How to save the opposition from an Umno-BN onslaught

If regaining the government in this general election is not a reality, they must do the next best thing – put themselves in a good position to take over the government at the 16th general election.

Murray Hunter and Lim Teck Ghee

Those who have been watching the political scene will not find it a shock if the Umno-led Barisan Nasional wins a resounding victory in the coming general election, despite its scandal-ridden record of tainted leadership and mismanagement of the economy and society.

It may also not be a surprise that Pakatan Harapan in its present form will lose more than a few seats.

The big question is by how much the BN will win and if that happens, what will a much weakened opposition mean for the country.

It is quite likely that BN, with the support of Sabah Umno and Sarawak’s GPS will be returned easily to the government. The grouping will have considerably more seats than the 112 simple majority needed in parliament. In an extreme scenario, BN may even be able to garner a simple majority in its own right without the assistance of GPS.

Umno back as dominant partner
Umno won 54 seats in the 2018 general election, losing 17 seats to defections, which the party will be eager to win back. Umno is likely to regain a number of Bersatu seats, and some from PKR and Amanah. This will return the party to its previous position as the dominant partner in any governing coalition.

Bersatu will formally remain as part of the current federal government until the dissolution of Parliament. At the 2018 election, led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Bersatu won 12 seats campaigning on the corruption of then prime minister Najib Razak.

The party was able to swell parliamentary numbers to 32, with defections from Umno and PKR, even with the loss of six members, four going on to form Pejuang, after the Sheraton Putsch in February 2020.

Bersatu to shed seats
Bersatu is now basically a party made up of defectors who will be targeted by their original parties at the coming general election. It is expected the majority of Bersatu seats will be taken by Umno, leaving Bersatu with a strength of between 8 to 24 members in the best-case scenario.

PAS to hold its base
PAS is likely to hold on to most of its seats, possibly losing one in Kedah. The party will once more become a primarily east coast-centric party. However, despite its limited influence in the west coast states, the party will continue to exercise an influence in the nation’s socio-economic and religious sectors that is out of proportion to its electoral standing.

GPS looking up
GPS is likely to achieve more than the current 18-seat tally, picking up a few seats from the opposition, based upon the results of the last state elections.

PH heading into wilderness
The next general election won’t be so good for the opposition whether from the Peninsular or East Malaysia.

Based upon previous state elections, PH is headed for the political wilderness.

PKR down to 26?
This will be particularly so for PKR, which won 48 seats in 2018 but lost 12, primarily from the Azmin Ali defections in February 2020. In a worst-case scenario, PKR could end up with as few as 26 seats.

DAP could lose a few
DAP representation may go down from the current 42 members to around 38. It is very likely to retain a large share of the urban and non-Malay votes despite disappointing its supporters during its brief stint of power sharing.

But electoral gerrymandering and voter malapportionment will mean that voter support for the party will not be reflected in a bigger number of parliamentary and state seats that they might otherwise win in a fair electoral system.

It will also mean that urban constituencies will continue to have their concerns marginalised or ignored.

MCA resurgence
The DAP’s biggest threat will be a regenerated MCA and how much Chinese voters will shift loyalties towards the MCA to look after non-Malay interests within a BN government.

A revived MCA is unlikely to have much influence over a Malay dominated national agenda even though promises are likely to be made by the BN that it will represent the interests of non-Malays during the coming electioneering.

Amanah cut in half
Amanah may fare badly and could lose half its representation of 11 members, primarily to Umno and maybe even PAS in a couple of seats.

Slim pickings for Pejuang
Even with Mahathir’s active campaigning it is hard to see Pejuang having any impact or even holding on to its current four seats.

Stay-home Warisan
In the rough and tumble Sabah political landscape, Warisan may be able to retain its seven seats and regain the vacant Batu Sapi seat. Most probably any attempt to branch into the Peninsula will be strongly rejected by voters unless it works with the parties there and win the support of the opposition grassroots in constituencies that they contest.

The likely outcome
This means there will be fewer PH MPs in the new parliament. The current 90 members could go down to as low as 58 seats in a BN counter tsunami.

