The BN campaign headquarters in Manik Urai
BY any account, PAS’s marginal victory in Manik Urai is virtually a loss for the party.
Its winning margin has been slashed by a whopping 1,287 votes, from 1,352 votes in 2008 to a wafer-thin 65 votes on 14 July 2009. In percentage, the decline is all the more alarming for PAS: it won in March 2008 with a very comfortable 13.33% margin, but in the recent by-election, its winning margin measured at a meager 0.61%.
Breaking down the shift in terms of the popular vote, statistics show that PAS experienced a net loss of 398 votes, while the BN experienced a net gain of 889 votes.
It is important to note that PAS lost votes despite the 416-voter or 3.37% increase in total turnout. Party sources also suggest that many PAS supporters had indeed returned from out of town to vote, which would have offset potentially bigger losses.
This means PAS’s actual loss of its 2008 base is probably greater than 398 votes. In fact, estimates show that PAS probably lost 629 votes in total.
And this is not because voters could not make up their minds. True, the number of spoilt votes, 117, is higher this time than PAS’s wafer-thin winning margin. This implies that if all the spoilt votes were transformed into votes for the BN, the coalition could have carried the seat. But this is a misleading analysis, as the number of spoilt votes in March 2008 was actually much higher at 192 votes.
The salt in Pakatan’s wound
In this sense, PAS and the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) should see Manik Urai as their second electoral upset after Batang Ai in April 2009, rather than their sixth victory out of the seven by-elections since March 2008. It does not take a rocket scientist to see that this is a wake-up call for PAS and the PR.
Like Batang Ai, Manik Urai is a rural and highly mono-ethnic constituency where issues surrounding development matter to the constituency. The other five post-March 2008 by-election constituencies were urban or semi-rural constituencies with multiethnic populations.
And so, like in Batang Ai, national issues carried less weight in Manik Urai. It’s a consensus among observers and politicians that local issues were dominant here.
And it is telling that PAS lost a net of 235 votes and 119 votes to the BN in the Manik Urai Lama and Manik Urai Baru polling districts, where the BN made a conditional promise to build a bridge.
The old bridge connecting Manik Urai Lama with Manik Urai Baru
With a combined total of 353 votes lost, these two districts yielded nearly a third of the 1,287 decline in PAS’s winning margin. PAS central working committee member and Kubang Kerian state assemblyperson Datuk Husam Musa was partly right in attributing PAS’s setback to the BN’s “vote-buying” via development promises.
It would, however, be naive to ignore the larger picture at the national and state levels.
Unlike Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) in Batang Ai, PAS had a huge and arguably more effective machinery than Umno in Manik Urai. If in the past, development promises have not always been effective for the BN to discredit PAS, why did such promises nearly work this time?
PAS supporters adrift
An incomplete but obvious answer is that this was a battle of a divided PAS against a united Umno. While PAS leaders had managed to contain internal squabbles over the controversial unity government suggestion, the issue is clearly far from over.
One thing is for sure — it allowed the BN propaganda machine to emphasise the similarity between PAS and Umno as two parties fighting for Malay-Muslim Malaysian interests. In marketing terms, the unity government proposal somewhat helped to diminish PAS’s differentiation from Umno in the ideological sense.
True, the mainstream Kelantan faction, led by menteri besar Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, was and is dead against the proposal. In fact, Nik Aziz was the one leading the charge against Umno’s lack of religiosity. Yet, these efforts did not seem effective in halting the swing of some of the fence-sitters.
After all, if both candidates were for Islam and development, voters would have naturally dwelled on the details. Surely a candidate who is a well-educated development officer and whose party can promise greater development would start looking more attractive to voters.
The million-dollar question is, can PAS get its act together and help its supporters regain a sense of purpose? The electoral setback happened in Kelantan, despite Nik Aziz’s fiery campaigning — will this be used as an excuse to further undermine his leadership?
Nik Aziz delivering a ceramah on 7 July
Mixed seats hold the answer
On the other hand, prime minister and BN chairperson Datuk Seri Najib Razak has clearly played his cards well.
Once divided, Umno now has a clearer goal for retaining power. The rest of Umno are willing to back Najib in taking political risks on issues surrounding the economy and education. Judging from the party’s strategy in Manik Urai, they are going along with Najib’s strategy for winning back substantial numbers of Malay Malaysian votes in the Malay heartland. In this way, the BN is hoping that it can wrest a few seats from PAS or PKR.
But mono-ethnic constituencies are rare. In Peninsular Malaysia, only 72 out of 165 parliamentary constituencies have more than a two-thirds majority of Malay Malaysians in their population. Therefore, the real battlefield between the BN and the PR will not be in constituencies like Manik Urai or Batang Ai.
After all, if Manik Urai is to be of any reference, the BN might only slash the PR’s victory to a wafer-thin margin in super-Malay-Malaysian-dominated seats. The fact is that a two-party or two-coalition system is already rooted in the Malay heartland. It can only be subverted if PAS decides to enter into a coalition with Umno.
It will be a different ball game in the 51 parliamentary constituencies in West Malaysia, where non-Malay Malaysians constitute an outright majority and the 42 others where they constitute a significant minority of one-third of the population or more. The simple rule of thumb is that the PR only needs to win 40% of Malay Malaysian support and 75% of non-Malay Malaysian support to carry these mixed seats. The BN’s development promises have so far failed in most of these 93 urban and semi-rural mixed seats.
Najib (File pic) But Najib’s reform policies have not really been tested yet. Polling data suggests that Indian Malaysians have warmed up again to the BN, while Chinese Malaysians are still skeptical.
We are left to wonder how far urban Malay Malaysians might swing towards Umno. Can Najib win sufficient support from them without even offering political democratisation?
One thing in Najib’s favour is that the PR seems to have lost its magic touch. On top of their infighting, the PR parties have failed to offer more concrete and attractive visions and policies to compete with Najib’s 1Malaysia soundbite.
Perhaps the BN is now secretly hoping for a by-election in the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia to test the waters. This might help Najib decide whether to dissolve Parliament by November 2009 before the next constituency re-delineation exercise.
Based in Monash University Sunway Campus, Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by profession and a journalism lecturer by trade. He believes that ideas are public goods.