Melaka is a matter of factions

Philip Golingai, The Star

I shared photographs I found on Facebook of arch rivals Datuk Seri Najib Razak of Umno and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia at the Melaka polls nomination day on Monday with a friend.

“Looks like Barisan,” he said, referring to the blue Perikatan Nasional shirts Muhyiddin and his supporters were wearing, which were the same colour as Barisan Nasional’s blue uniform.

Not-so-united colours: Despite the similarly coloured uniforms, Bersatu (left, with Muhyiddin in white mask) and Umno (with Najib on the right) – or at least some factions within Umno – are at loggerheads in the Melaka state elections. — Photos from Facebook

For seasoned political watchers, Barisan’s shirt colour is “ori” (original) while Perikatan’s is a copy.

Barisan consists of Umno, MCA, MIC and Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah, and Perikatan comprises Bersatu, PAS, Gerakan, Sabah Star and the Sabah Progressive Party.

But, really, Perikatan and Bersatu’s shirts are cut from the same cloth – Bersatu founders, such as Muhyiddin, sacked chairman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and expelled deputy president Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir, are all former top Umno leaders.

Bersatu was formed in 2016 with the expressed intention of ousting Umno as THE party representing the Malays. Things escalated after Sabah’s snap 2020 polls when Umno did not get the chief minister post despite the coalition it was in, Gabungan Rakyat Sabah, winning – Bersatu’s Datuk Seri Hajiji Noor became Chief Minister instead of Umno Sabah chairman Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin. Then Umno broke with the Perikatan government in March 2021 and manoeuvred to oust Bersatu’s Muhyiddin as prime minister in August.

But still, this is not an Umno versus Bersatu dispute per se. It is about factions in Umno that are against Bersatu. Other top Umno leaders, such as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, Tan Sri Annuar Musa and Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, prefer that the two parties reconcile and face the 15th General Election (GE15) together. Bersatu is also willing to work with Umno, as it knows it needs Umno’s grassroots support to win seats.

But the anti-Bersatu factions in Umno – for example, one led by party president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi – are adamant that Umno wipes out Bersatu in the Melaka polls.

The fight to be the supreme party of the Malays is obvious in the runup to the Melaka elections. Umno, via Barisan, and Bersatu, via Perikatan, could not reach a compromise on which seats to contest so the two coalitions will go up against each other and federal Opposition leader Pakatan Harapan.

We’ll know which party will win when the voters go to the polls on Saturday. The results will also determine whether Barisan and Perikatan will continue to fight against each other in GE15.

Teknologi Malaysia political analyst Dr Mazlan Ali believes if Umno wins big in Melaka – “just say it manages to form the Melaka government or at least win the 13 seats it won in GE14” – it will go solo with Barisan in GE15.

“It will try to persuade PAS to support Barisan. PAS will be thinking of its untung and rugi (profit and loss). It will assess whether the coalition it is with would be conducive for it in GE15,” he added.

But if Umno does poorly, it would have to reconsider its decision to go solo. Mazlan said Ahmad Zahid’s position as Umno president might be affected, as party leaders and members would then see the decision to go solo as a big mistake.

Mazlan added that if Bersatu and Perikatan do not get a significant number of seats, the coalition will be perceived as not viable.

“Perikatan must do reasonably well in Melaka. If it gets a significant number of votes and seats even though it doesn’t win the state polls, it can still be a coalition that can give other parties a challenge in GE15,” he said.

Universiti Utara Malaysia political lecturer Prof Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani observed that, at the moment, there is no way Umno and Bersatu can collaborate as the divisions are too great – Umno was, after all, responsible for ousting Muhyiddin, Bersatu’s leader, from the country’s top post.

However, if Pakatan (which consists of PKR, DAP, Amanah and Upko) wins the state polls, Umno would need to re-strategise, he said – “It perhaps would then have to accept working with Bersatu and Perikatan.” But if Barisan wins Melaka, he said Umno would go solo with its Barisan coalition members in the next general elections.

“They will then be open to working only with PAS to re-establish Muafakat Nasional for GE15,” he said referring to the “national consensus” coalition Barisan and PAS formed in 2019 in opposition to the then Pakatan government.

If Perikatan wins in Melaka – which he considers unlikely at the moment – Bersatu and its coalition members would no longer need Umno, as it would mean that the voters have swung against Barisan and Pakatan, he said, adding that “If that happens, Perikatan can win other states like Johor and Negri Sembilan.”

The professor, however, reiterated that, in his opinion, it is unlikely that Perikatan will win Melaka.

It is midway to polling day on Nov 20, so I asked the two political analysts for their forecasts. Both think that it will be a fight between Barisan and Pakatan – a close and tough fight.

Mazlan said Pakatan’s chances lie in the fact that there is a three-cornered fight: Barisan versus Pakatan versus Perikatan. This is a disadvantage for Umno as the Malay vote would be split.

“If it were a two-cornered fight, Pakatan would have a problem keeping the seats it won in GE14,” he said, referring to 15 out of the Melaka assembly’s 28 seats.

“But the fight in Melaka is still open with Pakatan and Barisan having the same chances of winning.”

From Mazlan’s observation of going on the ground in Melaka, Umno has strong grassroots support.

“But there is a possibility that Umno can only win 10 seats and it wouldn’t be able to form the government as the three-cornered fight will split the Malay vote,” he said.

As for Perikatan, Mazlan contended that it has the most negligible chances of winning among the three coalitions contesting: “It will get third place. Maybe it can win two or three seats but not as many as Barisan and Pakatan,” he said.

Prof Mohd Azizuddin’s observations on the ground is that Barisan has about seven to, at the most, 10 safe seats while Pakatan has nine. Perikatan, he said, has no safe seats (which he categorises as seats a party is likely to win easily). This is because Bersatu relies on PAS machinery, he said.

“Bersatu has money but not machinery. Even when it was with Pakatan, it relied on PKR and DAP’s election machinery,” he said.

And PAS is divided, Prof Mohd Azizuddin has found: Youth members support Muafakat Nasional, meaning they will vote for Umno, while older members will go with Perikatan, ie, Bersatu.

Prof Mohd Azizuddin considers the remaining 12 seats grey, meaning voters could swing either way, towards Barisan or Pakatan.

“Most of these seats are marginal. In GE14, nine of them had fewer than 1,000 votes. Pakatan won the three other seats by more than 1,000 votes, but the competition now is tough and could go either way,” he said.

In campaigning for the Melaka polls, Bersatu and the anti-Bersatu faction in Umno continue to lash out at and bash each other. In fact, Umno’s de facto leader in the state polls, Najib, and Bersatu’s Muhyiddin have turned the elections into a personal battle. Both former prime ministers are completely at odds – probably the only thing the arch rivals share is the colour of their shirts.