Shunned by Umno, Bersatu’s survival now rests with PAS, say analysts

(MMO) – Umno’s decision to withdraw its support for the coalition led by Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia will pull large swathes of the Malay vote away from the splinter group to deal a blow powerful enough to decimate the young party at the next general election, analysts said.

Bersatu was founded with the initial aim of breaking Umno’s grip on rural and conservative Malay votes but has seen marginal success.

Since its formation, the party has made little progress to counter Umno’s clout, having to contend with a smaller supporter base of mostly disgruntled former members of its sister party with no grassroots support.

Umno and PAS on the other hand amassed up to 70 per cent of the Malay vote at the 2018 general election, with the former enjoying the lion’s share. Hawkish Umno leaders have used this to pressure Bersatu into giving way.

Oh Ei Sun, a fellow at the Singapore International Institute of Foreign Affairs, said the numbers are testament to the parties’ clout among rural and conservative Malays.

Voting data throughout the years suggest this is an electorate that often votes along partisan lines, and has stayed consistently with either Umno or PAS.

“I think for most conservative Malays — who make up the bulk of the overall voters — the fallback party is still unequivocally Umno, followed closely by PAS,” the analyst said.

“This was testified in the 2018 general election, where Umno and PAS garnered more than 75 per cent of Malay votes. The progressive Malays — who are decidedly fewer in number — would likely go for Pakatan Harapan (PH),” he added.

The rest consists of urban moderates and liberals, most inclined towards PH. While just 30 per cent, their votes helped the multiracial pact achieve a landmark victory and ended Barisan Nasional’s (BN) six-decade long monopoly on power.

There has been talk that Bersatu could woo Malay liberals too. Some party leaders have openly identified with progressive ideas by championing inclusive and welfare policies.

Datuk Seri Azmin Ali, who defected from PKR and is now a Bersatu supreme council member, has also shared hope that supporters from his former party would switch allegiances, citing disillusionment with the leadership of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

But some analysts feel it would be hard for Bersatu to draw support from liberals, citing its role in the power grab that ousted PH last year.

“This actually leaves Bersatu in a lurch, as it cannot count on PH votes for obvious reasons, but they have yet to make significant inroads into the conservative Malay vote bank,” Oh said.

With PAS throwing its full support behind Bersatu, that may work if the two parties can find a formula for seat distribution. Still, analysts noted that PAS has limited influence, with support strongest in the northern rice-belt states.

The Islamists are also in an election pact with Bersatu’s rival, which has raised questions if it is possible for the three to cooperate in their respective pact and avoid a clash at some point.

Some analysts, however, have pointed to the emergence of new voters who see conservatism as a unifying ideology able to transcend partisan loyalty, which could work in favour of Bersatu.

Datuk Mohamad Abu Bakar, political analyst at UnisZa, said this is a generation of electorate born as a result of liberal governance under PH, and would vote for any party that champions conservatism as reflected in the positive rating for PN and the Umno-PAS-Bersatu alliance.

Yet these voters will still be forced to choose at the end of the day, as the tussle between Umno and Bersatu would effectively make the prospect of three parties sitting in a coalition purely based on conservatism unlikely.

“There has been a resurgence of traditional Malay-Muslim conservatism following PH rule, and this has translated into support for Umno-PAS-Bersatu as evidenced in the last couple of months,” he said.

“But they need to harness this force in order to come up strong and formidable in the next election. So far they have been at loggerheads with each other,” he added.

“Under pressure from Malay-Muslim conservationists, they might regroup, and present themselves as a common front. But as of today, this has not happened.”

The induction of over 7.5 million young voters once the lowered voting age takes effect this July, and some four million more when the automatic registration begins, is also expected to add to the uncertainty both for conservative and liberal political forces.

The widely held view among analysts is that no one party can truly hold sway over this highly unpredictable electorate, making them a volatile force that could do either damage or good.

For prime minister and Bersatu president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, these young voters present an opportunity to level the playing field with its more established competitors, especially Umno.

But Mohamad Hisomuddin Bakar, director at the Ilham Centre, said winning them over will not be easy.

“Looking at the significant addition, I feel this government is unprepared to take the risk on a wave whose political inclination is hard to predict,” he said.

“With this pandemic, the drastic dip in support for PN and the prime minister, and the addition of a voter segment deemed fragile or uncertain make it difficult for any party to dictate the trajectory of the upcoming election.”