Twin wins a shot in the arm for Umno

Najib and ruling coalition get over 1MDB hump

Flags and banners of opposition rivals Parti Islam SeMalaysia and Parti Amanah Negara, as well as those of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, lining a street in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, during campaigning for the by-election. Dr Mahathir Mohamad (se
Flags and banners of opposition rivals Parti Islam SeMalaysia and Parti Amanah Negara, as well as those of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, lining a street in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, during campaigning for the by-election.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
Flags and banners of opposition rivals Parti Islam SeMalaysia and Parti Amanah Negara, as well as those of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, lining a street in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, during campaigning for the by-election. Dr Mahathir Mohamad (se
Malaysian Defence Minister Hishamuddin Hussein (from left); Mr Budiman Mohd Zohdi, Barisan Nasional’s winning candidate for Sungai Besar; Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife, Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, celebrating last Saturday’s win in Selangor with coalition members and supporters.PHOTO: SIN CHEW DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition won two crucial by-elections in Selangor and Perak with improved margins, a fillip to Prime Minister Najib Razak who has been burdened by allegations of graft for over a year. Even the unprecedented support of former premier Mahathir Mohamad for the opposition failed to turn the tide. Malaysia Bureau Chief Shannon Teoh details what the results mean for Datuk Seri Najib, the opposition and Tun Dr Mahathir.

First the Sarawak state elections, and now the last by-elections before the next general election that must be held by 2018 - no vacant seats are filled in the final two years of the term - have resoundingly assured the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that crucial non-urban voters have not fled.

Like the Sarawakians in May, compared with the 2011 state elections, the people of Sungai Besar in Selangor and Perak's royal town Kuala Kangsar gave BN larger margins of victory than in the 2013 general election. The coalition was represented by candidates from Umno - the dominant BN partner - in the by-elections.

Even combined, the two opposition candidates in both wards failed to surpass the BN tally. In fact, BN scored a slightly higher proportion of the vote than in 2013, when Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) nearly wrested both seats which have traditionally been Umno strongholds.

Despite the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal of the previous two years, which led to critical top leaders of Umno such as party deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin and even former strongman Mahathir Mohamad being sidelined, the party can now breathe easy knowing that the tussle of the past three years between BN and the opposition has tilted in BN's favour.

It also affirms the Umno-led government's long-held faith in the politics of patronage above issues such as good governance.

An emboldened Prime Minister Najib Razak hailed the convincing win in Sungai Besar as a starting point towards regaining Selangor, the missing jewel in Umno's crown. It might be a stretch, given how the urban chattering classes have raged over the US$700 million (S$945 million) found last year in Datuk Seri Najib's personal accounts, which are constantly linked to state investor 1MDB's staggering RM51 billion (S$16.8 billion) debt. But the federal Parliament is heavily weighted towards rural voters.

"Governance is still not the main issue throughout the country. Najib and BN know this. They don't just use (politics of patronage) as a campaign tactic but they also perpetuate it because this is where they have an advantage," Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of think-tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, told The Straits Times.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2016, with the headline 'Najib and ruling coalition get over 1MDB hump'. Print Edition | Subscribe