Without power, Bersatu stares into the abyss

Bersatu was formed in a rush and rotated constantly in its six years of existence. Those rotations are driven by power, not principles, which is why turbulence accompanies it.

Praba Ganesan, MMO

Bersatu faces the spectre of a lengthy spell out of federal power. It may die during the wait.

This is typical of the high risk-high payback of identity politics, especially in a crowded field. The ones in power plough on picking up residuals from the defeated as the vanquished lack policy heft to keep themselves relevant.

A formal vote at Dewan Rakyat next Monday (December 19, 2022) secures Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s administration.

Mutual public admissions and the plethora of Cabinet appointments from across the spectrum supports Anwar’s claim that at least 140 — if not more — of the 222 back him. The floor vote ends legitimacy disputes.

Meanwhile, Perikatan Nasional (PN) names Hamzah Zainudin as leader of the opposition in the upcoming session, the first for Malaysia’s 15th elected Parliament.

Quick sprint to power

Why Bersatu risks termination requires an examination of its short six-year journey with four of them in power, the delicate balance of power inside the PN coalition and the upcoming state elections.

A combination of Muhyiddin Yassin’s Umno expulsion and Mahathir Mohamad’s rejection of Umno resulted in Bersatu’s formation in 2016.

Loyalists — very few of them openly — of both personalities switched allegiances. As such, the party was padded up with outlier characters, such as Islamic educationist Maszlee Malik, think tank CEO Wan Saiful Wan Jan and youth darling Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman.

As Pakatan Harapan member, Bersatu added the Malay-enough credentials of the coalition. Despite winning only 12 seats in the Pakatan 2018 majority, Bersatu chairman Mahathir was made prime minister.

End of part one.

Bersatu 2.0. Between May 2018 to the end of 2019, Umno bled MPs to the new upstart. Hamzah is one of them, along with Jeli’s Mustapa Mohamed and Masjid Tanah’s Mas Ermieyati Shamsudin.

Bersatu became 38 MP strong. Desertion rates were unprecedented and Bersatu opened its arms to fatten up its count so that it can stand strong to Pakatan partners DAP and PKR.

Begins here part three.

The Sheraton Move ripped apart Pakatan but in a convenient manner — at least to the Muhyiddin camp — maintained Bersatu leadership of the resulting Perikatan Nasional federal administration while shedding Mahathir and allies.

PN in power has been in two parts, one on top (March 2020-August 2021), and the second as partner (August 2021-November 2022).

Two key observations from three stages, Bersatu was both fluid and volatile in equal measure through the period. Leaders in and out, but also leadership switched around.

Just look at how the original team unravelled.

Maszlee wandered around and failed to defend his Simpang Renggam seat as a PKR candidate. Wan Saiful stayed loyal to Muhyiddin and is the Tasek Gelugor MP — evolving from a free-market advocate to a protectionist ultra-Malay. Syed Saddiq left the stable and formed MUDA. He still is Muar MP but with Pakatan, nominally.

The Bersatu splinter, Pejuang, drowned in the last general election along with its leader Mahathir. Everyone lost their deposits. Expect Pejuang members to inch their way back to Umno, Bersatu, PKR, PAS and whoever else who’ll have them.

So, when people say they were with Bersatu, it depends on iterations and windows.

When was that?

The time they cosied up to Pakatan, the time they opposed PAS, the time they split up Pakatan, the time they cosied up to PAS and Umno, the time they split up with the Umno leadership or the time they whipped BN and Pakatan in the Malay heartland with PAS’ base?

Screenshot of the official party count from the Election Commission website.

Optical illusions

Officially, as per the Election Commission’s factsheet, PN has 52 seats and PAS 22. PAS is in PN, so why are there separate PAS MPs?

Adding to the confusion, The Star’s election website lists PAS-PN with 49 MPs and Bersatu-PN with 25.

How to reconcile these?

There are tactical and actual realities within those numbers, which tell plenty.

PN decided that in Kelantan (14) and Terengganu (8), it was better to contest as PAS. The brand works better there, they felt. PAS won all 22, although a number of contestants were Bersatu men, like Youth chief Wan Ahmad Fayhsal Wan Ahmad Kamal who won in Machang as a PAS candidate.

Elsewhere in the peninsula, PAS and Bersatu contested as PN.

In power speak, PAS is two-thirds of the larger PN regardless of what logo they used. Therefore, Bersatu is the junior partner. But PAS prefers Bersatu to lead in Dewan Rakyat as seen by the Hamzah appointment.

Muhyiddin and PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang can talk shop behind closed doors, and Hamzah the bulldog to the pit.

However, the power imbalance between the two parties cannot be ignored.

There are hues of Semangat 46 here. In 1990, the Umno splinter collaborated with PAS to limited success in the east coast and Kedah, and was left as a junior to the Islamists for five years to the 1995 elections when Mahathir’s Barisan Nasional decimated everyone.

It was all fire and brimstone during the elections. But five years out of power and as bridesmaid to PAS emptied the soul of the party. Umno splinters do not last long without federal power, as their Umno training tells them to be less worried about principles and more inclined to, well, power.

Going south

There are the givens when discussing the upcoming state races.

PN wins Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu but with PAS mentris besar helming them. Bersatu plays a supporting role. Pakatan keeps Penang regardless of reversals in Seberang Perai.

Now to the central pivots.

The big battles for Bersatu are Selangor and Negeri Sembilan. Win either one and it is game on for Bersatu. If they bag Selangor, then Muhyiddin Yassin is favourite to win the general in 2027.

However, Pakatan and BN may agree on terms and that might be the end of Bersatu in both those races. Even without BN help, Pakatan is solid in Selangor and formidable in Negeri Sembilan.

The level of recriminations among Pakatan, BN and PN over the next three months will set the tone for the elections. On how well Pakatan and BN set themselves in the face of PN.

There is also the possibility the elections are over two cycles, the earlier one for Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu to maximise PN’s appeal over there, and Pakatan delaying elections to June for Penang, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan until the Anwar Ibrahim administration stabilises.

Bersatu does not decide when any of those elections occur.

United for now

Bersatu was formed in a rush and rotated constantly in its six years of existence. Those rotations are driven by power, not principles, which is why turbulence accompanies it.

Secondly, Bersatu is firmly the junior partner and PAS’ legislative agenda is a double edged sword. While some claim it embellishes PN’s Islamic credentials, others would counter that the coalition has maxed out on that trump card and risks alienating voters.

Finally, the state elections force Bersatu to shine in spots it may struggle. And failure will show its lack of contribution to PN and emphasises its holding on to PAS’ coattail.

If Bersatu gets further isolated at those elections, history does not suggest those Bersatu MPs will stick around. PAS MPs are different, they bat to serve “a higher” goal and therefore low service to their constituents is par for the course.

Bersatu MPs and thereafter the party may enter paralysis if frozen out of power too long. And five years is definitely too long.