Kevin Zhang & Joshua Wan
After winning only two out of the 28 seats in Malaysia’s recent Melaka state election, Chairman of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition Muhyiddin Yassin found himself defending against calls to disband and return to the victorious Barisan Nasional (BN).
‘We hold to the principles of transparency, integ-rity, combating corruption and abuse of power’, Muhyiddin said. ‘We will be steadfast, cooperate and work harder so that we will be the main challenger to Barisan Nasional’.
Unlike the 2018 general election, where BN suffered an unprecedented defeat in the Melaka state assembly, in the November 2021 state election, BN secured 21 out of the 28 seats and emerged as the clear winner. PN gained two seats while Pakatan Harapan (PH) won the remaining five seats.
The lack of optimism for PN in the recent state election stems partly from the coalition’s weak grassroots network and less established branding compared to the BN and PH coalitions. PN also shares a similar political ideology to BN, with both championing the interests of Malays and Islam in a highly saturated political arena. Analysts have argued that ‘ambitious’ politicians would li-kely join the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) within the BN coalition instead. Indeed, each member of the PN coalition — the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), the Pan-Malay-sian Islamic Party (PAS) and the Malaysian People’s Movement Party (Gerakan) — are presently or formerly in collaboration with UMNO at the national level.
But when viewed in context, PN’s two-seat win is a significant achievement compared the previous electoral performance of its member parties. For example, despite contesting 24 out of the 28 state seats in 2018, PAS failed to win any seats in Melaka. It attained a meagre vote share in the 10 per cent range for most constituencies except for Serkam and Ayer Molek, which crossed into the low 20s range.
By contrast in 2021, PAS came exceedingly close to winning a seat in this year’s state election even though it only contested eight seats. It lost Serkam by a razor-thin margin of 79 votes to UMNO (BN). PAS performed comparably, if not better than PH in all the rural and semi-rural constituencies it contested except for Bukit Katil, which former PH Chief Minister Adly Zahari won. Unlike 2018, under the PN coalition PAS has emerged as a strong contender for the first runner-up position among the Malay electorate, especially in rural and semi-rural seats.
Bersatu, the other key player within PN, failed to defend the constituencies of Paya Rumput and Telok Mas, which it won under the PH banner in 2018 (Bersatu withdrew from PH in 2020). But it wrested Sungai Udang and Bemban from BN and PH, respectively. These wins offer a template for Bersatu going forward and provide valuable insight into its support base. For example, Sungai Udang is traditionally an UMNO stronghold, but half of its total electorate consists of civil servants and their families. This group remains grateful to former prime minister Muhyiddin (and therefore Bersatu) for COVID-19 financial assistance schemes, accounting for their surprise victory.
In Bemban, PN made an audacious move by contesting under the ticket of a Malay-based party (Bersatu) despite having the option to field its multi-racial partner Gerakan. This is significant since Chinese MPs representing BN’s Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) or PH’s Democratic Action Party (DAP) have always won the seat, despite ethnic Malays constituting 60 per cent of Bemban’s electorate.
Bersatu’s decision to field a Malay candidate enabled PN to attain a razor-thin majority of 328 votes ahead of the MCA. The party’s success may be perceived as an intentional gamble to gain the Malay vote while predicting that Chinese votes would be split between the BN (MCA) and PH (DAP) . This tactic could position Bersatu as a strong challenger against the BN in the next general election, especially in rural and semi-rural Malay-majority seats where BN is represented by MCA instead of UMNO.
In Tanjung Bidara, UMNO Melaka Chief Ab Rauf Yusoh scraped through with a wafer-thin majority of less than 400 votes against Bersatu’s Mas Ermieyati Samsudin. Tanjung Bidara has traditionally been a fixed deposit for UMNO. Even during the watershed 2018 election, UMNO won the seat easily with a majority of approximately 3000 voters. Mas Ermieyati proved to be a formidable opponent. She was elected on an UMNO ticket in 2018 for the parliamentary seat (that is, Masjid Tanah) that Tanjung Bidara falls under before defecting to Bersatu. Despite being criticised by her UMNO opponents for disloyalty, her background was not an issue for many residents of Tanjung Bidara.
Far from being a defeat, these results provide a basis for PN to gradually chip away at BN support. Muhyiddin is positioning himself and PN as being on a crusade against corrupt UMNO politicians who have sold off Malay interests for personal gains. Meanwhile, collaboration with PAS increases PN’s Islamic credibility and moral appeal among Malay-Muslims. These factors, along with shrewd tactics and greater overtures towards its support base, could make PN a major oppositional force to contend with in the next general election widely expected to occur sometime next year.
There are signs that BN, and particularly UMNO, is wary of this threat. In a bid not to be outdone by PAS, BN promised in its state election manifesto to make primary school Islamic education mandatory for all Muslim children within 100 days of being elected. If and how the proposal would be implemented remains uncertain since Islamic studies is already a mandatory subject for all Muslim students in national schools within Melaka. Still, the signalling of UMNO, a Malay nationalist party, towards an Islamic agenda shows that the party does not wish to be outbid in the race against PN.
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