in Umno have not been substantial and this obstacle undermines the party’s ability to win back younger voters and fence sitters.

3) BN weakness – When the votes were counted, the results showed that in the two Bukits, non-Malay voters remained squarely behind Pakatan. Over 80% of the Chinese voted for the opposition, and in some polling stations, including traditional Chinese new villages, that number rose to 85%.

Among Indian voters, as the results in Bukit Selambau notably show, over 60% voted for the opposition. One estate worker wearing a BN shirt pointed out that her vote was in her heart, not what she was wearing. The massive effort by the MIC to distribute patronage in the Indian community and promises of additional Hindraf releases won back some voters, but the effort only made a dent in what appears to be a major post-March 2008 shift among Indian voters toward the opposition.

The valiant efforts of Gerakan, MCA, and MIC failed to woo their traditional ground. The reason is well-known – the BN as a multi-ethnic coalition is not working. Najib’s choice to visit Sin Chew Daily last week without his BN counterparts and failure to publicly engage the non-Malay component party leaders openly illustrates that even his administration recognises that the current non-Malay party leaders are weak.

Ironically, Najib’s actions are weakening them further, as non-Malay voices from BN have been marginalised and this marginalisation has undermined their ability to win back support. Until the non-component parties have stronger leaders to defend their parties interests and move beyond a system of accepting secondary status, they are trapped in a structure that is not seen as representative.

Remember, the majority of constituencies in Malaysia are mixed (and definitely not a Malay majority that some Umno members suggest), and ultimately the coalition that wins these seats, wins over the majority of voters.

4) Greater Pakatan coherence – The West Malaysian results have sealed Pakatan electorally, at least in the short term.

While it is foolish to suggest that the ideological divisions and inter-party competition do not remain, the win in Bukit Gantang that has brought Pakatan’s extremes together – DAP and PAS – in unprecedented fashion and the viable cooperation between all three opposition parties in Bukit Selambau that boosted a weak PKR candidate to an impressive victory, shows that the opposition is institutionalising as a electoral force.

In contrast, the failures of Pakatan cooperation showed in Batang Ai, giving the BN a solid victory. The umbrella of change with calls for better governance and the move toward moderation on the issue of Islamic law are inclusive enough for the diversity of opinion within Pakatan and cohesive enough for the electorate.

5) Corruption – If there is one issue that brings the voters to the opposition, it is corruption. From the Chinese fisherman to the retired Malay military officer, the message of dissatisfaction is the same – the rot within.

The predatory activity in the campaign as funds allocated to gain support were pocketed by the leaders and the larger sense that corruption in land deals, party polls, and contracts is endemic has deeply alienated many voters who are fed up with this practice.

Piecemeal initiatives and the selective targeting of individuals as occurred in the run-up to the Umno polls only served to deepen this sense that the people’s money is being taken by graft as ordinary voters struggle in the more difficult economic climate. The disparity of wealth and blatant display of spoils of power all favour Pakatan, even despite the problems the opposition coalition faces by some within its own ranks on these issues.

6) Patronage politics declining – A new politics in Malaysia is evolving, even in semi-rural/rural constituencies. Traditionally the delivery of election goodies – this time round bicycles, TOL agreements, fishing licences, school allocations, temple funds, and open financial allocations – has been enough to win over these areas.

It did the trick in Batang Ai, where promised of over RM70 million (for over 8,006 voters) yielded a bumper BN majority. (As one person commented, it was a strategic long-term investment in their community.) Yet, it was not enough in West Malaysia. Patronage cannot guarantee victories any more.

The reasons here are also two-fold:

a) The sheer population numbers undercut the personal relationships of reciprocity that underscore patronage. It works in Sarawak because personal ties remain. This is not the case any longer in West Malaysia as migration, party changeovers and ironically development itself has transformed dynamics into more impersonal exchanges. No wonder voters take the money and vote independently.

b) Another underlying cause of this transformation has been the evolution of voting for issues, not financial rewards or development promises. Voters have rejected short-term gains, showing that long-term factors in areas of governance matter more.

