Malaysia: Is Barisan Nasional Growing in Strength?

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Malaysia: Is Barisan Nasional Growing in Strength?

The six-decade-old grand old coalition, led by UMNO, remains in a much weaker state, but it will inevitably be looking to build on its winning momentum.

Malaysia: Is Barisan Nasional Growing in Strength?
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Barisan Nasional’s recent landslide victory in the Melaka state election has certainly given the grand old coalition plenty to gloat about, fuelling talks of a “return to stability” under Barisan rule and even a potential comeback of disgraced former premier, Najib Razak.

The six-decade-old coalition won 21 out of 28 constituencies in the state polls, with Pakatan Harapan securing only five seats – just a third of the seats it won in the last general election in 2018 – and Perikatan Nasional winning two.

While the outcome of the election came as a surprise, especially for Pakatan Harapan’s Anwar Ibrahim-led People’s Justice Party (PKR), which lost all of its 11 seats, analysts suggest that Barisan Nasional’s victory over its rivals was not as huge as it would appear.

In seven of the seats contested, the winning margin was less than 5 percent. Barisan Nasional won the Pengkalan Batu seat by only 131 votes (1 percent), while in Serkam, the victory was by a razor-thin margin of 79 votes (0.7 percent), which political observers attributed primarily to lower voter turnout. 

Concerns of being infected with COVID-19 and voter apathy suppressed turnout, which fell to 65.9 percent from 85 percent recorded in the 2018 federal election. This was lower than the COVID-19 polls held in Sabah last year that reported a turnout of 66.6 percent.

Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham Malaysia’s Asia Research Institute, in her field analysis of the Melaka state campaign, found that many traditional Pakatan Harapan voters made a “conscious decision” not to vote after the coalition opted to field defectors from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the dominant party in Barisan Nasional. 

“That (Pakatan) Harapan thought Idris Haron was ‘winnable’ is a reflection of how out of touch PKR was with voters,” Welsh said. She added that Pakatan Harapan’s recent backing of the federal budget that had racially discriminatory allocations further distanced the coalition from its base. “Talk of an anti-hopping law being passed has no resonance when you are part of the hopping. Talk of reform has no substance when you are working with those undercutting reforms.”

Ong Kian Ming, a parliamentarian from Pakatan Harapan’s Democratic Action Party (DAP), believes that the bloc needs a new narrative moving forward, with the unpopular Goods and Services Tax (GST) and scandalous 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) no longer carrying the weight they did in the last general election.

“While many voters are not satisfied with the handling of the COVID-19 crisis by the government led by Muhyiddin Yassin, the anger towards the same cabinet members led by current Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob may have been reduced, especially with the reopening of the economy,” he said.

Ong also mooted the idea of introducing a new line-up of young leaders and forming new alliances, including  a youth-centric political party Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), to appeal to younger voters. 

MUDA initially intended to contest in the Melaka state polls but decided against it following Pakatan Harapan’s move to field UMNO defectors who brought down the state government.

On this note, James Chin of the University of Tasmania told Asia Times that Pakatan Harapan leader Anwar has made “too many political mistakes” that has resulted in his leadership losing credibility. 

“I think there will be a lot of push especially from outside the party to replace him, but internally I think there’s no chance of him being replaced inside PKR itself unless he steps down voluntarily, which he is not going to do,” Chin said.

In addition to back-to-back COVID poll defeats, Anwar has made at least four unsuccessful attempts to become prime minister since Pakatan Harapan’s historic election win in 2018.

Meanwhile, Ong’s suggestion to team up with MUDA points to another important trend that has come out of the Melaka state election: Perikatan Nasional’s two-seat win.

Not only did Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional succeed in securing two state legislative seats in its maiden election in Peninsular Malaysia, but the coalition also had a fighting chance in five other seats where Barisan Nasional won by a slim majority of fewer than 1,000 votes.

“(Pakatan) Harapan’s campaign did not have coherence or clear messaging and logistically operated in silos. This was in contrast to Perikatan Nasional’s more coordinated, slick and resource-rich campaign that capitalized on financial insecurities of voters and was more tactical in its choice of candidates,” Welsh said. “Perikatan Nasional captured a future-oriented ‘change’ momentum.”

Barisan Nasional’s win in the Melaka state polls may be resounding, but it still falls short of feeding the narrative that the coalition is growing in strength as many of its wins were handed over to them by a disorganized and dazed opponent amid an ongoing pandemic.

UMNO, in particular, remains much weaker compared to what it was in the past, as internal divisions continue to threaten the stability of the party’s leadership, as Welsh observed.

But a win is a win, and Barisan Nasional will surely be looking to build on the momentum.