BN vs Pakatan: Chinese reaction to PAS is the key

By Fui K. Soong (The Straits Times)

The results of the contest between the conservatives and the “Erdogan” or moderate factions in the elections of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) will determine its direction as well as that of the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat.

The results of the recent by-elections in Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau were telling. They indicate that the Malay electorate is still split down the middle, divided equally between the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and the opposition.

The BN’s support among Indians has improved somewhat, rising by 15-17 per cent since last year’s general elections, but its support among Chinese voters has been further eroded, falling by 10-15 per cent. Older Chinese voters have shifted away more than younger Chinese voters.

The loss of Bukit Gantang is significant for BN because the constituency’s racial mix is a microcosm of the country’s. Given that 36.1 per cent of all parliamentary seats in the Malaysian peninsula are similar to Bukit Gantang’s, its loss should be a matter of grave concern for BN.

PAS’ emphasis on justice and fairness is finding considerable traction among non-Malays. The issues of hudud laws and PAS’ commitment to creating an Islamic state have ceased to be of concern to many minorities.

PAS flags were posted inside homes in the Chinese fishing village of Kuala Sepetang. Fishing boats and jetties were decorated with PAS flags. Flags of the largely Chinese-based Democratic Action Party were also present but less visible. Chinese and Indian voters openly wore PAS T-shirts at ceramahs. PAS volunteers, campaign workers and members approached ordinary Chinese voters directly, taking the trouble to explain to them the concept of a fair Islamic state.

Despite their differences, PAS’ fundamental belief in establishing an Islamic state remains the common denominator among all its different factions. If the “moderates” were to emerge the victors in the coming party elections, that would merely indicate that new approaches have taken root in PAS, but its ends would remain the same.

In the 1990 general elections, PAS’ support base stood at 375,867 votes. Last year, it reached 1.14 million, an almost threefold increase in 18 years. The huge increase in PAS’ support in last year’s general elections came mainly from its new supporters — the non-Malays.

By comparison, BN’s votes increased from 2.98 million in 1990 to 4.1 million last year, an improvement of only one-third.

This brings us to the next question: Is Pakatan leader Anwar Ibrahim still an important factor in the opposition’s equation? Umno’s obsession with the man is understandable, since many of its current leaders are acquainted with his brilliant strategic mind, having worked with him for many years when he was part of Umno.

His eloquence and the reach of his network among Malaysia’s business and political elites are plus points for the opposition. He stands heads and shoulders above the other opposition leaders in terms of his experience in government and in his skills as a communicator.

However, the reality is that Datuk Seri Anwar’s own party — Parti Keadilan Rakyat — is structurally weak and is heavily reliant on PAS’ machinery. Anwar’s recent re-shuffling of portfolios in his party shows that he recognises this weakness. Besides, under the leadership of Prime Minister Najib Razak, the BN will not play along with Anwar’s strategy of pushing for by-elections to create momentum for the opposition.

It will be interesting to find out if PAS, having the superior party organisation, would insist on its own leader becoming Malaysia’s prime minister if Pakatan were to win the next general election or allow Anwar to lead.

What began as a protest vote against the BN government in March last year may well be consolidating into a mandate for the opposition. It is uncertain if Malay votes have decided definitively between the BN and Pakatan at this stage. Given that Indian voting patterns are still fluid, what may decide the BN’s fate is how Chinese voters react to the new PAS moon in the Malaysian political firmament.

The PAS election results will tell us if this is really a new moon or just the return of the old one.

*The writer is the CEO of the Institute of Strategic Analysis and Policy Research, a research organisation of the Malaysian Chinese Association.