7) Voter sophistication – This is tied to the greater sophistication of voters who get their information from a variety of sources. While the Internet did not permeate these areas to the same extent as the urban constituencies and many of these voters do not engage alternative media (such as Malaysiakini), they see the forest through the trees. They are tired of being taken for granted and treated like children that should follow blindly.

The underlying patronising approach toward voters ignores that Malaysians vote strategically and purposefully. The approach of BN has yet to move away from the patronising mould. For example, while Bukit Gantang contest had a more sophisticated BN campaign with clearer alternative messages on the issue of the royalty, these remain superficial and lack credibility among fence sitters.

Parties across the spectrum have to keep up with the voters to win over their support. This will mean both BN and Pakatan will have to deepen the messages from abstract ideals to more concrete deliverables.

8) Rejection of hardline racial tactics – The multi-ethnic calls of “We Love Pakatan” outside the Town Hall in Taiping last night from the multi-ethnic crowd illustrated that racial politics have evolved. It would be a mistake to say that ethnic factors do not matter – they remain paramount and continue to shape campaigning on both sides – but the by-elections show that new ties are forming.

When Malays sit in DAP ceramahs and listen intently to Chinese speeches (that most do not understand) and Chinese attend kampong sit-ins organised by PAS, norms and boundaries have been broken. The BN’s aim to use race – especially Malay rights – to galvanise its base only served to bring back a small number of its core. Hardline racial language only goes so far.

But it was also the anger over tactics in Perak, with Hindraf and police brutality that proved decisive in both West Malaysian contests. Among estate workers in Bukit Selambau, a woman’s eyes showed tears as she brought up the A Kugan case. The cries of Makkal Sakti permeated the crowds.

These April polls show that hardline tactics are risky and can backfire.

9) Personality and party – These contests also show that while both party and personality matter, party is decisive. In Bukit Selambau, a weak candidate was buoyed by party leaders and party machinery.

In Bukit Gantang, the power of Mohd Nizar Jamaluddin’s character gained support across the board, notably among Malays. Yet, his final victory was the product of Pakatan as half of his support came from non-Malays.

In Batang Ai, PKR’s candidate Jawah Gerang was not able to build on his previous service as the Lubok Antu MP to overcome the BN machine.

The candidate factor was not central, despite the choice of local candidates by BN. This was a national contest in which the BN showed that it still command support in East Malaysia, which has a third of the parliamentary seats, but continue to lose ground in West Malaysia, where the majority of Malaysians reside.

The only personality that mattered was Najib, and his image liabilities did not translate his coming into office into an adequate electoral boost. Even the personality factor of Anwar ibrahim did not have a major impact, as the new reformasi-minded younger leaders of Pakatan play a more prominent role in the campaigns.

In the final analysis, Najib’s political base may be even more reliant on East Malaysia than Abdullah’s post-March 2008. For Pakatan, the states of Sarawak and Sabah remain serious obstacles.

10) People’s power – Ultimately, these results were about the Malaysians who came out to vote. Despite the rain (and it does rain a lot in these Bukits) and the strategic placement of the election on a Tuesday (which clearly had an effect on the lower turnout of younger voters working outstation), many of them used their right to vote to send a message.

The end result is that Najib did not get the mandate he needed and the opposition was given another boost, especially in Perak, where the cloud of possible polls hangs over the court decision and mid-May requirement to hold a state assembly session.

Whether Najib and his new team will listen and reform, or whether Pakatan will deepen its effort to reach out to voters or coast along with the messages of March 2008 that can fade will be crucial in shaping outcomes in future elections (and more by-elections are on the horizon), it will not take away that in these three historic by-elections, the democratic process (even with its flaws) can empower communities across Malaysia.

(DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor in Southeast Asian studies at John Hopkins University-SAIS, Washington DC. She was in Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau to observe the by-elections.)

  1. #1 by k1980 on Thursday, 9 April 2009 - 9:54 am

    Even if PR under Anwar were to gain power in the next general elections, who can guarantee that there would not be a coup d’etat, as shown by the Thai army against Thaksin and his supporters?

  2. #2 by suara on Thursday, 9 April 2009 - 10:03 am

    The PEOPLE have spoken and now, it is time for Pakatan to really put actions into words. We are looking for a viable alternative and PR can fulfil this role. Now PR, pls address issues that affects ordinary folks especially during these trying economic times.

  3. #3 by mauriyaII on Thursday, 9 April 2009 - 10:20 am

    If a coup d’ etat ever takes place in Malaysia, then it is a sure sign that democratic norms have been traded for baser values. It would only bring us to the level of countries such as Pakistan which is embroiled in lawlessness and disorder brought about by decades of military rule and the suppression of democracy.

    Hope such a scenario does not take place in Malaysia. God forbid.

  4. #4 by mauriyaII on Thursday, 9 April 2009 - 10:52 am

    For a foreigner, Dr Bridget Welsh seems to be better informed about the Malaysian psyche than the UMNOputras who still do not understand the groundswell against a corrupt, arrogant and racist regime that has lost its aura of invincibility among the urban and now even among the rural folks.

    Apart from Najib’s poor crediblity as a leader for all Malaysians, his apparent indifference to clear his name of all the accusations of sex scandals, corruption and connivance in a murder trial, has not endeared to the more discerning voters.

    Even his 1Malaysia rhetoric sounds very hollow. His talk of a lean and mean cabinet is yet to materialise. Hope it is really lean and clean and not overtly mean. If he still selects people with their own baggage of corruption, scandals and racism, it is not going to bring the people closer to him or the corruption infested UMNO/BN.

    What Dr Bridget Welsh conveniently or inadvertantly left out is the drama played by the old goat of a maglomaniac and somewhat maverick politician who tried to campaign for UMNO/BN.

    If Najib in his efforts to styme the old goat’s influence among the UMNOputras by bringing him as a Minister Mentor or an adviser, he is certain to go the way of AAB because no person in his right mind can accommodate the demands of the old goat.

    If the political crisis orchestrated by Najib does not come to an amicable end in favour of the wishes of the Perakians, then no amount of public relations work is going to bear fruit.

    He has to win the support of all Malaysians by his actions and not by just empty rhetoric and sloganeering. His actions has to speak that he is sincere and has the welfare of all Malaysians irrespective of race, religion or creed.

    In fact he has to shake off the shakles of the UMNO ketuanan mindset and start to work as a Malaysian leader and not as the henchman or the keris weilder of the racist UMNOputras.

  5. #5 by budak on Thursday, 9 April 2009 - 11:08 am

    Last week, my parent had shown me the water and electricity bills before and after the Perak State government coup…

    For the last 10 months, my parent does not need to pay a single cent for water and electricity…

    Now they’re forced to pay almost RM25 for both bills… which enough to buy a sack of premium quality rice..!

    Let’s look back;

    For last 50 years, BN have not given a single cent directly enjoyed by the RAKYAT, but this had been fulfilled by Pakatan Rakyat…

    says we’ve 1.85 million of Perakian, 7 persons per household, and 25% of 264285 household enjoy full water and electricity exemption therefore PR managed to contributes RM1,651,781 to the poor families and another RM4,955,325 to the rest of the household.

    In total RM6,607,106 each month being steal from PERAKIAN…
    RM79,285,272 a year
    RM237,855,816 for the next 3 years

    BN is stealing from the RAKYAT, is HRH endorse this…?

