THERE are three ways to understand the stunning outcome of the Bagan Pinang by-election: Najib, Isa and the Pakatan Rakyat (PR).
If you believe that the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s victory is really about Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s 1Malaysia, then you would have to accept that Tan Sri Mohd Isa Abdul Samad and the money politics he represents is the face of 1Malaysia in Bagan Pinang. You would also have to believe that the voters do not see any discrepancy between the ideals of 1Malaysia and money politics, and perhaps see political corruption as a technical error, rather than a moral issue.
If you believe that the victory is actually about Isa, then there is not much credit that Najib, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin or Parti Makkal Sakthi Malaysia can claim. Isa is just the locals’ favourite son who could walk around to “cari-cari undi” and win handsomely. What does that tell us about the next elections? Umno should just field more well-liked local warlords, at least in semi-rural and rural seats.
But how many more like Isa can the BN and Umno find? And how many votes will they lose among the urban electorate who do care about integrity and accountability?
The third way to understand the Bagan Pinang poll results is this: notwithstanding the Isa factor, the PR has itself to blame for the widening majority, from 2,333 votes in 2008 to 5,435 votes in 2009.
You could attribute it to the relatively weak candidate fielded by PAS, who was not even a good public speaker. You could blame it on the poor service record of Datuk Kamarul Baharin Abbas, the PKR parliamentarian for Teluk Kemang where the Bagan Pinang state seat is located. You can point fingers at the complacent PAS electoral machinery, or the last-minute campaigning by PR de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
But apart from these conventional explanations, what else do the results portend for political parties, especially in the PR?
Do the Bagan Pinang poll results perhaps tell us that the non-Malay Malaysian voters — especially the Indian Malaysians — are deserting the PR?
The BN’s lead or majority over PAS among postal voters — about 85% are Malay Malaysians — increased only by 26.54%, from 44.30% in 2008 to 70.84% in 2009. In contrast, the increase in BN’s majority among ordinary voters is greater, from a mere 7.06% to 38.88%. About 49% of ordinary voters in Bagan Pinang are non-Malay Malaysians, out of which 31% are Indian Malaysians.
Isa Could this be explained by the Isa factor? Partly, yes. Isa is indeed popular among the locals of all backgrounds. An MCA branch chairperson who put up BN banners and flags told me: “Umno comes, it will lose. MCA comes, it will lose even more. It’s Isa that we are working for. Not political parties.”
Why? Because Isa will listen to anyone who goes to seek help, will drop by at wedding and funerals no matter how busy his schedule is, and will wave at you while driving by as if you were old friends. He does not discriminate against other races. That’s Isa, said the MCA politician.
If that is the entire story about the shift in non-Malay Malaysian votes, specifically the Indian Malaysian vote, towards the BN, then the PR can dismiss the threat. After all, most Umno leaders are not like Isa.
But what if the shift is also indicating a national trend that Indian Malaysians are returning to the BN’s fold?
In the 2008 general election, polling districts in Bagan Pinang with a high percentage of Indian Malaysians almost meant defeat for the BN. Both Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and PAS did almost equally well in the non-Malay- Malaysian-majority areas, although as a whole, PKR secured a majority in the Teluk Kemang parliamentary seat while PAS lost the battle within the Bagan Pinang state constituency.
Merely 19 months later, however, this strength has evaporated almost completely. If the general election were called tomorrow, it is unlikely that PKR would keep the Teluk Kemang seat.
Indian Malaysians rule
Many people see Bagan Pinang as a Malay-Malaysian-majority seat. But if you take away the postal voters, which constitute one-third of total registered voters, it is a completely different picture.
With about 49% of non-Malay Malaysian voters that includes 31% Indian Malaysian voters, Bagan Pinang is almost like the Kota Raja parliamentary constituency, where PAS candidate Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud won by a landslide against the MIC in the March 2008 general election.
The possible reasons for the return of the Indian Malaysian votes in Bagan Pinang to the BN’s fold could be Najib’s careful cultivation of the Indian Malaysian community, Parti Makkal Sakthi, or simply bread and butter concerns. Whatever the case, if this voting pattern is not arrested, the PR can bid farewell to its Putrajaya dream. Worse, it could follow the footsteps of Gagasan Rakyat-Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah and Barisan Alternatif, which disintegrated after the prospect of victory faded away.
And while the PR-run Penang government may not care too much about the Indian Malaysian support for its survival, the picture is very different nationally. If the PR can garner 40% of Malay Malaysian support and 75% of non-Malay Malaysian support, in a broad-brush estimate, it would sweep 103 out of 165 parliamentary seats in the peninsula. Then it would only need nine more seats from East Malaysia for a simple majority in the next general election.
Indian Malaysians in Bagan Pinang on nomination day
However, if the Indian Malaysian support for the PR falls to 50%, while others remain unchanged, the coalition’s gains would drop to only 90 seats, and it would require 22 seats from East Malaysia to form the next government.
If the Indian Malaysian support falls further to 40%, the PR can only hope to win 80 seats in the peninsula, meaning it would merely be retaining the status quo from the 2008 elections. Furthermore, the reality is that the number of seats that the PR may actually win would be smaller, perhaps by 10%. This means that the PR needs to maintain Indian Malaysian support at between 75% and 80% to win a comfortable majority in the peninsula, unless they can significantly increase Malay Malaysian support.
This, of course, leads us to the fundamental question the PR needs to answer: what if it simply cannot win a bare majority among Malay Malaysians in the peninsula? This is likely to be the case looking at the Bukit Gantang and Bagan Pinang by-elections. Would it feel worried, even illegitimate, about forming the next government even if it enjoyed the support of a vast majority of all Malaysians?
Feeling thus insecure, the PR — especially PAS and PKR — will always be vulnerable to Umno’s ethno-religious antics, and some would even be tempted to outdo Umno by playing religious heroes. This would prevent the coalition from boldly offering a concrete road map for a new Malaysia, which perhaps explains the fading euphoria 19 months after the March 2008 victory celebration. This, then, is perhaps the bigger lesson to be learnt from Bagan Pinang beyond Isa.
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He believes inclusiveness is the best policy in electoral politics.
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