THE ASIAN VOICE

Early polls for Malaysia: The Star columnist

Voters queue to vote during polling day at SK Sungai Limau for the Sungai Besar by-election.
Voters queue to vote during polling day at SK Sungai Limau for the Sungai Besar by-election. PHOTO: THE STAR PUBLICATION

The word in Putrajaya these days is that the next general election will be held as early as next year although the term of the present administration will only end in May 2018.

The word in Putrajaya these days is that the next general election will be held as early as next year although the term of the present administration will only end in May 2018.

All indications point to the possibility of an early poll and the order has been given to heads of the Barisan Nasional component parties to activate their campaign machinery soon.

One component party has already notified its chosen candidates to enable them to get down to work in the respective parliamentary constituencies and to work with the respective division heads to get operations started.

Last week, former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam predicted that the Barisan will hold the next general election “very soon,” saying this had to be done before Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s new party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, gained a foothold.

But Musa was reportedly rebuked by Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar who said elections should not be called merely because a new party had been formed.

Instead, the government of the day should take into account every other factor, including its performance thus far, he was quoted as saying.

“The government must assess whether the ministries have completed their roles and tasks as we have various agenda to look into,” he said.

“So, let the Government do its job, complete its work, perform for the good of the nation and people. That is the most important matter the Government should look into, rather than worrying about snap polls.”

But I believe the most important factor that the Barisan should consider, if not the most important, is how it would perform if elections were called early.

It has to be sure it can win. 

The 1MDB issue has surely put the Barisan in a spot but the reality is that Umno, the main component party of Barisan led by Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, is still in a strong position.

Within Umno and Barisan Nasional, Najib continues to remain very much in control against the barrage of negative reports surrounding the 1MDB issue against him.

One must also understand the psyche and hearts of the Malay heartland to understand the voting behaviour.

The reality is that rural voters in the peninsula will determine who forms the government and not urbanites. Besides the rural Malay voters, Sabahans and Sarawakians will also play a crucial role in delivering the votes.

If national issues such as 1MDB and the economy are determinants in the urban seats, it is the opposite in rural seats where issues are more needs-based.

It is hard to tell a voter in rural Sarawak, who has to travel by boat and foot to a grocery shop to buy a bag of fertilisers and a tin of cooking oil, about the US Department of Justice. 

Such travels, sometimes, take a few days. In Sabah’s Banggi, near the tip of the Philippines, you will face the same difficulties. It is pointless talking about complex financial systems when all the voters want is piped water.

Urban voters will never be able to fathom the needs of these voters unless they have travelled deep into these constituencies.

There is no point scolding them for their purported lack of political knowledge because their concerns are entirely different. Unfortunately, these factors are not taken into consideration when discussions on elections are made.

You can see there is plenty of wishful thinking and assumptions, based on WhatsApp chats among common-minded friends, when they analyse the outcome of the next general election.

It is to the Barisan’s advantage to call for polls now because again, the reality is that the opposition is in disarray.

The entry of Dr Mahathir’s new party – Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia – has, in effect, even made the opposition market more crowded.

It remains to be seen whether Parti Pribumi can even be registered on time, and even if it is, it is hard to imagine how Parti Keadilan Rakyat president Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail will support the idea of a grand coalition headed by Dr Mahathir, the person who put her husband in jail.

So far, Dr Wan Azizah has stayed away from meetings or press conferences called by Dr Mahathir, with the exception of those called by Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who is leading the new party. Anwar, however, has asked Muhyiddin to get the party going.

Despite the criticism hurled at Parti Pribumi for keeping its membership to only Malays and bumiputeras, it also re-emphasises the point that Muhyiddin understands the country’s political pulse well – the kingmakers are the Malays.

It is determined to be another Umno party. The challenge is whether it can succeed when others before it have failed. Veteran Umno leader Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s Parti Semangat 46 died a natural death.

But the more difficult part will be to carve out the seat allocation – will PKR and Parti Amanah Negara, a splinter group of PAS, want to give up what they feel is theirs to Parti Pribumi? And of course, don’t forget that there is still PAS, whose organisation structure in the rural Malay areas is strong.

If the Opposition cannot get things right, we can expect to see many three or four-corner fights and this can only benefit the Barisan, in particular Umno.

Out of the 222 parliamentary seats, only about 30 are predominantly Chinese seats. So, even if planeloads of overseas Chinese were to return to vote, as in the 2013 general election, there is little the anti-establishment voters can do to overthrow the Government.

And unlike 2013 when Chinese voters threw their votes for PAS, this time around, they won’t do the same. PAS can forget about getting the Chinese votes and the appeal of Parti Pribumi remains to be seen.

It is here that the Chinese voters in Malay areas, if it is a two or three-way fight, can be the deciders. In the recent by-elections for the Kuala Kangsar and Kuala Selangor parliamentary seats, Chinese voters returned to the Barisan because the community is aghast with PAS and its hardline Islamist stand.

Although PKR has remained strong in the Klang Valley, especially Selangor, with Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali enjoying the support of urbanites, PKR’s base outside remains weak.

That was the fundamental reason PKR was reluctant to contest in a snap polls in Penang, so badly sought by Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng.

While the DAP is confident of making a sweep in Penang, its partner is worried that it may even lose some seats to Umno – a scenario openly shared by certain DAP leaders which irked PKR, resulting in a social media tiff. Worse, relations between DAP and PKR leaders in Penang are not exactly “BFF status”.

The absence of PAS in the opposition front has been glaring. When Bersih called for its series of protests around this time in 2015, the absence of the Malays, was obvious. 

Although several face-saving reasons were given, the bottom line was that it was predominantly Chinese and the PAS factor in refusing to galvanise the Malays was obvious. 

The irony is that the Chinese should not rejoice if the Malays in rural areas vote for PAS and kick Umno out in the next election.

As the saying goes, be careful with what you wish for, as having more PAS MPs, or even Amanah MPs, may just mean making Malaysia closer to being a puritanical Islamic state with strict religious laws.

In short, PKR is not able to mobilise the Malay protestors into the streets, unlike PAS in previous Bersih protests. If there is Bersih 5, the test will be on PKR, Amanah and Parti Pribumi – three Malay-based parties – to get the Malays into the streets.

If these opposition parties are able to do so, then Umno will have plenty of reasons to be worried and that would be a factor to consider.

In 2013, 108 out of 133 seats won by Barisan came from rural seats. A total of 72 out of 89 seats won by Pakatan Rakyat came from urban and semi-urban seats.

While it is true that Pakatan won every Chinese-majority seat, there are a little over 30 Chinese-majority seats in the country. That leaves at least 59 seats won with the support of voters of other races.

In Malay-majority areas, Pakatan won more seats than the Barisan in both semi-urban and urban categories. A Malay-majority seat cannot be seen as a guaranteed victory for the Barisan.

As one commentator wrote, the political urban-rural divide in Malaysia is clear. The Barisan represents rural majority and can still retain power with rural and semi-urban seats alone.

The 2013 election highlighted the Opposition’s weak areas which are rural seats, especially in the bumiputera Sabah and bumiputera Sarawak majority seats, the article said.

It is a no brainer. The Barisan will not call for an early general election unless it is sure of winning and it has to look at the existing windows of opportunities.

The harsh reality is that it is the rural Malays and bumiputeras who will decide and not the Wall Street Journal, as much as many angry urbanites would not want to hear it.

The writer is The Star media group's managing director/chief executive officer.