Home 2009: 3 The April ‘tri-elections’ in retrospect

The April ‘tri-elections’ in retrospect

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Pakatan has now firmly co-opted BN’s winning formula especially in the ethnically ‘mixed’ seats in Peninsular Malaysia, observes Ong Kian Ming.

With the excitement of the three by-elections on 7 April now firmly in the rearview mirror, we can take stock of their significance and what the results mean to the BN and to Pakatan.

The by-elections were played up as a mini-referendum of sorts by Pakatan and this was echoed in many of the headlines and bylines in the print as well as online media.


It is not hard to see why these three by-elections would be seen as a mini-referendum.

Firstly, the ethnic composition and geographical distribution of the seats in question would be a good ‘bell weather’ of the political sentiment of voters in Malaysia.

Bukit Gantang is a Malay-majority seat (63% Malay) in a by-election which featured an Umno candidate going up against a Pas candidate. Bukit Selambau is a mixed seat (50% Malay) with a significant minority of Indian voters (30% Indian) which featured an MIC candidate going up against an Indian PKR candidate. Finally, Batang Ai is primarily a Dayak seat (90% Dayak) in the state of Sarawak which featured a PRS candidate going up against a PKR candidate.

But it is not just the ethnic composition and geographic distribution of these seats which made them significant. The media or the opposition did not have to do much to convince the voters in Bukit Gantang that this was an unofficial ‘referendum’ on BN’s takeover of the Pakatan state government in Perak. The fact that Pas chose to field Mohd Nizar Jamaluddin, the ousted MB of Perak, further accentuated this point. And the fact that the then incoming Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak, was seen as the prime mover behind BN’s takeover in Perak made the Bukit Gantang seat the biggest ‘prize’ among the three.

The Bukit Selambau seat could be best described as a mini-referendum on the sentiment of Indian voters. While there was speculation that the Kedah state government was being targeted for another BN takeover, the resignation of independent-turned-PKR exco, V Arumugam, was associated with personal issues. The emergence of new Indian issues at the national stage since March 2008 such as the death of Kugan while he was in police custody figured prominently in Bukit Selambau.

Finally, Batang Ai was significant for Pakatan because the opposition coalition needed to make inroads into Sabah and Sarawak if it wanted to have any chance of winning federal power in the next general election, due by 2013. While the opposition has a track record of winning Chinese-majority seats in Sarawak at the state and parliamentary level, it has found the going much harder in Iban/Dayak-majority seats. The by-election here was a test of how much headway Pakatan could make in the Iban/Dayak ground, an important test in the run-up to the Sarawak state elections, due by 2011. In addition, it was also seen as a test of the popularity of the long-standing Chief Minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud.

But perhaps most importantly, the timing of the by-elections, right after Najib Tun Razak became president of Umno and later sworn in as Malaysia’s sixth Prime Minister four days before polling day, put him squarely in the public’s view. In other words, the by-elections were seen as somewhat of a vote of confidence in Najib’s leadership as the new Prime Minister.

Hence, in addition to the local factors and issues that would inevitably be raised in a typical by-election, the national dimension featured in all three by-elections, or at least in the interpretation of the results.

And the results showed…

On Wednesday, 8 April, most of the headlines in the mainstream newspapers read that the ‘status quo’ had been maintained because Pakatan had maintained the two seats it previously held in Peninsular Malaysia and the BN maintained the Batang Ai seat in Sarawak.

The BN can take some comfort in that it somehow, against expectations, managed to more than double its previous majority of 806 votes achieved in Batang Ai in the 2006 Sarawak state elections to 1,854 votes in this by-election.

But Pakatan managed to almost double its majority in the Bukit Gantang parliamentary seat from 1,566 votes in 2008 to 2,789 votes in 2009. Up north in Kedah, the presence of 13 independent candidates in Bukit Selambau failed to dent Pakatan. The anticipated Indian ‘backlash’ over PKR’s candidate, S Manikumar, did not materialise resulting in a majority of 2,403 for Pakatan, a slight increase from the 2,362 majority achieved by the then independent candidate in 2008.

