Dr M speaking to voters in Taiping on 6 April
(All pics by Raj Kumar, courtesy of theSun) DESPITE the Barisan Nasional’s earlier denial that the Bukit Gantang by-election was not a referendum on the country’s new leadership, the ruling coalition turned it into just that within the last few days before polling.
Former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was brought in for the campaign and publicly endorsed Datuk Seri Najib Razak as the new prime minister, showering praises on his capabilities.
Mahathir plugged the new Umno leadership elected at its recent general assembly. “I am confident that Najib’s leadership reflects the original Umno,” the octogenarian ex-premier said.
Around the constituency, too, are BN posters and banners calling on voters to reject the PAS candidate as a way of showing disapproval, disgust even, for “traitors”. That is what PAS’s embattled menteri besar and candidate Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin has been called for his resistance to the Perak sultan’s decision not to allow a dissolution of the state assembly and refusal to step down.
But the BN seems to have forgotten that it, too, has “traitors” on its ship. The takeover of the state was formed through one defection by the Bota assemblyperson and three deserters who became “BN-friendly independents”.
At the end of the day, this might have been an ordinary by-election had it not been for two factors that preceded it: the Perak constitutional crisis, and Najib taking charge of the country’s administration.
In a way, PAS cleverly fashioned this by-election into a referendum on the Perak crisis when it chose Nizar as its candidate.
But even though PAS has won, it is still hard to gauge which issue voters had in mind as they cast their ballots today. Can sentiment about the Perak crisis and the sultan’s role be separated from public perception of the transition of national power to a new regime under Najib?
Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin and his supporters after he was announced the winner
The bigger issue
The two have conflated, but political scientist Prof Dr Mohammad Agus Yusoff feels national leadership has overtaken the Perak crisis as the bigger issue.
For one, people may have grown tired of the state’s political quagmire, which is still unresolved and pending in court.
Secondly, the BN campaign capitalised on the change in Umno and government to dilute focus on its takeover of the state. Voter understanding of the legal points of the Perak crisis may not have been in-depth to begin with. The BN thought it was speaking the language of rural Malay Malaysians by simplistically describing the scenario as treason against the sultan. But PAS’s win speaks of its effectiveness in explaining the crisis.
“The Perak crisis is still important. But other factors have cropped up, and voters may have adjusted themselves accordingly. You can’t deny that the by-election is about Najib; it is about the new government; it is about a new Umno and the way forward for the BN. People are thinking of the national aspect,” says Mohammad Agus, who shuttled between Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau from 29 March to 7 April to observe the campaigns.
The bigger overall winning percentage of 6.81% compared with last year’s general election result of 3.89% majority indicates a strong unhappiness with the BN, whether it is over the Perak takeover or unease with Najib’s leadership.
The bigger majority also speaks of the kind of voice Bukit Gantang voters want in Parliament, since the seat is a parliamentary one.
Along racial lines
Closer inspection of polling data will reveal whether the by-election was decided along racial lines. For now, a loose inference from the results announced tonight — which were released verbally according to polling streams in the 112 polling stations — shows that Nizar won on the back of Chinese Malaysian votes. Voter turnout was also higher this time, at 75% compared with 72.6% last year.
A PR supporter rides the waves in Kuala Sepetang
Results at polling-centre level in predominantly Chinese Malaysian areas such as Kuala Sepetang and Simpang, for example, show that Nizar won overwhelmingly with 200-plus or 300 majorities. He also won, in some cases with much narrower majorities, in some areas within the Malay Malaysian-dominated Changkat Jering state seat.
BN candidate Ismail Saffian appears to have had the edge in areas in the Trong state seat, also a predominantly Malay Malaysian area.
These early indicators are largely keeping in trend with the 2008 general election results, where Changkat Jering and Kuala Sepetang were captured by Parti Keadilan Rakyat, and Trong by the BN.
If the bulk of Chinese and Indian Malaysian votes went to PAS, it shows that the Islamist party is on its way to becoming “a centrist party”, says political analyst and The Nut Graph columnist Wong Chin Huat.
“They got the non-Malay Malaysian support, while Umno has become a flank party,” he adds, flank being a nicer word short of “extremist”.
Chinese Malaysians, which comprise 27.1% of Bukit Gantang’s population, and Indian Malaysians 9.1%, have traditionally been the kingmakers in this constituency where the Malay Malaysian vote is split, with a slight advantage for Umno.
PAS’s win means it must continue to be centrist to retain support. It confirms the new trend realised in last year’s general election, that PAS can only perform among non-Malay Malaysian constituents when it cooperates with the DAP and PKR.
The BN’s Ismail Saffian (right), earlier on polling day, 7 April
For the BN, it is a reminder that change cannot be cosmetic. The government and Umno’s new leadership have yet to be tested, and they must follow up on Najib’s promises of reform in the party, politics and the economy, on repressive laws, media openness, and more.
If polling data reveals that younger voters — the bulk of the national electorate — opted for PAS, it also signifies an uphill battle for the BN to form the government in the next general election unless it responds effectively.
See also: Sweet victory for Nizar in Bukit Gantang