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Backlash against BN: Analysis of a real Malaysian tsunami

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Almost two thirds of voters in the country voted against BN because that is how badly they wanted BN out of power at the federal and state levels, remarked Dr Ong Kian Ming.

When I returned to Malaysia from the United States after the completion of my PhD in 2010, I made a presentation where I said that the opposition was not likely to win the 13th general election (2013) but would take power in the 14th general election (2018).

I must admit that even on the eve of polling day on 9 May, 2018, I was not 100% confident that Pakatan Harapan would be able to win a majority of parliamentary seats in the general election. The delimitation exercise which was bulldozed through parliament in March, the expected three-way fights with Pas, the seeming inability of the opposition to break through in Sarawak and the expected fear-mongering by BN among the Malay voters were the main reasons for my doubts.

What Najib Razak and BN did not count on was the creation of a Malaysian tsunami which, to their utter shock and horror, swept BN out of office, not just at the federal level but also in all of the states with the exception of Perlis and Pahang.

BN’s share of the popular vote in Malaysia (including Sabah and Sarawak) nosedived by 12.8%, from 46.7% in the 2013 general election to 33.9% in the 2018 general election (Table 1 below). To put this figure into context, BN’s vote share in 2018 was far lower than the 46.2% of the popular vote it (contesting as the Alliance coalition) managed to win in Peninsular Malaysia in the 1969 general elections, which was already considered a disastrous performance.

Table 1: Share of and Change in Share of Popular Vote in Malaysia (2013 vs 2018)

Pakatan Harapan emerged as the largest coalition with 48.3% of the popular vote.

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Some analysts have used the fact that PH failed to win a majority of votes to say that PH does not command the support of a majority of supporters in Malaysia. These same analysts also try to lump together the total support for BN and Pas to say that more than 50% of the voters did not support PH in the 2018 general election.

This interpretation totally misses the mark. The outcome of the 2018 election was all about the backlash against BN: 65% of voters voted against BN and threw their support behind parties that were not BN. Almost two thirds of voters in the country voted against BN because that is how badly they wanted BN out of power at the federal and state levels.

The anti-BN swing was felt in all the states in Malaysia. The largest swing against BN occurred in Kedah where support for BN fell by 19.8% from 49.8% in 2013 to 30% in 2018. Double- digit swings against BN were also experienced in Selangor, Johor, Perlis, Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, Sabah, Wilayah Persekutuan (KL & Putrajaya), Perak and Terengganu. (Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Change in BN support (Parliament) GE2013 to 2018

In fact, the only state where the BN won more than 50% of the popular vote was in Sarawak, with 52.7% of the popular vote (Table 2 below).

Table 2: Change in BN support (Parliament) from 2013 to 2018

Unlike in the 2013 general election, where Malay support for BN actually increased slightly compared to the 2008 general election, there is no question that the Malay voters abandoned BN in unprecedented numbers in 2018.

Even many of the civil servants voted against BN. Tengku Adnan, the former Minister for the Federal Territories, won his Putrajaya seat with only 49.5% of the popular vote in 2018. This was a seat which he had won comfortably in 2013 with almost 70% of the popular vote.

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There is strong evidence to suggest that even the police and army voters abandoned the BN in significant numbers. The four parliament seats with more than 10,000 early voters (mostly police and army voters) were all won by Pakatan Harapan (Table 3 below). Two of these seats – Setiawangsa and Tangga Batu – were won by BN in 2013. The parliamentary seat of Lumut was gerrymandered to make it easier for Umno to win back this seat. 10,000 police voters were moved into the Lembah Pantai parliamentary seat. Without a significant number of police and army voters NOT supporting BN (either voting for Pas, PH, spoiling their votes or not casting their votes), PH would not have been able to win these parliamentary seats.

Table 3: Parliamentary seats with more than 10,000 early voters all of which were won by PH (2018)

In my own constituency of P102 Bangi, out of the 1,305 postal votes which were cast (mostly army votes), 471 (36.1%) went to the Pas candidate; 409 (31.1%) went to me, the PH candidate; and only 299 (22.9%) went to the BN candidate. I was shocked when I saw these results. I won’t be surprised if the results in many of the other seats with a high number of postal and early voters also show that a significant proportion of the army and police votes were cast not in support of BN.

PH Harapan performed very well in ethnically mixed or ‘heterogeneous’ parliamentary seats. These are seats where no one race comprises more than 70% of the electorate. Out of the 83 mixed parliamentary seats, PH won 73 or 88% with BN winning the remaining 10 (Umno 7, the MIC 2 andthe  MCA 1). Pas did not win a single ethnically mixed parliamentary seat.

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These constituencies have become and will become increasingly important in Malaysia’s electoral landscape with increasing migration to urban areas. If the constituency delimitation had been done fairly, such mixed seats would easily comprise 60% to 70% of total parliamentary seats in Peninsular Malaysia. Only a coalition with the ability to win the support of all the ethnic groups can hope to win such seats.

Last but not least, this Malaysian tsunami could not have happened without the voters in Sabah and Sarawak. Although I was confident that Warisan together with the DAP and PKR would make headway in Sabah, I did not imagine that PH together with Warisan would win 14 out of 26 parliamentary seats as well as 29 out of 60 state seats in Sabah.

What was more unexpected was the fact that the opposition would capture 12 out of 31 parliamentary seats in Sarawak, including a few semi-rural and rural seats such as Mas Gasing, Puncak Borneo, Saratok and Selangau.

With urban and rural voters, Malay and non-Malay voters, Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysian voters, the civil service, the police and the army all rejecting the BN in record numbers, history was made and for the first time in 61 years, Malaysia has a new federal government.

The question now is whether Pakatan Harapan can hold on to these gains and expand our influence to places where we performed poorly, notably Kelantan and Terengganu. But that is for another statement. or now, the focus for PH is to deliver on our manifesto promises and show voters that we are a government which can truly deliver for the people.

Dr Ong Kean Ming is the Member of Parliament for Bangi.

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