Mixed results show BN yet to turn tide

A show of a more united Umno, with the presence of former premier Mahathir Mohamad, appeared not to have worked at winning back the Malays.

Carolyn Hong, The Straits Times

It was not a night of celebration for Barisan Nasional (BN). The status quo remained with no seats changing parties in the three by-elections held yesterday.

But the ruling coalition's failure to reclaim the two peninsula seats was a severe blow to its attempt at reinventing its image. The only piece of good news was that it won big in the Batang Ai by-election in Sarawak. Its vote majority more than doubled compared to the 2006 state election.

The bad news: Bukit Gantang, a parliamentary seat in Perak, stayed in opposition hands, as did Bukit Selambau, a state assembly seat in Kedah.

In Bukit Gantang – seen as the most important of the three – the opposition alliance Pakatan Rakyat (PR) won the seat by 2,789 votes, which was higher than its 1,566 majority last year. It was a convincing win.

The BN failed miserably in trying to woo voters back in the peninsula since its dramatic losses in the 2008 general election, even as it retained support in East Malaysia.

One irresistible conclusion is that the Umno-led BN is increasingly forced to rely on the Ibans and rest of East Malaysia to bolster its grip on power. If true, this geographical polarisation does not bode well for Malaysia.

As detailed results were not available at press time, the voting patterns by race are not entirely clear. Limited preliminary data suggests that the Malays remain split. If there was a swing either way, it would likely have been marginal.

Early data also indicates that the minority communities may have swung even more strongly towards the opposition. For instance, in the almost entirely Chinese area of Kuala Sepetang in Bukit Gantang, early figures showed that the BN won only about 15 per cent of the votes. That is half the number obtained in last year's election, said electoral analyst Ong Kian Ming.

With Malay votes not returning to the BN and minority votes becoming entrenched with the opposition, it would appear that the BN's strategies have failed.

The PR had won all four by-elections in the peninsula since last year's polls with a bigger majority.

In all four, the BN used a race-based strategy.

The opposition PR couched its battle as a class war – the masses versus the elite. The PR's message is clearly more appealing, albeit more to the non-Malays. But there are enough Malays who will support it, partly due to the pull of component member Parti Islam SeMalaysia.

Newly appointed Prime Minister Najib Razak's four-day old campaign of multiracialism and reforms appeared to have made little impact. The new vision he sought to inspire did not resonate enough to make a difference.

Perhaps, it was expecting too much too soon with an electorate already weary of broken promises. Former premier Abdullah Badawi made similar promises five years ago.

“People are waiting to see if Najib delivers. He has to sustain it to convince people,” said Ong.

What must be more disturbing for Umno is that its racial campaign in Bukit Gantang appears to have failed to move the Malays significantly.

While the full data is not out yet, the PR's improved majority would mean that the Malay vote could not have moved much to Umno, if at all.

Calculations suggest that it would not be more than two percentage points towards Umno if non-Malay support for BN plunged by about 5 per cent.

Umno had gone to great lengths to paint the PR candidate Nizar Jamaluddin, the former Perak menteri besar, as a Chinese stooge.

It played on the Malay insecurities by calling Nizar a traitor for challenging the Sultan of Perak's refusal to call for snap elections after the PR government was toppled by the BN in February.

A show of a more united Umno, with the presence of former premier Mahathir Mohamad, appeared not to have worked at winning back the Malays.

Gerakan president Koh Tsu Koon said the BN had yet to turn the tide, especially among the non-Malays, and had to implement reforms more concretely.

The BN should not be tempted to whitewash the mixed results by trumpeting the Batang Ai win. East Malaysia has totally different dynamics.

Bukit Gantang is still the most significant seat because it has the most direct link to Datuk Seri Najib. The Premier is seen as responsible for toppling the opposition-led Perak government last month, and the by-election was seen as the test of the people's verdict on the new government.

Overall, the BN will not be seen a winner last night.