Pakatan’s rising hills, Najib’s declining slope

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.

By Bridget Welsh 

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.