How The Pakatan Harapan legend crumbled in Malacca
As Malacca turns blue with BN’s big win, the question is what went wrong for Pakatan Harapan? Analyst BRIDGET WELSH looks at the hard questions Anwar Ibrahim and co must ask themselves.
Between the Lines Special Report
Historic Malacca is known for its legends; it was a place and time where myths were made and tested. Yesterday, another, more modern, myth was tested in Malacca – and found wanting. The lofty Pakatan Harapan, led by Anwar Ibrahim, fell off its pedestal – hard – in the state elections; the proposals it put to the electorate soundly rejected.
Instead, Malacca voters returned UMNO/Barisan Nasional (BN) into government, giving this coalition a two-thirds majority of 21 out of 28 seats. It did so on a record 66% low state turnout (a drop of 19%), without any real gain in vote share (36% to 38%) for UMNO/BN compared to the 2018 results.
In its maiden election in Peninsular Malaysia, Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) captured nearly a quarter of the vote and two seats, cutting Harapan’s support and spoiling the Anwar Ibrahim-led coalition’s potential victory in at least seven seats.
The only saving grace for dismayed Harapan supporters is that all UMNO/BN did was bring its base back to the UMNO fold, with no meaningful gain in support. Factions within UMNO, led by Najib Tun Razak and Mohammad Hassan, put aside their differences and delivered the seats.
PN’s gains should be a wake-up call for UMNO, but self-absorbed and high on victory they are unlikely to recognize this. Despite winning a new state mandate, UMNO remains a much weaker party than the past, with its leadership and internal divisions.
More detailed analysis of voting behaviour will be published elsewhere, but my field analysis points to three causes.
Why Malacca went to Umno
Firstly, many traditional Harapan voters stayed home. This was not just about Covid-hesitant voters, but a conscious decision not to vote for any of the options on offer.
Second, Malay support for Harapan eroded, a drop in popular vote of 7% overall. This drop was concentrated among Malays and young people generally. In 2018 it captured nearly a third of Malay support. This has been cut in half in Malacca.
Finally, many of the young that supported Harapan in GE14, believing in the promises of change, moved their allegiance to PN. Engaging young people is not just about fielding a few young candidates; substantial engagement involves outreach, recognition of the concerns of youth and delivery of reform promises.
This is the second defeat for the opposition coalition and its allies after it was toppled from government in 2020 – both of which when Anwar Ibrahim was Harapan’s leader. Anwar also led the previous Pakatan Rakyat coalition unsuccessfully during GE13 in 2013. The opposition stalwart and prime minister hopeful has consistently failed to secure a major election victory at the leadership helm. How many times does he need to be rejected before the opposition realizes that Anwar’s time has passed?
As with conditions that led to the Sheraton Move, many of the causes of Harapan’s defeat are self-inflicted; Malacca’s results show that Harapan has alienated its traditional political base and failed to attract new supporters. With more young voters and automatic voter registration coming online from December, if it fails to act, its support will erode further.
What went wrong with Harapan?
Two national decisions contributed to the delegitimisation of Harapan.
Foremost was the inclusion of ‘frogs’ into the coalition’s line-up. Idris Harun’s white elephant monorail remains a blight in Kota Melaka, but Anwar insisted on running this train; he pushed for the frog’s candidacy over internal objections within the coalition and ignored public outcries. That Harapan thought Idris Haron was ‘winnable’ is a reflection of how out of touch PKR was with voters.
Equally important, Harapan led the coalition into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Ismail Sabri Yacoob UMNO/BN government. On the eve of the election, Harapan parliamentarians joined a voice vote supporting a budget with the most spending and among the most blatant discriminatory allocations along racial lines. Even many of Harapan’s own members had to swallow the bile in their stomach as the vote was taken, endorsing policies and a policy framework that has deeply alienated Harapan from its base.
Here too, ‘leadership knows best’ elites – in this case led by key DAP leaders but endorsed by Anwar– put in place conditions for the coalition’s embarrassing defeat. Talk of an anti-hopping law being passed has no resonance when you are part of the hopping. Talk of reform has no substance when you are working with those undercutting reforms.
No wonder Harapan’s proposals were soundly rejected by voters. They gave no reason to vote for the coalition, as the hypocrisy of Harapan’s failure to follow principles of reform overshadowed the entire state campaign.
While national leadership accounts for the conditions that kept many at home – local campaigning and pandemic conditions did not help. Covid-19 made many reluctant to vote, especially outstation and Chinese voters. Harapan’s campaign did not have coherence or clear messaging and logistically operated in silos. This was in contrast to PN’s more coordinated, slick and resource-rich campaign that capitalized on financial insecurities of voters and was more tactical in its choice of candidates. PN captured a future-oriented ‘change’ momentum.
While in government in 2018-2020, Harapan failed to build up its party machinery locally. After the Malacca elections were announced, it fought internally over candidates, logos and seats, and refused to include MUDA while UMNO/BN and PN went about voter engagement, securing their base and winning dissatisfied young voters.
What happens to Harapan now?
The implications of the outcome are multiple. Here are three:
Leadership: Anwar Ibrahim no longer has the public support and credibility to lead the opposition. If Harapan is to stand any chance to win the next election the coalition needs leadership turnover, be more connected to the ground, and genuinely vested in pushing for the reforms its electorate has long asked for.
DAP’s Malacca state chairman Tey Kok Kiew has already resigned. His retirement should be the beginning of needed leadership turnover at the state and national levels. Taking responsibility and stepping aside is essential to regain credibility.
Legitimacy: Harapan has delegitimised itself. Other opposition alternatives – MUDA, Warisan and even Mahathir’s Pejuang on the recent budget and the Najib house/land ‘gift’ are seen as more principled, standing up to oppose initiatives that are not in line with strengthening all Malaysians. When communities that they represent are further marginalized in policies and spending, there should not be acquiescence. As the main opposition Harapan has sat down, understandably their political base walked away.
Legacy: The Malacca polls provide an opportunity to step back to move forward. Harapan campaigns have been successful when they inspire the electorate, offer a path towards a better Malaysia. Romance, meaningful respectful voter engagement, is needed in making proposals to the electorate. Institutionally Harapan lacks the same party machinery and resources as its opponents, and were further hampered in the SOP Malacca campaign. They need to return to genuinely principled politics and connect to their political base.
In opting to turn over power, to empower new voices and the young, and return to a reform agenda Harapan leaders will allow itself to renew and reimagine a new path. Failure to do so will inevitably lead to coalition break-up, further infighting and further voter alienation.
In voter rejection, Harapan leaders have an opportunity to leave a legacy for a new generation of Malaysians and allow new legends to emerge.
BRIDGET WELSH is currently an Honorary Research Associate of the University of Nottingham, Malaysia’s Asia Research Institute (Unari), based in Kuala Lumpur. She is also a Senior Research Associate at the Hu Fu Centre for East Asia Democratic Studies, and a Senior Associate Fellow of The Habibie Centre. Her writings can be found at bridgetwelsh.com.