While the seats did not change hands, Pakatan claimed a ‘moral’ victory in Bukit Gantang. The fact that Nizar was voted in with higher votes in a Malay majority seat, was immediately seized on by the opposition as an indictment of the BN’s grubby takeover of the Pakatan state government in Perak. Nizar’s victory also showcased the benefits of cooperation between Pas and the DAP within the context of Pakatan. The Bukit Gantang victory was also touted as an indictment of Najib and to a certain extent, newly elected Umno vice-president and recently named Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Haimid, both of whom were seen as instrumental in planning the BN takeover of Perak.  

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While the possibility of the dissolution of the Perak state assembly is still somewhat remote, the result in Bukit Gantang would surely be seen by some as being unfavorable to the palace in Perak and probably has added to the damage incurred on the part of the esteem of the Royal Family in this state.

In Bukit Selambau, Anwar’s gamble of fielding a candidate of his choice seemed to have paid off. The independent candidates all lost their deposits and could only muster a total of 1,326 votes (less than 6% of valid votes cast) out of which, only 266 or 20% went to the Indian independent candidates. The ‘sound and fury’ reminiscent of dramatic Tamil movies demonstrated by many of the independent candidates clearly did not translate into actual votes against the Pakatan. Spoilt votes – all 415 of them – comprised less than 2% of total votes cast which is about average in a regular contest.

As unpopular a candidate as S. Manikumar may have been, at least in the beginning, the non-Malay voters knew that a vote for him would be a vote for an exco representative from their own seat, which would presumably bring about more access to development funds from the state to this constituency.

Pakatan’s victory in Bukit Selambau will surely put to rest any of the rumors that Kedah would be the next state to ‘fall’ after Perak. The Pas government in Kedah is safe, at least until the next general election.

If there was any damage done to Pakatan, it was in Batang Ai. Here, the increased majority was interpreted as a result of two main factors – the influence of money politics that has a larger impact in a rural constituency in Sarawak than in Peninsular Malaysia or other more urban constituencies in the same state and the selection of the former PRS/BN MP, Jawah Gerang, as Pakatan’s candidate instead of former Snap and now PKR member, Nicholas Bawin. This loss is a clear message to Anwar that he has to go back to the drawing board in terms of planning his Sarawak and perhaps even East Malaysia strategy.

Devil in the detail

In addition to the majorities achieved by the respective winning sides, there are other aspects of each election which are of some national significance. A closer examination of voting trends at the saluran levels usually will reveal interesting figures including racial and generational voting.

Unfortunately, I only managed to obtain detailed saluran data for the Bukit Gantang by-elections. For Bukit Selambau, I obtained polling district vote data for the two main candidates and for Batang Ai, I obtained approximate polling station figures. This of course restricts my ability to accurately analyse the patterns and trends from the saluran data but I will attempt to draw attention to some broad patterns with a particular focus on Bukit Gantang, since I have firm saluran data for that seat.

Using the polling station returns and the ethnic composition of each polling station for the 1999 and 2004 general elections and the corresponding set of data at the saluran level for the 2008 and 2009 general elections, I estimated the level of Malay and non-Malay support for the BN from 1999 to the most recent by-election. The results are shown in Table 1 below.

The results show a clear trend. The BN managed to win relatively comfortable majorities in 1999 and 2004 by virtue of very high levels of non-Malay support of 71% and 84% respectively. But Pas managed to win this seat in 2008 because of the catastrophic drop in level of non-Malay support for the BN from 84% to 35%.

While the BN managed to increase its share of the Malay vote from 53% to 58% in the recent by-election, the further 13% drop in the level of non-Malay support for the BN more than ‘made up’ for the increase in Malay support, resulting in an increased majority for Pas.

The Chinese majority (more than 95% Chinese) polling station of Kuala Sepetang illustrates the extent of the fall in the non-Malay support for the BN. This was a polling station where the BN won 67% of the popular vote in the 2004 general election. In 2008, the BN only managed 29% of the popular vote here and in the recent by-election, the BN support fell to just 16%.

I wrote the following in Malaysiakini and I think it sums up well the implications of the racial voting patterns in Bukit Gantang.

