Slim by-election will be Mahathir’s last battle
* The long-dominant Barisan Nasional is tipped to win Slim, but support for both it and Umno has been on a downward trajectory there for years
* Mahathir Mohamad’s new party is also in the running – with its performance seen as a key test of the former PM’s lasting appeal among rural Malays
(SCMP) – On Saturday, the residents of Slim – a small, rural, Malay-majority constituency in the Malaysian state of Perak – will vote in a by-election.
Ordinarily, such a poll would not be on most people’s radars, but strategists and analysts will eagerly scrutinise the results of this contest as both an indication of popular sentiment for the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) – the erstwhile dominant party in Malaysian politics – and for the debut of Malaysia’s newest party, Pejuang, the political vehicle of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
The by-election will also be a test of the internal cohesion of the expanding Muafakat Nasional coalition – which began as a team-up between Umno and the conservative Islamic party PAS – as well as the Pakatan Harapan grouping that ruled the country from 2018 until its ousting earlier this year.
Perak is one of Malaysia’s largest, more diverse and politically important states – home to an estimated 1.2 million registered voters and 24 parliamentary seats. Since 2008, it has been an important electoral battleground, with the opposition securing the state government on two occasions, in 2008 and 2018.
Given its size, Perak has a substantial number of urban and semiurban seats – which proved fertile terrain for the Pakatan Harapan coalition in 2018’s general elections – as well as rural and agriculturally dependent constituencies that have tended to lean more towards PAS and the Barisan Nasional coalition, which ruled Malaysia for decades before its ousting on the national level by Pakatan Harapan in 2018.
With 29 seats in the 59-seat state assembly to Barisan Nasional’s 27 and PAS’ three, Pakatan Harapan was given the right to form the state government after the last general elections as the other two parties were not in coalition at that point. However, a political reconfiguration at the national level on March 1 caused Perak’s Pakatan Harapan administration to collapse nine days later.
Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia switched allegiance to form the Perikatan Nasional coalition with Barisan Nasional and PAS, while four members of the assembly from other parties also crossed the floor. At present, the Perikatan Nasional coalition – Malaysia’s current ruling political alliance – has a 34-seat majority in the Perak state assembly.
Slim has some 23,000 registered voters, 75 per cent of whom are Malays, with ethnic Indians, Chinese, and Orang Asli (indigenous) voters comprising 13, 10, and 2 per cent, respectively.
The seat contains three communities who benefit from federal government agricultural development initiatives and tend to be staunch Umno supporters. Indeed, Slim has been Umno-held since the constituency was established in 2004.
The by-election is being called following the death on July 15 of Mohd Khusairi Abdul Talib, former member of the state assembly for Slim and Barisan Nasional division chief for the Tanjung Malim parliamentary seat.
The constituency’s economy is based on agriculture, with oil palm and other plantation activities being the source of most employment and livelihoods. Given its relatively isolated location, along with unresolved issues pertaining to land rights and titles, efforts to diversify the economy away from traditional employment have been largely unsuccessful.
Slim is affected by outmigration, with younger people leaving to find work in urban centres. Infrastructure also remains relatively undeveloped, with frequent flooding a particularly salient issue.
Despite the seat’s traditional affinity for Barisan Nasional and Umno, support for both has been on a downward trajectory since the 2004 general elections. In 2008 and 2013, votes for the ruling coalition fell and, as with the rest of the country, Barisan Nasional failed to obtain a majority in 2018 for the first time. One contributing factor was the three-way battle between Barisan Nasional, PAS, and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia that year. While PAS had traditionally run against Barisan Nasional in the seat, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia was able to capitalise on cost of living issues as well as the 1MDB controversy
to secure one-third of the votes.
Candidates and parties
The benefits of incumbency and its well-developed grass-roots network mean Barisan Nasional is regarded as the favourite to win the by-election. That said, the coronavirus pandemic has altered campaign dynamics by increasing the importance of social media at the expense of traditional, costlier activities such as large-scale rallies.
Campaigning this time has consisted of door-to-door visits, as well as Facebook Live broadcasts. Even election flags are less prevalent than in past by-elections, a reflection of strained financial means as well as the dampening effects of the pandemic.
Barisan Nasional has chosen a well-known local Umno member, Mohd Zaidi Aziz, as its candidate. An International Islamic University Malaysia graduate who served as youth chief for the Slim village Umno branch from 2000 to 2018, he was also the Barisan Nasional Tanjung Malim deputy division chief up until Mohd Khusairi’s death, after which he was made acting division chief. Despite his local ‘pedigree’, Zaidi lives in Kuala Lumpur – making him very reliant on the party’s machinery for campaigning and outreach to voters.