    I hope my dear statesman’s know how to count and my beloved Sultan Perak heard the PEOPLE grievances…

  6. #6 by passerby on Thursday, 9 April 2009 - 11:44 am

    The plain truth is the people is sick of bn and they just want to kick them out. After 50 years of racial politics, discrimination, abuse of power and nepotism, they are prepared to vote anyone for the change. I won’t be surprise if you put a donkey to stand against any bn candidate, the donkey will win the election! This is the extend of people’s frustration and they just don’t want to see najib’s face and that mamak’s one too.

    The people don’t trust najib as long as he doesn’t come clean with the Altantuya murder and the purchase of the helicopters and the submarines. We know the motive for the murder but strangely this was not investigated and questioned during the trial of Azilah an Sirul.

    In the Star it was reported both of them were found guilty and will be hang but no attempt has been made to find out of the motive and the real killer. No one will believe that these two did it on their own and I don’t believe the police will go to murder someone on a disturbance investigation.

    Strangely in another report on the murder of the cabbie, the police are looking for the motive. How come they apply different standard in the investigation? When a murder that may involve some vip, the investigation just stop before it will lead to the vip?

  7. #7 by monsterball on Thursday, 9 April 2009 - 12:09 pm

    k1980 is trying to frighten Malaysians?
    Is he saying…don’t rock the boat…something better than nothing?
    Why paint worst scenario?
    Why not think positive and FEEELL the People’s Power…to decide…..when the going is strong….the strong gets going.
    Are you strong…k1980?

  8. #8 by wanderer on Thursday, 9 April 2009 - 12:54 pm

    How can a BN apologist be strong, Monsterball?
    Fence sitters are always lacking in integrity… selfish specimens enjoy the fruits of others’ labour. Like hyenas in the Safari!

  9. #9 by k1980 on Thursday, 9 April 2009 - 1:01 pm

    I was just reminding everyone of the dirty side to politics. Ok, ok I’ll now paint the best case scenario— the army deposes BN in a coup d’etat and hands over power to PR, just like how Abihist came to power in Thailand. Satisfied, everybody?

  10. #10 by chris chong on Thursday, 9 April 2009 - 3:40 pm

    is melayu very afraid of DAP???

    UMNO keeps on using this tactic “DAP phobia” in bukit gantang election, and it seems their plan is working as the malay votes to UMNO have increased.

    i think it’s time for DAP to expand their influence to the malay, get in more malay members and let more malays understand DAP policies & aims. (take gerakan & MCA as lessons to learn from) don’t solely count on a single race.

    let’s do DAP ceramah nationwide!!! get the MALAYS!!!

    who get the malays, who’ll rule!!!

  11. #11 by frankyapp on Thursday, 9 April 2009 - 3:43 pm

    PR in fact won all three by election . Dear Bridget Welsh,BN victory in Bantang Ai was very dubious as most ballot boxes were carry away to the grand counting centre by air and boat unescorted by any bonafide representative particularly from PR. Your guess is as good as mine,any change of these ballot boxes could take place during the flight .You should ask in the first place why shouldn’t the EC allow vote counting in all it’s respective areas.This is 21 century and malaysia and EC are not illiterate in the IT system. A case in Sabah ,hope you know about it,villagers found several ballot begs full of genuine voters’slips floading in the Inanam river weeks after the general election last year.The rakyat demanded a probe but it has fallen into the authority’s deaf ear .

  12. #12 by aries66 on Friday, 10 April 2009 - 9:31 am

    Congratulations to all Bukits victory !!!!. It shows that Rakyat wanted to voice their dissatisfactory over the current issues
    that government failed on elimination corruptions & arrogant
    characters of BN ministers. Even with the new line up may
    not win RAKYAT hearts. Bravo for the 2 seats by PKR at Bukit
    Gantang & Bukit Selambau !!. PKR, please keep your promises
    and take action. We have done our part and it’s now your turn
    to show to RAKYAT on the improvements especially now our
    country is hit by economic crisis, everything priced up. Stop BN
    from racist remarks and bersatu semua bangsa Malaysia !

You must be logged in to post a comment.