The BN formula of vote pooling that used to guarantee it victory in almost all ethnically ‘mixed’ or heterogeneous seats worked as follows.

In Malay majority ‘mixed’ seats such as Bukit Gantang, the BN can afford to split the Malay vote and still win large majorities on the back of almost unanimous non-Malay support. In non-Malay majority ‘mixed’ seats, the BN can afford to split the non-Malay vote and win on the back of Malay support.

In the 2008 general election, the Bukit Gantang seat was won by Pas by reversing the BN winning formula in its favour. Pas lost out slightly on the Malay vote but gained from a huge swing against the BN among the non-Malays. This pattern was repeated again in the recent by-election but with a slight decrease in Malay support and a significant spike in non-Malay support.

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That the BN managed to increase its share of the Malay vote by 5% was slightly surprising to me but one has to consider the following factors: the BN benefited from a post-Umno General Assembly ‘bounce’ from Malay voters who also wanted to give Najib the benefit of the doubt (at least for now) as the new PM; and Pas’ machinery faced difficulty in penetrating the ‘ground’ given that this constituency has been BN hands for a long time.

That the support for the BN among the non-Malays fell to a little bit more than 22% should not be that surprising given the perception that the non-Malays ‘lost’ the most from BN’s takeover of the Perak state government. Despite promises of ‘solving’ the Temporary Occupancy Licenses (TOLs) faced by the non-Malay voters, the BN failed to reserve the precipitous slide in its share of non-Malay support.

Furthermore, an analysis of the saluran shows that the BN still faces a ‘generational’ deficit. Because the polling streams or saluran are organised according to age, it allows analysts like me to examine the level of support by the average age of each saluran. Despite increasing the level of Malay support, the BN still only managed to ‘split’ the Malay vote 50/50 among the youngest saluran where the average age of the voters is below 35 years. Table 2 below shows the average level of BN support by the average age of the saluran divided into Malay majority saluran (over 70% Malay) and non-Malay majority saluran (below 50% Malay) for the 2008 general election and 2009 by-election in Bukit Gantang.

Given the fact that younger voters will comprise a larger percentage of voters in the next general election, this generational gap faced by the BN will be more significant over time, as larger numbers of younger voters enter into the electorate to replace the older voters who will comprise a smaller percentage of the electorate over time.

Without the saluran data for Bukit Selambau, I cannot do a similar in-depth analysis of the results in that by-election. However, armed with the polling station returns for the two main candidates, I am able to make the following conclusions.

Graph 1 shows the level of BN support on the y-axis and the percentage of Malay voters in the polling station on the x-axis. The linear pattern, where the lower the percentage of Malay voters in a polling station, the lower the percentage of BN support, can be clearly observed using data from the 2008 general election as well as from the recent by-election.

The level of non-Malay support for the Pakatan candidate was more or less maintained at its 2008 level.

One can also make the conclusion that the presence of the independent candidates probably hurt the BN more than it did Pakatan. The top two vote getters among the independent candidates were both Malay candidates, one of whom was a former Umno division committee member in Merbok. Mejar Anuar Abdul Hamid was singled out as being the only independent candidate of significance by Samy Vellu and this assessment turned out to be right as he garnered 528 out of the 1,326 total votes obtained by the BN. The other Malay candidate, Husaini Yaccob, garnered 257 votes. By contrast, the Indian independent candidates only managed to garner 266 votes in total.

In Bukit Selambau, the Pakatan ‘formula’, used so effectively previously by the BN, proved itself to be the winning formula once again. Pakatan overwhelmingly won the non-Malay vote (at least 70% would be my estimate) and held its own on the Malay ground (perhaps winning approximately 40% of the Malay vote) thereby delivering more or less the same majority won by Arumugam when he contested as an independent in the 2008 general election.

In the case of Batang Ai, preliminary polling station results show the BN winning all but three of the 26 polling stations, most of them by very comfortable majorities.

The ethnic homogeneity of this seat as well as the small number of voters in each polling station precludes the use of sophisticated statistical analysis of the results. But the eventual majority of over 1,800 votes surprised most analysts, including me, who thought that this race would go down the wire and would be decided by a few hundred votes on either side but most likely in favor of the BN.

