Mansor celebrating his win in the by-election
WITH Penanti, the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) has added yet another convincing victory to its already impressive by-election resumé. Doubtless, many are viewing Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) candidate Dr Mansor Othman’s thumping 5,558 winning majority as par for the course in PR’s onslaught on Malaysian politics.
Rohana AriffinSupport for the opposition coalition as a whole, and PKR specifically, seems to be on the up. Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) vice-president, Rohana Ariffin, tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview, “Yes, PKR is gaining ground.
“And judging by the PR’s by-election track record since March 2008, it looks like it is set to form federal government after the next general elections.”
Rohana is of course referring to the PR’s victories in five out of the six by-elections — Permatang Pauh, Kuala Terengganu, Bukit Gantang, Bukit Selambau, and now Penanti, with Batang Ai being the odd one out — held after the historic March 2008 elections. Professor Dr Norani Othman, a sociologist with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, agrees with Rohana.
In an e-mail interview with The Nut Graph, she says: “[The electorate is sending a message] so that the Barisan Nasional (BN) does not get arrogant with the presumed hegemonic power it may command over the electorate.”
Referring to Mansor’s impressive majority, she tells The Nut Graph, “It does reflect the extent of the electorate’s desire for change or availability of electoral choices.”
Nevertheless, the victory is not as sweet as it could be considering that voter turnout this time is one of the lowest in Malaysia’s history. PKR elections director, Saifuddin Nasution, however, disagrees that this mars the party’s victory in any way.
He tells The Nut Graph: “It is true, only 46.15% of the voters came out to vote, but of this number the overwhelming majority consisted of hardcore PKR supporters. This tallies with the support we got during the March 2008 election as well.”
He says that all this means is that the hardcore BN supporters and fence-sitters stayed home. And of course, Saifuddin agrees emphatically with Norani and Rohana about perceived support for the party.
“Despite the mainstream media’s negative propaganda against the PR since March 2008, it hasn’t affected the rakyat’s support for us.”
He adds with the Penanti victory under its belt, the PR can say that support for it is “intact and increasing”, and is “genuine, not seasonal”.
“This victory also confirms the rakyat’s rejection of the BN after their huge defeats in this constituency in March and August 2008,” he says. “To lose again would have made it three times in a row for them, and would have been a strong signal to them that there is no cure for the rakyat’s rejection of the BN.”
Saifuddin says that although the BN did not contest in this by-election, this analysis is still valid as the coalition had, he claims, been manipulating media coverage to favour the independent candidates.
PKR information chief Latheefa Koya agrees that the BN is growing more desperate. She tells The Nut Graph, “If the BN had contested in this by-election, it would have been another ‘I told you so’ moment from the rakyat.”
Still not a referendum
Norani, however, says it would be going too far to call this victory a “referendum” against the BN.
“It’s a message from the electorate that a political party has to take public opinion and sentiment seriously, and not have the tendency to assume that it can bulldoze over the political views of the electorate,” she says.
Mansor Othman (File pic)
Rohana, however, takes a more optimistic view. “At this rate, it could be a good thing if the PR gets to experience being in federal power soon and the BN experiences being the opposition.”
She says that such a reversal could only strengthen the experiences and capacities of both the BN and PR to serve the people. For example, she talks about how the parliamentary defeat of India’s entrenched Congress-led coalition government in the late 1990s produced a rejuvenated, more responsive party that came back to wrest federal power in 2004 and again in 2009.
But what of the BN’s constant accusations that the Penanti by-election was “engineered” by PKR and a waste of public funds? Latheefa responds: “Every time we contest in a by-election, the risk of us losing is also there.
“But in this case, I think we did the right thing. The state assemblyperson, who was also Penang Deputy Chief Minister 1 (Mohammad Fairus Khairuddin) took responsibility for the corruption scandal surrounding him and stepped down,” she says. “And so the party left the ultimate decision of who to replace him with to the voters.
“With this victory, it shows that although voters might have found this a nuisance, they appreciated our decision to let them decide.”
The bigger picture
But this is where it is important to separate the different strands of meaning in the Penanti by-election.
On one hand, it was about a local issue that affected the constituent’s voters and the state government directly, as PKR’s Mansor will now be appointed the new Penang DCM1.
On the other hand, not everything about the by-election was about Penanti alone. It was also about PKR’s ongoing struggles with its own internal problems and leadership issues as it comes to grips with its phenomenal growth into the leading opposition party in the country. And the by-election also needs to be contextualised within the current state of Malaysian politics.
As Norani says: “Elections, electoral systems, and electoral behaviour are only some of the variables of a democratic system or culture.”
Mansor Othman and independent candidate Nai Khan
Ari Nai Keow
She says that there are other indicators that need to be looked at before we can say anything decisive about the state of Malaysia’s democratic culture.
“[We need to consider] things like the setting, renewal and change of norms, of openness and flexibility of political attitudes by all political actors, who consist of political party members, political leaders, the incumbent, those waiting to get elected, and the electorate,” she says.
Besides, Malaysian democracy really is in a transitional stage, and the spate of by-elections over the past 12 months could be growing pains. After all, as Norani says, “The process of developing and improving a democratic culture in any society is not easily attained.”
Democratisation, she says, does not only need to take place in the larger political system, but also within political parties.
And so, while PKR’s victory in Penanti tells us that Malaysian democracy is definitely, albeit painfully, growing, the next phase will require Malaysians to scrutinise democratic practices within all political parties.
See also: Penanti poll results (Updated 9.26pm)