ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Malaysia’s Latest By-Election Poses a Test for Pakatan Harapan

What effect will the Tanjung Piai by-election have on Mahathir’s leadership?

By Marcus Tantau for
Malaysia’s Latest By-Election Poses a Test for Pakatan Harapan
Credit: Pixabay

On November 16, voters in the rural electorate of Tanjung Piai will go to the polls in what promises to be a tight contest between the Pakatan Harapan government and the Barisan Nasional-PAS opposition. While the result of this by-election will have little bearing on the government’s numbers in Parliament, it may serve to expedite the transition of leadership from Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to Anwar Ibrahim.

The Tanjung Piai by-election was spurred by the sudden death of Bersatu MP Mohamed Farid Md Rafik on September 21. It will also mark the ninth by-election since the 2018 general election, of which Pakatan Harapan (PH) has won a total of five, while the Barisan Nasional (BN) opposition has won just three.

Mahathir’s party Bersatu will contest this by-election on behalf of PH, with local religious figure Karmaine Sardini throwing his hat into the ring. Representing BN will be former MP Wee Jeck Seng from the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), who held the Tanjung Piai seat from 2008 to 2018. Minor parties Gerakan and Berjasa will also each be fielding a candidate, while the remaining two candidates will contest as independents.

Keenly aware of the high stakes at play, Pakatan Harapan has been throwing all of the resources offered by incumbency behind its candidate. Furthermore, government ministers and leading party figures including Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, PKR President Anwar Ibrahim, and Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng have also joined the hustings in an attempt to boost the government’s chances.

Despite this gallant effort, the outlook for PH government doesn’t look positive, as the support that delivered it victory at the 2018 general election has significantly waned. This decline has been spurred mainly by PH’s failure to deliver on the election promises laid out in its 2018 manifesto.

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Although Malay voters in Tanjung Piai make up 57 percent of the electorate’s overall voters, their votes are widely seen to be less decisive for PH because in 2018, 66 percent of Malays voted for either Barisan Nasional or Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS). Furthermore, according to a recent survey by Malaysian-based think-tank Institut Darul Ehsan (IDE), 58 percent of Malay voters would be voting for the same party as they did in 2018, suggesting that Malay voting patterns won’t see much movement.

In contrast, Chinese voters in Tanjung Piai are widely being seen as the kingmakers in this by-election. Not only did they overwhelmingly vote for PH at the 2018 general election, but they also make up 42 percent of voters in the electorate. Chinese voters feel betrayed by the government for its failure to act on Chinese-centric issues such as recognizing the Unified Examination Certificate, the standardized high school test for vernacular schools, and the inclusion of Khat calligraphy into the primary school syllabus. Compounding these grievances are the rising cost of living and local problems such as poor road infrastructure and a severe lack of employment opportunities. This frustration amongst the Chinese community is so deep-seated that IDE found that only 41 percent of Chinese voters will vote the same way as they did at the 2018 general election. This paints a grim picture for Pakatan Harapan, which won Tanjung Piai in 2018 by only 524 votes only after it secured 64 percent of the Chinese vote. As such, if this data holds true, there is a strong likelihood that many Chinese voters will either vote for BN in protest or abstain from Saturday’s vote entirely.

To make matters even bleaker for PH, this assessment doesn’t even take into account the impact of the freshly minted alliance between BN and PAS. In 2018, PH won Tanjung Piai with 47.29 percent of the vote compared BN’s 46.12 percent and PAS’s 6.59 percent. However, with PAS now running on the same ticket as BN, it is hoping to pass on the 6.59 percent it received in 2018 and deliver Barisan Nasional an easy victory. While it isn’t certain that all of the 2,962 voters who voted for far-right Islamist party will bring themselves to vote for a non-Muslim Chinese candidate, PAS President Hadi Awang has nevertheless been working tirelessly to convince the party faithful to break with tradition and support the MCA candidate.

Although Pakatan Harapan’s fate this Saturday is by no means sealed, it is clear that the odds are significantly against it. Broadly speaking, for PH, losing Tanjung Piai won’t impact its ability to form government and nor will it hurt its chances in the 2023 general election. However, what it will do is put pressure on Mahathir’s leadership.

If the margin of defeat is narrow, Mahathir and the other senior members of PH will likely get away with calling for a review of the government’s recent conduct and reaffirm the need to implement the 2018 manifesto. However, if Pakatan Harapan loses by a wide margin, blame will likely be directed toward Mahathir.

The media will likely spearhead this attack by framing a big loss at Tanjung Piai as a sign that voters are dissatisfied with the overall performance of the government and will paint Mahathir, due to his micro-managing style of governing, as the foremost person responsible. While this will unlikely result in calls for Mahathir to immediately step down as prime minister, it could revive popular support for the expedition of next year’s leadership transition.

Ever since regaining the prime ministership in 2018, Mahathir has become increasingly cagey about whether he would follow through with his promise to hand over the leadership in May 2020 to prime minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim. While it is still unclear how Mahathir will react to the eventuality of such pressure, it is clear that any big loss at Tanjung Piai will squarely put the odds of a May 2020 leadership transition occurring in Anwar’s favor.

Marcus Tantau is a political analyst currently based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.