Experts tell forum BN coalition expected to retain power in Malaysia

Two veteran observers of Malaysian politics said yesterday that they expect the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition to retain federal power despite a renewed show of unity by the opposition parties that last week picked Tun Mahathir Mohamad as its prime ministerial nominee.

Malaysia's Bernama news agency chairman Azman Ujang and former Bernama chairman and businessman Kalimullah Hassan said they still expect BN to face a tough election battle due to public unhappiness over government scandals and cost-of-living issues.

They were speaking at the Regional Outlook Forum organised by the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.

BN in the 2013 general election won 133 parliamentary seats out of the total 222, while the opposition alliance won 89 wards.

The opposition parties broke up into several factions in 2015, with Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) refusing to rejoin the other main opposition parties, threatening three-cornered fights in most seats that will benefit BN.

A group of PAS leaders two years ago formed a new Islamic opposition party, while several disgruntled leaders from Umno, the dominant party in BN, left with Dr Mahathir and formed a new pro-Malay party a year ago that is now part of the opposition.

With BN expected to largely retain votes in Sabah and Sarawak, and garner the rural Malay vote, it would be able to retain power at the 14th general election that is expected to be called within months, said Datuk Seri Azman.

"With the opposition parties not united, in simple maths this will benefit BN," he said.

Meanwhile, a proposed redelineation exercise that is expected to favour the ruling coalition is expected to be rushed through in time for the election, say activists.

Still, it won't be plain sailing for the 13-party BN that has ruled Malaysia since independence 60 years ago.

Datuk Seri Kalimullah expects BN to again lose the popular vote.

"While I am sure that BN will again lose the popular vote in the next general election, I am not so sure it will lose parliamentary majority," he said.

In the last polls in 2013, BN for the first time in 13 general elections lost the popular vote, garnering 47.4 per cent of total votes cast. The opposition parties received 50.9 per cent of the votes, with the remainder being spoilt votes.

BN won despite losing the popular vote as there are more seats in rural Peninsular Malaysia, which are BN-friendly, than in urban townships with higher density of people who tend to support the opposition.

Four of the main opposition parties, minus PAS, are now grouped under the Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance. They last week picked Dr Mahathir as their nominee for the prime minister's post should PH take power.

Meanwhile, other speakers at the forum spoke about elections this year in countries such as Indonesia and Thailand.

Indonesia's presidential election will be held in 2019 but the vast country will hold 171 regional elections this year which Mr Meidyatama Suryodinigrat, president director of Antara news agency, described as "the year of political noise".

Thailand is expected to hold its elections near the end of this year.

There is keen interest on how the country will transit back from a military government to holding democratic elections under a new King, said Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Thailand's Institute of Security and International Studies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2018, with the headline 'Experts tell forum BN coalition expected to retain power in Malaysia'. Print Edition | Subscribe