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Uncommon Sense with Wong Chin Huat: The cause and effect of three-cornered fights

THERE are a record number of three-cornered fights this election, including those involving candidates from the same coalition. Why all the bickering over seats? Couldn’t seat allocations have been agreed upon before nomination day? And, most importantly, what will it mean for the final results of the 13th general election since the nation’s independence (GE13)? The Nut Graph asks political scientist Wong Chin Huat.


TNG: Why are there so many three-cornered fights this election?

One main reason is due to the parties’ candidacy selection process. Many of the independents contesting in GE13 consist of incumbents who were dropped by their parties. These include the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s Datuk Seri Mohd Shariff Omar in Tasek Gelugor, and favourites who were ultimately not chosen like Jenice Lee in the Teratai state seat.

Then there was the odd situation of Sim Tong Him, who is contesting the Kota Melaka parliamentary seat under the DAP and filed papers to run as an independent for the state seat of Kota Laksamana. Backed by the entire state leadership, Sim claimed he was contesting to prevent the seat falling into the BN’s hands. Sim said the central leadership’s choice of candidate was hugely unpopular and had angered many voters. He  has since withdrawn from the Kota Laksamana contest following nationwide public pressure, so it will be a straight fight there.

Jason Teoh (Wiki commons)

Jason Teoh (Wiki commons)

As this election will be so closely fought, the parties this time are stressing heavily on a candidate’s winnability. Hence, parties are sending candidates to contest in areas where others may have been working and gunning for over the past few years. The candidates ultimately chosen by the party may hence not be the ideal candidate for grassroots party members. In some cases, parties have been able to pacify the potential candidate who was not selected, such as the MCA’s Jason Teoh in Gelang Patah. But in others, they failed to do so, resulting in three- or multi-cornered fights.

Another reason is the failure among allies or friendly parties to agree on seat allocation. PSM will be facing PR parties in three seats – Kota Damansara (PAS), Semenyih (PKR) and Jelapang (DAP). PAS and PKR were also slated to contest against each other in six other seats, although this has been resolved with each party now contesting three seats.

In other cases, candidates are fielded as deliberate spoilers. Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma), for example, put up Muslim candidates under dormant party Berjasa’s flag. They fielded candidates in constituencies with Malay majorities where the BN and PR fielded only non-Malay Malaysian candidates.

Is it unreasonable of the parties to “parachute” in their chosen candidates?

This all boils down to how important this election is in determining the next government and the parties’ focus on fielding winnable candidates. But this question of who is winnable is very subjective. For instance, take Shariff Omar, who is a former Penang deputy chief minister. He feels he is winnable, so why didn’t they choose him as a candidate? And so he is going to try his luck as an independent.

Why have there been more three-cornered fights between PR parties this time around compared with 2008?

In the 2008 elections, the PR did not have enough good candidates to run in every seat, and in some places, they just placed someone there to fill the gap. There were more “hopeless” seats in 2008 where the PR did not expect their candidate to win, so it did not really matter who they placed there. This time, there are very few such seats. Most seats are potentially winnable for the PR if the winds of change are strong. This raises the stakes when it comes to who is to contest in that area.


S Arutchelvan (Source:

A worrying issue that has emerged is the PSM’s shocking allegation that S Arutchelvan was not approved to contest in Semenyih under the PKR banner because PKR’s preference was for a Malay candidate. There has been no denial from PKR, which claims to practise inclusion. It is difficult to deny that ethnicity plays a role in candidate selection. But if it was applied rigidly in this case, it is a serious concern as Arutchelvan has worked on the ground for five years after losing the seat in 2008. Arutchelvan’s first mission is to prove that the Johnny-come-lately PKR candidate, rather than he, is the spoiler by polling more votes than the PKR candidate. If he makes it and even wins the seat, it will prove the decline of outright communalism.

But since the election was delayed for so long, couldn’t the seat allocations have been worked out before nomination day?

For both coalitions, there have been no cast-in-stone or cut-and-dried criteria in candidate selection although there were some conventional rules. First, parties got to keep the seats they contested in previously regardless of whether they won or not. Second, parties were allowed to swap seats to increase winnability but the total number of seats allocated for the most part remained the same to avoid discontentment. Third, seats were allocated roughly by ethnic composition, in other words, by division of labour along communal lines.

The BN has been able to manage candidate selection reasonably well, at least until 2008, because it has two weapons to pacify the disaffected: political appointments, including senatorships and GLC directorships, and the promise of creating more constituencies in future re-delineation exercises.

The PR has neither of these advantages. Hence, when disputes emerge over candidacy, it has nothing to pacify or accommodate the excluded parties, factions or personalities. This problem will be solved once it comes into power. But it would be sad if the PR resorts to BN-style horse trading, which makes elections and democracy hollow. Hence, if regime change takes place, the candidate selection mechanism and electoral system must be placed on the reform agenda.

Crucially, how will these three-cornered fights affect the final election outcome?

Hee Yit Foong

This must be looked at on a case-by-case basis. A lot will depend on whether the third or fourth candidates are genuine spoilers and can draw enough votes away from the main candidates. If Ong Tee Keat had run in Pandan for example, the BN would surely suffer a significant loss in votes. This may occur in Tasek Gelugor, where Shariff Omar is standing.

In many cases, there will be no spoiler effect and the battle will be mainly between the two main candidates from the BN and PR. This will probably be the case in Jelapang, where voters will be keen to give the DAP the vote after what they experienced in 2009 when former DAP MP Datuk Hee Yit Foong became a BN-friendly independent. Sim’s withdrawal in Kota Laksamana has shown how powerful the national mood is among Malaysians yearning for regime change. The Nut Graph

Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and was a journalism lecturer prior to joining the Penang Institute, a Penang government think tank. If readers have questions and issues they would like Wong to respond to, they are welcome to e-mail [email protected] for our consideration.

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One Response to “Uncommon Sense with Wong Chin Huat: The cause and effect of three-cornered fights”

  1. Viktor Wong says:

    There are many kinds of factor or reasons. Factionalism within a political party is to be blamed as well, both in BN and PR parties, not to exclude anyone from this problem.

    Apart from that, there are also serious contenders from the independent side who want to bring a non-party approach to our people i.e. serving the people directly rather than meeting the interests of the respective political parties first. Such a scenario may be new to us.

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