While the opposition may question the counting process in the Batang Ai seat (more on this below), it is more likely that the role of last minute ‘incentives’ into the pro-BN longhouses were the driving force behind the increased majority.

The more important question to ask is if this sort of strategy will work for the BN in the Sarawak state elections when ‘goodies’ and other ‘instant noodles’ have to be distributed across a larger number of constituencies.

What it does mean is that Anwar and Pakatan have to go back to the drawing board in terms of devising its Sarawak strategy. It is a very long way off from taking control of the state government in the next Sarawak election, a promise which was made by Anwar a few months back.

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To recap, while the status quo in terms of both sides defending their seats was maintained, the moral victory was probably won by Pakatan. In the larger context of post March 2008 by-elections, the score is now Pakatan 4 (Permatang Pauh, Kuala Terengganu, Bukit Gantang, Bukit Selambau), the BN 1 (Batang Ai).

The ‘independence’ of the EC

If there was any clear loser in these by-elections, it would probably be the Election Commission which once again failed to play its role as an independent commission tasked with organising elections in a free and fair fashion.

The EC has been consistent in trying to deflect away criticism that it doesn’t do anything to level the electoral playing field. It claims that it doesn’t have power in areas such as ensuring equal air time for all parties (which comes under the control of the Ministry of Information) or in prosecuting alleged election offences such as millions of ringgit of ‘instant noodle’ projects and cash handouts (which comes under the control of the police). But even in areas in which the EC has control of, it has fallen short in playing the role of a neutral arbiter.

Firstly, the EC decided to set the polling date on a Tuesday (7 April) instead of a weekend. The EC could have easily set the polling day on 4 April, a Saturday, to give the opportunity for voters from all three constituencies who were away to return to cast their vote. While the turnout did not seem greatly affected by the Tuesday polling day, even a shift of one or two per cent among outstation voters who tend to be younger and also more likely to vote for the opposition, can make all the difference, especially in a close race.

There was also the perception (and in case the EC forgot, perception is everything in politics) that nomination and polling days for the by-elections were ‘conveniently’ set after the end of the Umno general assembly elections and quite close to the 60-day deadline within which the EC has to call an election after a seat has been vacated so as to give Umno and the BN a leg-up in the by-elections. There was an element of allowing the Umno general assembly and the new PM’s ‘bounce’ to assist the BN’s chances. In my opinion, without this ‘bounce’ and if the by-elections had been held earlier, Nizar’s majority may well have exceeded 5,000 votes.

Finally, the decision by the EC to not stick by its own rules to count the ballots in 14 out of the 26 polling stations at the respective polling stations in the Batang Ai by-election but instead transport those ballot boxes to a centralised counting location opened itself up to accusations of ‘ballot tampering’. A Pakatan leader coordinating the Batang Ai campaign said that the locks on some of the ballot boxes were ‘tampered with’. Anwar Ibrahim was quoted as saying that some of the ballot boxes were ‘dumped into the sea’. While the likelihood that some of these boxes were actually replaced wholesale by members of the EC is probably quite small, the fact that the EC was not careful enough to anticipate these criticisms and then be pro-active in responding to them, showed a definite lack of responsiveness on the part of the EC.


The results of these three by-elections confirmed that Pakatan has now firmly co-opted BN’s winning formula especially in the ethnically ‘mixed’ seats in Peninsular Malaysia.

The challenge for Pakatan is to continue to consolidate itself, strengthen inter-party cooperation and find ways to chip at the BN’s hold on the majority of Malay voters. If Pakatan can decrease the level of Malay BN support to about 50%, this would be sufficient for Pakatan to win a majority of seats in Peninsular Malaysia.

For the BN, the challenge is for it to hold on to the Malay voters and to raise its level of non-Malay support to a respectable 35-40%. In the meantime, Najib has a government to run, many political fires to put out and at the same time, manage an economy that is slipping into recession, if it hasn’t done so already.

Ong Kian Ming is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Duke University. He can be reached at im.ok.man (at) gmail (dot) (com).

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