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Neither doom nor gloom: A reflection on the coming general election

Photograph: themalaysianinsider.com

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Despite the #UndiRosak campaign, two-coalition politics has become has become the new normal – and this is likely to continue, writes Johan Saravanamuttu.

Considerable pessimism occupies the blogosphere these days with the notion that the electoral process has failed to deliver any substantial political change.

The #UndiRosak campaign speaks to this gloomy view of developments whether one thinks of it as a BN-orchestrated ruse or not.

A continuing spate of negative political developments, such as what has happened to whistleblower Rafizi Ramli, the Member of Parliament for Pandan, who will lose his seat because of a court conviction, may have also convinced many of the futility of keeping up the good fight.

The gerrymandering exercise of the Electoral Commission, conducted every eight years or so, no doubt contributes to the sentiments about the efficacy of elections and to a sense of powerlessness and frustration of the enlightened voter.

But we should remember that the commission has always provided the structural basis for the ‘manufactured majorities’ of the ruling coalition.

And, over the last decade, we have seen the rise of the Bersih electoral reform movement, which has been able to check some of the Electoral Commission’s excesses, kept it under watch, and even influenced some changes to the electoral system.

The current Bersih campaign for public objections to the redrawing of constituency boundaries is not likely to halt it but importantly, it will raise public consciousness about the need for further electoral reform.

The continued interest in the coming general election and its subjection to almost daily analysis and punditry must surely also mean that elections are still important in the public mind.

Despite structural flaws, most electoral systems are a necessary political device to guarantee meaningful political choice and, ultimately, democracy. Thus, I think we must continually analyse the outcome and impacts of elections to discern new pathways to meaningful change.

Recently we have seen the surfacing of well-researched and complex analyses of elections by independent, non-partisan organisations which have enhanced our understanding of elections.

For this reflection, I’d like to focus on one such recent study on the coming general election by Politweet, which describes itself as “a non-partisan research firm analysing interactions among Malaysians using social media”.

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Politweet’s use of statistical tools and computer simulations has added to the sophistication of electoral studies although one should always be forewarned of the caveats and assumptions of such statistical analyses.

It is logical that with the rise in computing power and techniques, Malaysian ‘psephology’ (the statistical study of elections) should become more established. For analysts of Malaysian electoral politics, the statistical studies of the Politweet sort, are certainly an important additional modality to improve and hone our understanding of electoral outcomes.

So, let me briefly examine the latest findings by Politweet on the coming general election and then present a perspective of how we should view current developments in Malaysia in the light of its findings.

For the Politiweet study, see here.

Study in brief

First, note that this is only a study of Peninsular Malaysia.

The study used the new electoral rolls of the first quarter of 2017, basing its extrapolations on the state and federal outcomes of the 2013 general election and “individual historical voting patterns” of the 2008 and 2013 general elections – that is, using polling lane results, which gives us the best data available to assess individual votes.

The study further adds a scenario, factoring in the current exercise to redraw constituency boundaries undertaken by the Electoral Commission that is most likely to be implemented in the coming general election.

The main focus of the study is on the prospects of Pakatan Harapan in the coming election based on its seat allocations on the peninsula that have recently been announced: 52 seats to be contested by PPBM; 51 seats by PKR; 35 seats by DAP; 27 seats by Amanah.

A total of 300 simulations were run based on three scenarios of voter behaviour:

  1. as occurred in the 2013 general election
  2. with a 2% increase of support for the Opposition, and
  3. with a 5% increase of support for the Opposition.


The results of the simulations are shown in the table below, which I have reproduced from the study.
































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Source: Politweet Study of the 2018 general election

The main conclusions of the study are as follows:

  1. In a situation of straight fights in Scenario 3, Pakatan Harapan can form the federal government with a five-point swing of support leading to a win of at least 115 seats in the 222-seat Parliament.
  2. In three-corner fights between PH, Pas and BN (Scenario 3), PH would have to gain 10% of pro-BN supporters on the assumption that 10% of the anti-BN vote would go to Pas.
  3. The simulation based on the current redrawing of constituency boundaries predicts that the BN would win an additonal 10 seats. These would be the Amanah seats of Kuala Nerus, Terengganu; Bukit Gantang and Lumut, Perak; and Hulu Langat and Sepang, Selangor. PKR would lose its seats in Kapar, Selangor; Lembah Pantai, Kuala Lumpur; Telok Kemang, Negri Sembilan; Bukit Katil, Melaka and Batu Pahat, Johor.

There are many more interesting details of the study. See the reports on the study made by the Malay Mail Online and the Malaysian Insight.

The outcomes of the Politweet computer simulations are an eye-opener.

First, rather counter-intuitively, is that the peninsula results alone could lead to PH winning a majority of seats if there are straight fights under Scenario 3 (that is, a 5% swing of votes to the Opposition). The study did point out that a win of some 10 seats from East Malaysia would buttress Scenario 3 for PH.

Second, in the scenario of straight fights between PH and BN (ie Pas not contesting against the three Malay-based parties of PH), a win is possible with a 5% swing of support to the Opposition. So imagine, if Pas had stayed in the Pakatan fold, the defeat of BN could almost be thought to be imminent in the coming general election. Instead, we now face the likely prospect of three-corner fights. In this scenario, the study shows that an Opposition win would require the tall order of Amanah weaning away 10% of BN supporters. These more difficult odds would surely incense former supporters of Pakatan Rakyat.

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Of further note is that the study also points out that its social media data shows a alarming decline in voter interest in political parties, from a high of 64 % in December 2015 to 30% in December 2017. This troubling factor could feed into the #UndiRosak campaign.

Even with all its assumptions and caveats, the Politiweet study does convey to us the sense that much has changed on the electoral terrain in Malaysia, and electoral success is not a foregone conclusion for the ruling coalition.

I would add that if a major swing against the ruling parties occurs in East Malaysia, particularly in Sabah, a BN win is not at all assured.

Concluding remarks

One could take away the following broader observations and conclusions from the Politweet study of the coming general election.

First, the overall big picture in Malaysia is that two-coalition politics has become normalised or, if you will, it has become the new normal.

Second, it is also implied that two-coalition politics will continue at the second level of state politics (contra federal). Although this was not analysed by Politweeet this is easily deduced. In a separate earlier study, Politweet analysed the impact of the redrawing of constituency boundaries on Selangor and found that the incumbent ruling group is still likely to retain power.

Third, it is unlikely that the BN will regain its supermajority, a two-thirds majority of seats for some time to come even if it continues to win federal elections.

Fourth, Sarawak and Sabah are important states for federal power, if not necessary ‘fixed deposits” as the conventional wisdom seems to hold. The complexity of multi-party politics in these two states obviously deserves a separate analysis. It would be interesting to see if Poltiweet would undertake such a study.

Finally, I believe that elections are still indispensable to the democratisation process. Bringing about political change through the electoral process is clearly frustratingly slow and riddled with pitfalls but substantial change has been achieved since 2008.

Beyond elections, a strong civil society with a jealously guarded public sphere remains as the ultimate bulwark against democratic slippage.

Johan Saravanamuttu
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
12 February 2018

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