Malaysia’s Recent Elections Weren’t Just About Najib’s Popularity

The twin by-elections need to be properly understood.

Malaysia’s Recent Elections Weren’t Just About Najib’s Popularity
Credit: Flickr/Firdaus Latif

In what has been publicized as a popularity test for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, his ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) secured twin victories in a pair of by-elections on Saturday, June 18. The by-elections were held following the death of members of Parliament from both districts in a helicopter crash in Sarawak on May 5, 2016. The by-elections were seen as a litmus test of support for BN following months of corruption scandals plaguing Prime Minister Najib.

BN retained its seat in Sungai Besar, Selangor after a three-cornered fight against Islamic Party PAS (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party) and its offshoot Amanah. BN won by a convincing 9,191 vote majority.

In Kuala Kangsar, Perak, BN won a 6,969 vote majority in a four-way race.

Voter turnout was 71 and 75 percent in Selangor and Perak’s constituencies, respectively. This was lower than the Election Commission’s forecast of 75 percent and shy of past 80 percent levels recorded in 2013 but could be attributed to Ramadan fasting or numbers of voters residing out-of-state.

The Selangor win is touted as significant. BN’s top electoral priority is to re-capture the state of Selangor, one of four states including Penang, Perak, and Kedah that were lost to opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat in the 2008 General Election. BN’s Budiman Mohd Zohdi’s 9,191 vote landslide was a marked improvement from BN’s Noriah binti Kasnon paltry 399-vote win over opposition PAS candidate in the most recent 2013 General Elections.

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Najib vowed to build momentum from the Sungai Besar win to recapture Selangor in the next general election, due before August 2018.

He hailed BN’s twin by-election victories as a vote of confidence in his brand of performance legitimacy and a snub of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s divisive politics. Mahathir has been the mastermind behind a Save Malaysia Movement campaign to unseat Najib. The unlikely and fragile movement has since floundered due to differences in its members’ aims.

It is hard to discern if BN’s win in Sungai Besar and Kuala Kungsar represents renewed loyalty to BN or whether it signals voters’ disillusionment with opposition infighting and their general inability to deliver practical benefits. The emergence of Amanah as a third party has apparently split the PAS vote. According to Merdeka Center pollster Ibrahim Suffian, “It’s now much harder for PAS to win anything, partly because Amanah will be taking away some of the votes from PAS, from Malays.”

A highly plausible theory is that voters voted for economic security. 67 and 68 percent of voters in Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar respectively are ethnic Malays, many of whom are farmers who benefit directly from subsidies and access to fertilizers and pesticides through a government agency known as the Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA). Hit by falling commodity prices and rising living costs, many of them are attracted by more handouts promised by Najib’s government (Najib has pledged bigger subsidies for rice farmers and rubber planters in the 2016 budget). Malaysia’s economic poor form a decisive voting bloc that Najib intends to further cultivate.

Another factor that cannot be ignored is BN’s unconventional placement of Budiman, an easy-going, local assemblyman who is younger and a more attractive politician that his PAS rival, an outsider Dr. Rani Osman. In the end the much-touted Selangor win could simply be the result of a personality contest rather than a vote along party lines. What makes for interesting analysis is why BN won more of the decisive Chinese vote – about a quarter of the electorate – than its opposition rivals.

Despite support amongst Twitter users in Selangor for PAS proposals to introduce the Islamic penal code (hudud), this has not translated into electoral advantage for PAS. One explanation is the small gap between BN’s promotion of Islamic doctrines and PAS-proposed hudud law. Najib’s attempt to woo the Malay-Muslim majority seems to have worked – he had crossed the aisle and reached out to PAS to work together on issues of Islamic doctrine.

While the by-election result is perceived to be a proxy of some sort for Najib’s approval rating, the above analysis shows a myriad of factors that point to something other than genuine support for BN and Najib. Prevailing opinion states that the by-election win is a confirmation of BN’s improved electoral prospects, allowing the coalition to stage a comeback in Selangor, a conclusion that analysts hesitated to draw from the BN’s victory last month in the Sarawak state polls given the dominance of local East Malaysia issues. My own conclusion is that the predictive value of the by-elections for future General Elections is limited. What it does prove is that the opposition has not got its act together and opposition disunity can and has benefited BN electorally.