IT appears that not even the return of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to Umno’s fold could help the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s chances in Bukit Selambau and Bukit Gantang. And naturally, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leaders are claiming that the party’s victory in the 7 April polls in Bukit Selambau is a clear referendum against new Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
But beyond such easy statements, what really does the Bukit Selambau by-election tell us about politics in Malaysia?
In a phone interview, PKR Youth elections director Fariz Musa says, “It means the rakyat still rejects the Barisan Nasional, and the anti-BN sentiment on 8 March 2008 was not a fluke.”
“Yes, we consider it a referendum, because the by-election coincides with the timing of Najib’s swearing-in as the country’s new prime minister,” he adds. This was echoed almost verbatim by vice-president Azmin Ali to reporters at Dewan Sekolah Menengah Teknik Sungai Petani 1 after PKR’s S Manikumar was declared victorious by the Election Commission (EC) over the BN’s S Ganesan with a larger majority than in 2008.
Professor Dr Norani Othman, a sociologist with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, is more cautious in her analysis.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a clear referendum against Najib, it’s just that the electorate is generally not convinced of Umno’s reforms. It is a skeptical electorate,” she tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview.
She says it is also important to factor in PAS’s formidable election machinery, which is now boosted by the fact that it is the leading party in the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) Kedah government.
Gerakan secretary-general Teng Chang Yeow naturally denies that this victory is a referendum of any sort against Najib or the BN.
“The BN has been talking about reform since March 2008, and it is too short a time for many of the reform agendas to have materialised,” he writes in an e-mail, saying it would be rather unfair to use these election results to judge the BN’s reform efforts.
Gerakan’s reactions are interesting to observe. It is, after all, the BN component party that lobbied for the Bukit Selambau seat to be given to the MIC, despite protests by the Merbok division of Umno.
What about the impact of the eyebrow-raising number of independent candidates here in Bukit Selambau?
In an unsurprising development, all 13 independent candidates lost their deposits. They polled a collective total of 1,326 votes — an average of barely 100 votes per candidate.
Fariz says the fact that all of the independent candidates were soundly trounced means that the political contest in Malaysia is still between the PR and BN.
“The rakyat is obviously not ready to take a chance with these independent candidates,” he says.
Clive Kessler, emeritus professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, tells The Nut Graph that the high number of independents indicates a fundamental flaw in Malaysia’s electoral system.
“It simply goes to show how vulnerable to cynical manipulation a ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system is,” he says in an e-mail interview. Kessler says that in Bukit Selambau this time, the high number of independents means candidates were plagued with a “legitimacy or credibility deficit.”
This is not even taking into account the arrangement of names on the ballot paper, which many have said clearly benefited the BN over all other candidates.
Such manipulation of the electoral system happens elsewhere, too, Kessler says. He gives the example of the US-sponsored parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority.
“In a number of cases, Hamas candidates won with minority support against two other candidates, both from Fatah, the one ‘secular-nationalist’ and the other ‘Islamic-nationalist’,” he says.
Losing their religion
This then begs the question of where the out-Islamising contest between Umno and PAS is right now. In an obvious race between two non-Muslim, Indian Malaysian men from two opposing coalitions, can we safely say that political Islam was not in the picture in Bukit Selambau? After all, the seat is in Kedah, a state ruled by the Islamic party PAS.
Norani, who is also a co-founder of Sisters in Islam, says that the intensifying of this contest remains intermittent. “We’ve continued to see grassroots Umno leaders in the northern region of the peninsula resurrecting Malay-Muslim supremacist rhetoric over the past year,” she says.
She says that at this point in the contest, Umno is the party that has clearly compromised itself. Its corruption and racism have been laid bare for the rakyat to see, and many have chosen to reject the party because of this. Norani’s analysis tallies with The Nut Graph‘s observations that the PR ceramah are the ones that consistently draw huge multiracial crowds.
“Umno needs a drastic, structural change,” she says. “But it appears as though there are no leaders within Umno who are willing to attempt this.”
This gives credence to PR leaders’ defences against accusations that the PAS-led Kedah government has been lacklustre since taking over in March 2008.
Fariz says, “We must take into account that it’s only been a year, and the PR government here is still in the middle of repairing the damage that the BN government has done.”
He also stresses that there is strong pressure applied by the federal government where, for example, grants to the state government are not as forthcoming to Kedah as they are to BN-controlled states.
Islam in the “new Malaysia”
But more urgent is the question of where Islam remains in the equation of the PR’s “new Malaysia”.
“All layers of PAS, from the grassroots to the leadership, are still focused on their Islamic state ideology and are looking to fulfill it in the long term,” says Norani.
She says that unlike Umno, they are much more committed and single-minded about this ideology. PAS will therefore support its non-Muslim partners in the PR, but will keep its eye on the prize of taking over federal power. If and when the PR manages this, PAS will probably negotiate to implement its desired Islamic policies on Muslims and non-Muslims.
Norani says that from now until then, PAS will not do anything to compromise non-Muslim support. This might explain why, for now, Islam did not seem to factor so much in the PR’s by-election campaign, even in Bukit Selambau. PAS’s support for PKR was inevitable, and even necessary for it to inch closer to its ultimate political goal.
“They will try to embrace cultural diversity insofar as it doesn’t detract from their final objective,” Norani says.
So it looks as though, for the moment, PAS is one-up against Umno. And this is what is giving the PR an edge over the BN, as evidenced in the contest between PKR and the MIC in Bukit Selambau.
Crunching the numbers in post-elections analyses may make it seem that Malaysians are moving beyond religious sentiments at the ballot box. But unlike the lull in the campaigning period in Bukit Selambau, political Islam looks set to continue being a factor in the electoral strategies of both the PR and the BN.
And Kedah will be one state to watch vis-à-vis political Islam, being the only one among the four new post-March 2008 PR governments led by PAS.
Disclosure: Shanon Shah is an associate member of Sisters in Islam.