With this weekend’s Cameron Highlands by-election being widely touted as a de facto referendum on Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) performance in government, Barisan Nasional (BN) is on the offensive as it seeks a victory to re-establish itself following its shock loss at the general election in 2018 (GE-14).
From the outset, PH is seen as underdog in this by-election, as the seat has always elected BN-affiliated candidates. However, support for BN has been slowly narrowing in the seat since the 2013 general election. In responding to this trend, BN has taken a more strategic approach to candidate selection and decided against picking a candidate from its junior coalition partner, the Malaysian Indian Congress. Instead, the opposition coalition has chosen Ramli Mohd Nor, a member of the local indigenous community (Orang Asli) with a strong local profile in law enforcement.
Despite BN’s long history in Cameron Highlands, the incumbent government is remaining optimistic that its own candidate, Manogaran Marimuthu, from PH coalition partner the Democratic Action Party (DAP), will be able to build support off the government’s recent string of successes and the lingering discontent toward BN. PH is eager to win the seat as it would vindicate its performance in government and delay BN in reconsolidating support amongst Malaysian voters.
However, the biggest challenge for PH will be convincing voters that it has delivered on its 2018 election promises. Although PH has delivered on its promise of repealing the widely unpopular Goods and Services Tax and addressed political corruption by indicting numerous senior BN figures such as former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, it has yet to deliver on more pressing bread-and-butter issues such as lowering the cost of living and improving the national economy. PH will be hoping that voters will not penalize it these for these outstanding issues and instead perceive its ability to deliver as ongoing.
Conversely, BN is trying to rally support in Cameron Highlands on a platform of race politics and discontent toward the sitting government. It has so far framed PH as failing to deliver on its GE-14 promises and called on Malay voters to vote along racial and religious lines. The stakes are high for BN because the coalition believes that a victory at this by-election could provide with the boost it needs to reinvigorate the beleaguered and divided party. This would provide BN with a solid platform to begin consolidating support amongst Malaysian voters ahead of the next general election due in 2023 (GE-15).
While national issues will play certainly a role, local issues such as foreign plantation workers and foreign land ownership will likely remain fresh in the minds of voters, who will be reminded of BN’s complicity in abetting these grievances. Whilst this may provide PH with some support, the incumbent government is not relying on this discontent alone to win. In an effort to boost its chances, PH has been campaigning on the ground, with heavyweights such as prime-minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim and DAP figurehead Lim Kit Siang, who have both travelled to the electorate to shore up support for PH candidate. Similarly, BN has also been busy on the campaign trail with the likes of Najib and former Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin both travelling to the electorate to shore up support.
This by-election will also see a new first with the alliance between BN and the conservative Islamic party, PAS. With PAS choosing not to run a candidate and instead firming its support behind BN, the opposition will likely consolidate the electorate’s Malay vote in a move that will weaken PH. Beyond this weekend’s by-election, a BN win in Cameron Highlands could see this alliance become more formalized ahead of the general election in 2023. This outcome could pose a serious threat to PH, as it would not only strengthen BN’s electoral standing, but it would also shift country’s political debate toward divisive rhetoric focusing on race and religion.
As always in Malaysian politics, race is expected to play a large role in this by-election. BN’s decision to pick an Orang-Asli candidate will go far in rallying the support of the electorate’s indigenous population (21.5 percent). This selection highlights the opposition’s focus on Orang Asli voters, who along with BN and PAS’s strong support from Malay voters, could see it receive a majority of support from these two ethnic groups and deliver it up to 55 percent of the voters in the electorate.
Conversely, PH’s candidate, who is of Malaysian-Indian ethnicity, will likely receive strong support from the electorate’s minority ethnic groups. As Chinese and Indian voters make up a combined total of 44.39 percent of the electorate’s population, PH, which previously received a majority of support from voters of these two ethnic groups in GE-14, is still in with a strong chance to win, as it is also likely to secure support from a smaller minority of both Malay and Orang Asli voters.
Nevertheless, a BN win could also serve as a serious wakeup call for PH, whose preoccupation with internal leadership squabbles has served as a distraction for delivering on its GE-14 election promises. This threat could provide PH with an opportunity to reset and move past the teething problems that have plagued it over the last nine months.
As both PH and BN are fearful of the resounding consequences of this weekend’s by-election reverberating until GE-15, both coalitions are fighting tooth-and-nail for every vote. But as GE-14 saw BN win Cameron Highlands by only a margin of 597 votes, this by-election is really anyone’s to win.
Marcus Tantau is an Australian postgraduate student at the Australian National University, undertaking a Master’s of National Security Policy.