What can the opposition do?

This raises the question of what the opposition can do to minimise potential losses. That is the stark reality PH must consider, and tailor their strategy accordingly.

Making no changes will create the most fragmented opposition party environment ever seen in Malaysian politics. Three and even four cornered electoral contests are going to give the election to the BN on a silver platter.

The opposition vote will be split in so many ways that will make it ineffective, without significant numbers to check Umno, BN and PAS in state and federal politics.

This likely election result can lead to even greater mismanagement, more flagrant abuses, heightened cronyism and further decline in the nation’s development unless the opposition collectively can develop another potential scenario.

The need for new allies

PH’s adherence to its traditional coalition will not stop other opposition parties from competing against them and fragmenting the vote. Any revival of PH must come out of some understanding with other opposition parties. Based on the previous state elections, PH, and in particular PKR, is very vulnerable.

Link up with Bersatu?

In order to maximise its electoral performance, PH will need to enter into some pact with other parties. The cost of not doing so will cost the opposition coalition very dearly. This may even mean that PH may have to enter into some form of electoral agreement with Bersatu.

However, most of the party rank and file in Amanah, DAP, and PKR appear unable and unwilling to accept the Bersatu partnership, let alone leadership.

This effectively kills off any potential agreement with a party that betrayed PKR, especially with the Azmin Ali faction that brought the PH government down in February 2020.

Keeping to principle vis a vis Bersatu will cost PH seat numbers but this may be the price to pay, rather than carry this albatross into the future.

Reaching out to small parties

A more politically principled and promising strategy is for PH to reach out to the smaller parties and to try to work out a common understanding on the election platform and objectives that can be shared.

There has been much discussion about forming a ‘khemah besar’ or ‘big tent’ approach in the next general election. There are many forms being discussed at this time. One issue with ‘khemah besar’ is that the only thing some parties will have in common is their opposition to the BN government.

This would be a coalition without any ideology, except for the acceptance of Anwar Ibrahim as their candidate for prime minister. During the coming election campaign BN candidates will very easily make fun of the ‘khemah besar’, which may become known as the ‘khemah kosong’, at ceramahs.

The bottom line is that Malaysians will not vote for a coalition without any plan to improve their lives under the current economic situation, where inflation is now running rampant making food more expensive.

Some opposition parties see PKR as an electoral liability. This is exacerbated with strained relations within the leadership, which will hinder the creation of any unified approach to the general election.

Raising up a third force

Rather than non-PH opposition parties standing alone, effectively competing against each other and cancelling each other out, they could form their own electoral pact.

Gerak Independent, Muda, PSM, and even Warisan could cooperate electorally with a non-competition agreement. This would make a lot of sense for these parties.

The non-PH parties will have to make a decision whether to stand in constituencies held by PH parties. One argument made for standing against PKR is that it will give voters another choice in seats that PKR may lose.

Gerak Independent has already made the decision but the case for it is a weak one and can be reversed.

PKR set the precedent putting up a candidate against Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj in Sungai Siput during the 2018 general election.

Prepare for regaining power

Strategists in the opposition must plan for their parties to save themselves from a defeat that has longer term impact. If regaining the government in this general election is not a reality, they must do the next best thing – put themselves in a good position to take over the government at the 16th general election.

PKR members themselves are already saying this. The collective opposition must think very wisely about how to tackle the coming general election.

Grabbing the youth vote

One possible game changer in establishing a more cohesive and effective opposition is Muda. Should the party be able to successfully get the youth vote out, especially in the semi urban constituencies, Muda can help lay the groundwork for the opposition’s revival.

In these constituencies which can determine the outcome of as many as 70 Parliament seats, the B40 and middle-class votes are up for grabs and can be won with a youth oriented socio-economic platform that resonates with the electorate.

The party may also provide an opportunity for the younger party members in the established opposition parties to work together for the new Malaysia which is likely to take several steps backwards at GE15.

Murray Hunter is an independent researcher and former university professor. Lim Teck Ghee is a former senior official with the United Nations and World Bank.