How can Malacca help us plan for the coming general election and beyond?
Some commentators have theorised that the electoral reversal that Pakatan Harapan suffered in the recent Malacca state election was due to the decision to accept several political ‘frogs’ (defectors) as PH candidates.
Others ascribe PH’s electoral debacle to the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed with Ismail Sabri Yaakob in September 2021.
I disagree with both these views. The Malacca state election holds important lessons for us all. But we need to discern these through a rational evaluation of the facts and abstain from projecting our disagreements with the PH leadership over certain issues as the cause of PH’s dismal performance.
The undeniable fact is that PH’s share of the popular vote in Malacca dropped from 50.8% in May 2018 to 35% in the latest election. About a third of the voters who voted for PH in 2018 withheld their support in 2021. This is a significant number.
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Interestingly, most of the ‘defecting’ voters did not swing to Barisan Nasional. BN’s share of the popular vote only inched up from 37.5% in 2018 to 38% in 2021.
Most of the 16% who abandoned PH voted for Bersatu instead. Perikatan Nasional’s share of the popular vote was 24%, up from the 11.6% that Pas bagged in 2018. (In 2018, Bersatu was part of PH).
The drop in electoral support for PH candidates was most pronounced in seats with a large percentage of ethnic Malay voters, indicating that they made up most of the exodus from PH. The table below gives a snapshot of this phenomenon.
The results for Kota Laksamana and Bandar Hilir, urban seats with huge non-Malay majorities, strongly suggest that support for PH among ethnic Chinese and Indian voters remained at about the same level as it was in 2018 – at about 90%a. [From the statistics in the table above, we can surmise that 87.2% of the voters in Bandar Hilir are non-Malays. If we generously assume that a third of the ethnic Malays voted for the DAP, then 76.9 (81.2 – 4.3) out of every 87.2 of the non-Malays in Bandar Hilir voted DAP. This works out to 88.2%.]
So arguments that PH did badly in Malacca because of disappointment in its non-Malay voter base are not borne out by the electoral statistics. This is not to say that the PH supporters in Kota Laksamana and Bandar Hilir were not disappointed with some PH decisions, but even if they were, they still voted for the DAP.
The figures pertaining to Tanjung Bidara, Ayer Limau and Sungai Udang in the table above throw up two important questions:
- What led to such a large exodus of ethnic Malay voters from PH between 2018 and 2021?
- Why did they choose to vote for Bersatu instead of Umno despite the latter having much better grassroots machinery and more money to throw around?
I have dealt with the first question at length in several analyses, where I argued that, in essence, it was because of their perception that PH, being too influenced by the DAP, could not be trusted to look after the economic wellbeing of the Malay community. Some measures taken in the 22 months PH was in power at the federal level did seem to support such a perception.
The second question is even more interesting.
In Tanjung Bidara, the Bersatu candidate, a federal deputy minister, slashed support for Umno (represented by the Umno state chairman in the 2021 elections) from 58% to 49%.
And in Sungai Udang, the Bersatu candidate defeated the Umno incumbent – the only seat BN lost in 2021 after winning it in 2018.
This suggests that many ethnic Malay voters in Malacca are concerned with the level of nepotism and corruption in Umno and so voted for Bersatu.
To his credit, Bersatu leader Mahiaddin Yasin has taken a firm position on the Umno politicians facing corruption charges – and he has been more resolute in upholding this compared to some PH leaders.
Diehard PH supporters who have been portraying Bersatu as a collection of treacherous opportunists will not like me saying this, but clearly Bersatu’s voter base – ethnic Malays who are somewhat critical of the level of corruption, elitism and nepotism in Umno – do not share this negative perception of Bersatu. If they did, they would not have voted in such large numbers for Bersatu candidates.
The figures from Malacca show that Bersatu is a more dangerous electoral opponent to Umno in Malay-majority seats than either PKR or Amanah, pulling between 20% to 40% of the Malay voters. [If we assume that voter turnout was equal for all ethnic groups and that a third of the non-Malays (ie 6.1% divided by 3 = 2.0%) voted PH in Tanjung Bidara, it would mean that 4.75 (6.75% total PH support minus 2.0% non-Malay support) out of every 93.9 of the ethnic Malays there voted PH. That works out to support for PH from 5.1% (4.75/93.9 x 100) of the Malay voters in Tanjung Bidara. A similar calculation based on the same assumptions would suggest that Malay support for PH was 8.5% in Ayer Limau.]
And this is in a state where Bersatu’s principal ally, Pas, is weak. Imagine how formidable a Pas-Bersatu alliance would be in the northern states where Pas has much stronger grassroots support.
Just as the MCA and the MIC lost the support of the ethnic Chinese and Indian communities because of their close collaboration with Umno, PKR and Amanah seem to have lost the support of the Malay electorate because of the perception that the DAP is not sympathetic to the ‘Malay agenda’ and is the dominant partner of the PH coalition.
The table below presents data that defines the extent of this problem.
It appears that many ethnic Malay voters who voted PH in 2018 but later withdrew their support are still concerned about proper governance of the country. But they are anxious that the efforts to tackle the economic backwardness of certain sections of the Malay community are not compromised.
If this is true, it is certainly good news for those of us who wish to see better governance of the nation’s finances. But it also highlights the crucial importance of taking on their concerns about the economic issues affecting the bumiputra communities and integrating them into a programme that is fair to all Malaysians.
Do we have time to do this before the coming general election? Time is short, and the perception among the Malay electorate is that they cannot depend on PH to look out for the interests of the Malay community.
Given this perception, it would be suicidal for Bersatu to form any electoral coalition with PH.
PH too would find it hard to convince its supporters that some form of electoral cooperation with Bersatu is necessary to strengthen anti-BN forces, after feeding them the line that the PN government was a hopelessly incompetent and illegitimate government.
If we had statesmen and women in PH, they might be able to meet the deadline for the coming general election. But it would not be easy, for it would entail three important steps.
- Reinterpreting the Sheraton Move to incorporate the viewpoint of the voters who moved out of PH with Bersatu
- Starting an honest discussion of how the underperformance of the Malay community in certain economic sectors can be addressed and in ways that are just to all communities
- Launching a massive publicity campaign on how PH and its allies would roll out this new deal for Malaysians if they recapture federal power. This would amount to a ‘reset’ of the political equation in the country
Unfortunately, statesmen and women are in short supply, not only in Malaysia but all over the world. It is probable that this reset cannot be brought about rapidly from the top but will have to be built patiently from below through grassroots activism that reaches across ethnic divisions to build a more just and nuanced approach to the challenges we face as a nation.