Mahathir’s newly established party, Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang), is also contesting the by-election – though as it remains unregistered, the party’s candidate, Amir Khusyairi, will stand as an independent. Amir comes from a prominent religious family, is a sharia lawyer and also an International Islamic University Malaysia graduate. Compared to Mohd Zaidi, Amir is perceived as more of an outsider, coming as he does from the adjacent district of Telok Intan. This has been capitalised upon by Barisan Nasional leaders such as Najib Razak, who have stressed the importance of locally embedded candidates.
To its credit, the fledgling party has managed to assemble some party machinery in Slim, run by Pejuang volunteers from across the peninsula. However, the party’s campaign is leaning heavily on Mahathir’s personal popularity. Yet beyond visiting the seat on nomination day, the elder statesman has not been campaigning actively on the ground.
The third candidate is Santharasekaran Subramaniam, a teacher who recently resigned to stand as an independent in the elections. The only non-Malay contestant in the election, Subramaniam has focused on the plight of ethnic Indians and plantation workers in the constituency.
Given its ethnic composition, agriculture-based economy and voting history, Slim is a good bellwether for voting trends in Peninsular Malaysia’s Malay heartland. In addition, the campaign constitutes a unique test for the various political groupings, most notably Muafakat Nasional, led by Umno-PAS, and Pakatan Harapan.
With regards to Muafakat Nasional, the Slim by-election will provide crucial insights on whether PAS supporters in rural constituencies will heed their leaders’ call to support an Umno candidate. In 2018’s elections, PAS made significant inroads in Slim among younger voters and support for the Islamic party among under-40s is equal to, if not slightly higher than, for Umno.
The Slim by-election also serves as a practical test of whether the grass-roots networks of PAS and Umno can collaborate effectively. Should the by-election indicate that PAS supporters refuse to back a Umno candidate, or that concerted campaigning is not feasible, the simple reliance on “vote pooling” between Umno and PAS in the next election may need to be revisited.
Indications from the campaign bode well for PAS, and are better than for Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia. On the ground, the campaign is predominantly Barisan Nasional-led. While the Muafakat Nasional logo appears sporadically, no mention is made of Perikatan Nasional in campaign paraphernalia.
Umno President Zahid Hamidi gave a lukewarm reception to Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia’s decision to join Muafakat Nasional and though Umno and PAS have been seen campaigning together, the third member of the grouping is rumoured to be carrying out its own activities in support of Mohd Zaidi.
The newly expanded Muafakat Nasional may suffer internal fault lines, but Pejuang has problems of its own as well.
Despite clearly targeting Pakatan Harapan supporters and desperately needing to use its grass-roots networks to canvas for support, Pejuang is not officially a member of the coalition.
While Amanah leaders such as Khalid Samad and Mohamad Sabu have campaigned for Pejuang, it is the People’s Justice Party that has the strongest grass-roots presence in Tanjung Malim, including in Slim. There have been expressions of support from party vice-presidents, but grass-roots members and some state leaders are reluctant to campaign for Pejuang as Mahathir has yet to reconcile with People’s Justice Party President Anwar Ibrahim.
Moreover, Pejuang’s candidate has stated that the Pakatan Harapan leaders campaigning in Slim have focused on national issues, rather than his candidacy per se.
Considering historical voting preferences in Slim, Barisan Nasional is likely to secure a victory come polling day. However, given the stakes, a narrow victory may not be sufficient.
In 2018’s elections, the combined vote share for PAS and Umno in the seat was 68 per cent, with PAS garnering about 4,000 votes, or 22 per cent. Should Barisan Nasional’s candidate get significantly less than two-thirds of the vote, it could mean that PAS supporters are not that inclined to support Umno, particularly in areas where the Islamic party has been active and has fielded its own candidates in the past.
In turn, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia needs to show that it can drum up support for Muafakat Nasional – Zahid, the Umno president, has said he expects it to bring in an extra 6,000 votes in order to be considered a genuine coalition partner. This somewhat unrealistically assumes that all, or most, of those who voted for the party last time can be convinced to transfer their allegiance to a new coalition.
For its part, Pejuang will seek to attract the 6,000 votes that went to Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia when that party was part of Pakatan Harapan. However, should Pejuang garner a paltry share of the vote – say less than 3,000 – then that could indicate Mahathir’s appeal to rural Malays has fallen.
In addition, given Pejuang’s Malay focus, non-Malay Pakatan Harapan supporters may decide to stay home or vote for Santharasekaran Subramaniam as a sign of protest.
Should that happen, this by-election could prove to be Mahathir’s last electoral battle.