The Sungai Bakap Byelection

Murray Hunter

The Penang State seat of Sungai Bakap is located right in the middle of a PKR stronghold, just south of the Seberang Perai area. Sungai Bakap is one of three state seats (the others Jawi, and Sungai Acheh) that make up the federal constituency of Nibong Tebal, held very comfortably by PKR’s Fadhlina Sidek, the current education minister. Sungai Bakap has a population of 59,000.

Yesterday (6th July), there was a by-election held in Sungai Bakap, due to the passing of Nor Zamri Latiff, who won the seat in last year’s state election. Nor Zamri of PPAS won the Sungai Bakap seat with a majority of 1,526 votes. Pakatan Harapan was hopeful of winning back the seat, while Perikatan Nasional (PN) was hopeful of holding the seat. Both sides chose local people to contest. PAS selected Abidin Ismail (Abang Abidin) and PKR selected Dr Joohari Ariffin to contest.

The Sungai Bakap seat has 39,151 registered voters, of which 59.36 percent are Malay, 22.54 percent are Chinese, 17.39 percent are Indian, with 0.17 percent others.

After the polls closed at 6PM, the voter turnout figures came out first. The total turnout was 63.45 percent, down 13 percent from the 2023 state election, where 76.88 percent turned out. According to P. Ramasamy’s X account 67 percent of Malays turned out to vote, but only 50 percent of Chinese and maybe only 40 percent of Indians turned out to vote.

These figures indicated that the night would not be good for PKR. By 8PM the voting figures were announced. Abidin Ismail of PAS received 14,489 votes to Joohari Arifin’s 10,222, giving the PAS candidate a 4,267 majority.

This majority is almost three times higher than the 2023 state election result. The PAS margin of victory has gone up from 5.38 percent in the state election to 17.26 percent in yesterday’s byelection.

In classical political science theory, governments should expect a swing against them in a byelection, particularly when they are implementing unpopular policies at the time. Counterintuitively, the Unity Government campaign was led by Economic Minister Rafizi Ramli, who was largely responsible for the grossly unpopular lifting of the diesel subsidies just before the byelection. In retrospect, this was a major tactical mistake by the Pakatan Harapan campaign. Someone else more palatable to the electorate could have been given the job.

Before the Sungai Bakap seat was won by PKR in 2008, Sungai Bakap was an UMNO seat. Strategists hoped that Sungai Bakap result would reflect the strength of the PH-UMNO relationship in the Unity Government. This completely backfired. UMNO support didn’t complement PH in the byelection.

In addition, there were reports on the ground, the once powerful grassroots organization of UMNO is withering away, at least in the Nibong Tebal area. There were also reports of sabotage by UMNO supporters, who believed UMNO should be running a candidate. Other past UMNO supporters just defected to PN.

Green wave has peaked. However, traditional PH support has ebbed away

The Sungai Bakap byelection shows the so called ‘green wave’ had already reached a high. This was not the reason for the failure of PKR to win the seat back. PKR now have a new problem; their own support base of traditional non-Malay voters are quickly deserting Pakatan Harapan. This support base isn’t flipping over to PN, they are just staying at home and not voting. Apathy is now PH’s biggest electoral problem.

PH now have two electoral issues to contend with. The first is the strong support for PN in Malay areas. Sungai Bakap reinforced this reality. This is going to greatly affect UMNO. UMNO no longer has the loyalty from the Malay electorate as the party once did. Based upon the Sungei Bakap snapshot, UMNO disappear from northern and east Malaysia very soon.

The second problem is the apathy of PH’s traditional supporters. If this is left unchecked, the sitting member for Nibong Tebal Fadhlina Sidek looks like having a major challenge in the next general election.

Generally, voters are suspicious of what PH really means. This presents a major problem in coming elections -byelections, state elections, and the next general election.

For the DAP, which is the major governing party of the State of Penang, there is a lot to consider. DAPs stronghold in Penang is slowly being eroded. However, DAP’s consolation is that there is no alternative to challenge them for the non-Malay vote.

Although the demographics of Sungai Bakap are very similar to west coast seat from Johor to Penang, it’s difficult to make direct comparisons with other constituencies. Some 40k voters in the centre of PH territory is only a very small snapshot. There was a mix of local issues, such as the power struggle between Lim Guan Eng and Chow Kon Yeow, federal issues, where there are too many to mention, and events that occurred during the campaign.

However, this result should scare the PH leadership. PKR strongholds can be lost. Support for PKR continues to go backwards. There are too many issues going on now to single out any particular reason why PKR did so poorly. What PKR is doing is not resonating with their traditional supporters.