21 Jun 2016
QUESTION TIME While most people had expected BN to win the parliamentary seats of Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar hands down, the huge margin of victory must have surprised both BN and the opposition and raises the possibility of early general elections in the wake of the euphoria and an opposition in disarray.
But before we discuss that, what caused the rout and what are its implications? By numbers, two things seem fairly obvious. One, there was a massive swing to BN of Chinese votes and two, Amanah’s support among Malay votes were even lower than expected.
Taking Sungai Besar as an example, by some estimates as high as 50% of the Chinese vote could have gone to BN compared to just 25% in 2013. Chinese account for 31% of the electorate in Sungai Besar.
Some, including this writer, had given Amanah a significant chance of winning in Sungai Besar based on an 80% Chinese voter support, provided that Amanah could get at least 20% Malay voter support and 60% Indian support and BN got less than majority support of Malays, at 45% or less.
The Chinese voter support figure was way off the mark while indications are that Amanah did not even get 20% support from Malays with BN getting majority Malay support. This, in the end, provided a decisive victory for BN.
Perhaps the securing of the release of the two Sekinchan fishermen from jail in Indonesia days before the poll helped. But there was no such thing in Kuala Kangsar and the BN still won big there.
The Chinese were unhappy with PAS over hudud and its apparent connivance with Umno over fast-tracking the so-called hudud bill, but they still don’t trust Amanah over hudud. That Amanah made no firm statement over hudud did not help.
On top of that, PKR did not seem to have their heart in supporting Amanah. Selangor Menteri Besar and PKR deputy president Azmin Ali was not seen enough in the campaigning, leading to speculations of a split in the party.
The break within opposition, disunity, and extreme disappointment with the opposition disarray may have alienated Chinese voters further while MCA’s strident statements over the hudud bill may have played a part in the return of some Chinese votes to BN.
The inevitable conclusion
Amanah communications director and Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad said part of the reason for the swing in Chinese votes to BN was due to goodies and intimidation.
Sorting out the catch at Bagan Sungai BesarKhalid claims Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi when meeting Chinese voters hinted their fishing licences may not be renewed if BN did not win while promising to help them secure permits to hire foreign workers on their boats if BN won. “So they may have thought that it’s better to make use of this election to get benefits,” he told a press conference.
Turning to the Malay votes, the lack of support for Amanah may be due to the newness of the party. The old Umno was formed in 1946 and the PAS forerunner in 1951. They have represented Malay and Islamic interests in peninsular Malaysia for a very long time. It is not going to be easy to break in and become a significant new Islamic and Malay party, when in addition to Umno and PAS, you also have PKR, too.
And then there is the question of whether Umno may have made itself more appealing to Malays by appearing to push the hudud agenda. With Umno, PAS and PKR divvying up the Malay and Islamic votes among themselves, is there a place for Amanah?
Unless Amanah can garner more support from Malays, it may well become irrelevant. While it is true Amanah got significant votes in both Sungai Besar (where it got more votes than PAS) and Kuala Kangsar (where it got less), much is probably due to Chinese support.
Another thing to note is that even the combined opposition vote is not sufficient to dislodge BN from victory in either constituency. In Sungai Besar, BN would still have won with a majority of 2,289 votes, a sharp improvement from just 399 votes in 2013. For Kuala Kangsar, the majority was 2,032 this time nearly twice the 1,082 previously.
The inevitable conclusion from that is that even with Chinese votes going back to BN, the combined opposition is not far away from winning – it would require a voter swing of a mere 1,000 plus votes in each constituency. But PAS is not in the opposition coalition.
If they don’t somehow get PAS into the Pakatan Harapan coalition, not only does the hope of winning the next general elections diminish considerably, they may even lose Selangor because it looks like Malay support will be split between Umno and PAS with Amanah figuring little in the overall picture for Malay votes.
The RM4.2b question
Which brings us to our final billion-ringgit or shall we say RM4.2 billion question: Is Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, despite the swirling questions over 1MDB and donations into his personal bank account, confident of calling a snap poll in the face of the victory at the twin by-elections? And how will BN do if he does?
GE14 is not due until 2018 but already there is speculation that it might be brought forward to next year, given BN’s grand showing in Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar.
Calling early elections may be a risky gambit for Najib and BN. A general election is not the same as a by-election even if there were two this time. People are going to be much more energised and concerned when there might be the possibility of a change in government. National issues will come to the fore again.
And while PAS and Umno may be working together for hudud, they are by no means allies yet. If they are not, then you cannot discount the possibility of PAS uniting with Harapan under an opposition coalition, putting aside differences over hudud much as they did in 2013 and 2008. If that happens, the figures change substantially and BN no longer has the edge.
For instance, in 2007 at a by-election for the state seat of Ijok in Selangor, where Anwar Ibrahim campaigned hard for PKR’s then strongman Khalid Ibrahim, BN still won by a comfortable 18% margin. But the following year, in the 2008 general election, the opposition took Selangor and four other states and denied BN a two-thirds majority. The very same Khalid who lost in Ijok won it back with a 15% majority and became menteri besar of Selangor.
When Najib became prime minister in 2009 after Abdullah Ahmad Badawi stepped down following BN’s poor showing in 2008, he was expected to go for early polls too. As events unfolded he waited till the very end. He is likely to do the same this time, although almost anything is possible in politics.
Unless the opposition gets its act together and all the heavyweights here – PKR, DAP, PAS and yes, Amanah – pull wholeheartedly in the same direction they have little hope against BN – in early or late polls, with or without Najib. That’s the clear message from Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar, and the opposition ignores it at its own peril.
Former editor P GUNASEGARAM is now a consultant.