What next for Mahathir after by-election setback?

mahathir-Kit Siang

Dr Wong Chin Huat, Today Online

Former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad is arguably the biggest loser in the twin by-elections in Kuala Kangsar and Sungai Besar held on Saturday.

His call for the by-elections to be made a referenda on embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak was unheeded, with Mr Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (Umno) retaining the two constituencies comfortably.

Umno won both constituencies with 54 per cent of the votes, compared to 50 to 51 per cent in the 2013 general election.

Dr Mahathir is not a candidate in either constituency. He nevertheless campaigned for the candidates from the new Parti Amanah Negara of the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan as part of his wider bid to unseat Mr Najib.

An electoral upset in the by-elections for Umno would have justified Dr Mahathir’s warning that the ruling party would lose the next general election if it does not remove Mr Najib.

Both constituencies are interestingly similar, besides losing their parliamentarians in a helicopter crash during the Sarawak state election in early May. Both are semi-urban, with about two-third of the electorate being Malay-Muslims.

Out of 165 parliamentary constituencies in West Malaysia, 24 have Malays making up 60 to 70 per cent of the electorate, and 16 of them are now under Umno.

If the party loses all the 16 constituencies in the next election, all things being equal as in the 2013 poll, the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) would have only a 12-seat majority in the 222-member Parliament.

This would make the survival of BN more dependent on Sabah and Sarawak, the two Borneo states popularly dubbed as BN’s “fixed deposit”.

However, the loyalty of East Malaysian BN parliamentarians — currently 48 — is no guarantee. The East Malaysians have long-term discontent against Kuala Lumpur over its economic marginalisation and the rise of Islamic hegemony.

Against this background, an Umno defeat in Kuala Kangsar or Sungai Besar would have been a wake-up call for the party’s leaders and rank-and-file that Mr Najib is a liability to remove before the next poll.

That is why Dr Mahathir had called the by-elections a referenda on Mr Najib, only for the former Prime Minister to suffer the ignominy of voters rejecting his call.

Yet, Umno’s triumph should not surprise anyone.

In 2013, it beat the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) by narrow margins of 399 votes in the straight fight in Sungai Besar and 1,082 votes in a three-cornered fight in Kuala Kangsar.

The wafer-thin margins would have been easily overturned if the old opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat — consisting of the Malay-led centrist Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the Chinese-led secular Democratic Action Party (DAP) and PAS — had remained intact.

However, PAS was split last June, and Pakatan Rakyat disintegrated soon after.

This followed PAS president Hadi Awang’s faction pushing for heavier punishments under hudud by Syariah Courts in Kelantan. The move alienated the non-Muslims and liberal Muslims.

The PAS dissidents went on to form Amanah, which joined PKR and DAP to form Pakatan Harapan.

Meanwhile, Mr Hadi’s PAS has cosied up to Umno. In a cynical move of collusion, a private member’s Bill tabled by Mr Hadi to enable some hudud punishments was fast-tracked by an Umno minister for parliamentary debate.

With the realignment of opposition parties, multi-corner contests in the two by-elections were inevitable.

The opposition base is now split into two cores— one for the PAS’ brand of theocratic politics and the other against it. The split is so deep that even if the opposition had agreed on one candidate, regardless which party he was from, some voters would rather vote for BN or not to vote at all.

Preliminary analysis shows that the PAS was wiped out in some predominantly-Chinese precincts while Amanah also did badly in some predominantly-Malay ones.

More importantly, in both constituencies, the turnout rates dived by more than 13 percentage points, and the fall in some Chinese areas reached 19 per centage points, which partly contributed to the impression that there was a sizeable Chinese swing towards BN.


BN’s strong showing is undoubtedly aided by its time-tested tactic of patronage politics, ranging from development projects to outright cash hand-out for returning voters.

However, the success of the “cash is king” method in pushing aside national issues can also be understood as the lack of a “game changer”.

From controversies over troubled state investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad to hudud, none of the issues raised in the by-elections is new. With the opposition base split into two cores, it would have taken a “game changer” to alter the by-elections.

What greater “game changer” than if the Umno rebels led by Dr Mahathir had decided to throw their hats in the ring? Imagine if Dr Mahathir’s son and former Chief Minister of Kedah Mukhriz Mahathir had contested in Kuala Kangsar. That would force Mr Najib’s hand to sack Mr Mukhriz and other rebels from Umno and formalise the split of the party.

However, Dr Mahathir has chosen to play safe so far. He was the only senior ex-Umno leader who campaigned against the party in the by-elections.

Mr Mukhriz, former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, former Minister Shafie Apdal all shied away from the by-elections to avoid being sacked from Umno.

Dr Mahathir’s calculation is straightforward — he hopes to rally the ground outside Umno to force a party coup to oust Mr Najib. If that happens, Mr Mukhriz and other rebels who wait in the wings would then be well-positioned to control Umno.

The by-elections have crushed Dr Mahathir’s calculations completely. Umno will not remove Mr Najib unless the prospect of defeat in the next general election is real, which will not be the case unless Umno is officially split.

In the past two schisms of Umno, both Tengku Razaleigh in late 1980s and Anwar Ibrahim in 1990s had to form a new party to stage a credible challenge to Umno, then under Dr Mahathir.

Dr Mahathir cannot afford to play safe if he really wants to oust Mr Najib. Mr Mukhriz and other rebels will have to contest Umno in the next general election to stay relevant. And that cannot be done last minute.

If Dr Mahathir does not formalise Umno’s schism before Mr Najib calls for the poll, the two by-elections on Saturday may indeed be its prelude.

Dr Mahathir was a bold gambler. He had Umno deregistered to oust Tengku Razaleigh in 1988 and he imposed currency control before he purged Anwar with judicial means a decade later. Dr Mahathir won both battles.

If Dr Mahathir is too cautious to place his bet this time, Mr Najib would be the first Umno leader who successfully beats him.