The coming Battle Royale: PMX vs. the “Abah” effect

The coming state elections are of immense political importance for the two leaders

Murray Hunter

The coming six state elections on August 12 are likely to become a Battle Royale between prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, and former prime minister and Bersatu leader Muhyiddin Yassin.

Local issues are not resonating in Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, Penang, Selangor, and Negeri Sembilan. Any local issue like the quality of water in Kelantan, got national attention instead. So, with very few candidates and incumbent leaders being anointed as ‘poster boys’, it appears the coming elections are starting to look like a referendum on the performance of PMX and his government.

Recently, there has been pushback on the criminal charges against Muhyiddin, with claims by Perikatan Nasional (PN) supporters that there was no abuse of power. Consequently, those within PN see the criminal charges against Muhyiddin as simple political persecution.

In addition, PN believes it was robbed of government by what they see as the treacherous defection of Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, president of UMNO to Pakatan Harapan to form what is called the ‘unity government’.

The coming state elections could become a personal feud between PMX and Abah

Within the campaign already off to a start, PH-BN leaders are talking about taking over Kelantan and Kedah, while PN leaders are talking about taking Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, and even Penang. However, so far there has been a void of leadership taking up the face of both campaigns.

Expect very soon, Anwar and Muhyiddin to fill the void. Anwar loves a campaign, and it comes naturally for Muhyiddin, who is a seasoned campaigner.

Muhyiddin has lots of campaign ammunition. The unity government’s performance from the PN point of view has been lacklustre, especially on economics, and the rising cost of living. PN will put out a simple message, “its more expensive to live under PMX”.

PH-BN have been talking about the 3Rs and trying to paint PN, particularly PAS as being extremists. They have been trying to turn PAS into the ‘bogeyman’ to scare urban voters. Anwar has lost the ‘Reformasi’ mantra, and is relying upon his Madani narrative, which as yet has not resonated well with the non-Malay urban communities.

There are still a lot of undecided voters out there. In addition, there are many voters who just might not even turn out to vote. Both sides know that mobilizing their supporters and winning over the non-committed voters is paramount to a good victory.

In Penang and Selangor, PH is very much on the defensive, and could be weighed down by an electorally unpopular UMNO, whose past voters may abandon them for PN. Anwar is the key man to defend these states. The stability of his government is at stake.

Turning weaknesses onto opportunities

PN believe they can win Selangor. It won’t be easy, but not impossible. Muhyiddin will need to be a key man on the PN side to have any hope of wresting victory. A win for PN, is a win for Muhyiddin in the court of public opinion and will make any forthcoming court cases look more like political persecution.

A good campaign from Muhyiddin will stamp his political authority once again into the political scene.

For Anwar, the coming campaign is an opportunity for him to enhance his popularity. Campaigning is the forum Anwar prefers, and he has two weeks to talk directly to the people. However, the economy is Anwar’s Achilles heel. He will have to tell the people his solutions while on the hustings. Make them believe he has got things under control. After eight months as prime minister, there will be more scepticism. Anwar is no longer the knight in shining armour. He is a politician like any other now.

Larger consequences

The coming six state election results could have wider consequences. A strong performance in the coming elections by PN could encourage 8 to 10 UMNO MPs in Pahang to cross over to PN, and bring down the PH-BN government. A similar mutiny of UMNO MPs in Perak could do the same, although this is more remote. They could skirt around the anti-hopping laws by just staying non-aligned.

Such an occurrence would make the ‘unity government’ shaky. Political instability would dominate politics once again. A continually poor performing unity government would just bring continuous speculation of an election, thus weakening Anwar’s legitimacy. For this reason, Anwar cannot afford to remain on the sidelines.

A strong performance by PN, led by Muhyiddin, would put him back into public focus again, and place him in a position of being Malaysia’s alternative prime minister. His days in court would become poor optics for the unity government.

The coming state elections are of immense political importance.