Malaysia: Status quo after by-elections

TWO by-elections this week have shown that the hard-core base for both sides of the political divide in Malaysia remains largely intact. The score was 1-1 for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance.

Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president Wan Azizah Wan Ismail comfortably retained the Permatang Pauh parliamentary seat in Penang with a reduced majority of 8,841, which came on the back of a lower turnout of 74 per cent.

Her husband, jailed former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, took the seat in 2013 by 11,721 votes on a turnout of 88.3 per cent.

Political analyst Azizuddin Mohd Sani noted that those who voted for the PKR in the last general election continued to support the opposition, albeit in fewer numbers.

"This is the by-election syndrome. It does not matter if it is held during weekdays or weekend, the turnout is always lower. We already expected the numbers to be low but 74 per cent is actually quite high," Dr Azizudin told The Straits Times.

He also noted that Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) supporters eventually returned to the opposition fold and voted for PKR in spite of allegations during campaigning that PKR had insulted PAS party president Abdul Hadi Awang over plans to implement Islamic law in Kelantan.

Leaders of Umno, the main component of BN, had voiced support for the hudud plans.

On Thursday, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah almost matched the votes garnered by Anwar, by obtaining 57 per cent of all ballots cast compared with his 58.56 per cent in 2013. Incidentally, the ruling BN's vote count also did not budge at 40.1 per cent, a marginal drop from the 40.3 per cent in the last general election.

Mr Ibrahim Suffian of the independent pollster Merdeka Centre spoke about electoral fatigue, pointing out that voter turnout in by-elections tended to drop between 10 and 15 per cent.

On Tuesday, the ruling coalition saw its majority in the Rompin by-election slashed by nearly half in its stronghold in Pahang. But this also came against a big drop in turnout. The constituency is made up of Felda settlers, farmers who have benefited from the BN government's decades-old resettlement scheme.

Mr Ibrahim does not believe that Dr Wan Azizah or the PR had emerged stronger after this week's polls. He said PR's problems with PAS still exist and the future of the opposition pact will depend on the outcome of the Islamist party's internal polls next month.

Prime Minister Najib Razak and BN also had little to crow about in the aftermath of voting, according to Mr Ibrahim.

"Unfortunately for (Datuk Seri) Najib, his critics will have more ammunition after the by-elections and it will not be easy for him," he said.

He said BN's failure to capitalise on Malay votes in both Permatang Pauh and Rompin should also serve as warning sign to the ruling coalition.

"The next general election is many years away and many things can happen. There is some unhappiness among Malay voters regarding the economy and prices of commodities, especially in rural areas," said Mr Ibrahim.


This article was first published on May 9, 2015.
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