The meaning of Bukit Selambau

She says that at this point in the contest, Umno is the party that has clearly compromised itself. Its corruption and racism have been laid bare for the rakyat to see, and many have chosen to reject the party because of this.

By Shannon Shah, The Nut Graph

IT appears that not even the return of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to Umno's fold could help the Barisan Nasional (BN)'s chances in Bukit Selambau and Bukit Gantang. And naturally, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leaders are claiming that the party's victory in the 7 April polls in Bukit Selambau is a clear referendum against new Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

But beyond such easy statements, what really does the Bukit Selambau by-election tell us about politics in Malaysia?

In a phone interview, PKR Youth elections director Fariz Musa says, "It means the rakyat still rejects the Barisan Nasional, and the anti-BN sentiment on 8 March 2008 was not a fluke."

Fariz Musa

"Yes, we consider it a referendum, because the by-election coincides with the timing of Najib's swearing-in as the country's new prime minister," he adds. This was echoed almost verbatim by vice-president Azmin Ali to reporters at Dewan Sekolah Menengah Teknik Sungai Petani 1 after PKR's S Manikumar was declared victorious by the Election Commission (EC) over the BN's S Ganesan with a larger majority than in 2008.

Professor Dr Norani Othman, a sociologist with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, is more cautious in her analysis.

"I wouldn't say it's a clear referendum against Najib, it's just that the electorate is generally not convinced of Umno's reforms. It is a skeptical electorate," she tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview. 

She says it is also important to factor in PAS's formidable election machinery, which is now boosted by the fact that it is the leading party in the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) Kedah government.

Gerakan secretary-general Teng Chang Yeow naturally denies that this victory is a referendum of any sort against Najib or the BN.

Teng Chang Yeow (Source: gerakan.

"The BN has been talking about reform since March 2008, and it is too short a time for many of the reform agendas to have materialised," he writes in an e-mail, saying it would be rather unfair to use these election results to judge the BN's reform efforts.

Gerakan's reactions are interesting to observe. It is, after all, the BN component party that lobbied for the Bukit Selambau seat to be given to the MIC, despite protests by the Merbok division of Umno.