Let the Malaysia general election games begin

Mr Ibrahim Suffian has found himself in the crosshairs of pro-government bloggers and commentators in social media.
Mr Ibrahim Suffian has found himself in the crosshairs of pro-government bloggers and commentators in social media. PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN

KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Ibrahim Suffian, who has made a name for himself for his many surveys (as co-founder and programmes director of Merdeka Center for Opinion Research), walks a fine line. He gets shot at each time the findings of a survey don't favour a particular party.

If his survey touches on the high cost of living here, he riles up Putrajaya. That's what happened when a recent study revealed that despite the Government's continued efforts in highlighting the country's economic growth and addressing the cost of living, a large number of Malaysians are still left lamenting their economic woes.

His methodology, including sampling size, location and margin of error, was immediately called into question.

The chief of the Merdeka Center said a survey found that 15 per cent of Malaysians are skipping meals to save money while some 11 per cent are reported to have pawned their belongings to make ends meet.

The survey, carried out by the Merdeka Center from Nov 4 to 14 last year, involving 1,203 registered voters, was conducted to gauge voter perception on current developments and functioned as a follow-up to a similar survey done in January.

Ibrahim found himself in the crosshairs of pro-government bloggers and commentators in social media. He, like many Malaysian journalists, faces the same predicament in an emotional and highly divisive political scene ahead of the coming general election.

It will worsen once the campaign begins since our countrymen largely prefer to listen to and believe what they want.

This time, though, Opposition supporters are upset with Ibrahim, with some accusing him of going on the take by releasing his findings which favour Barisan Nasional.

Last week, Ibrahim gave a talk at CIMB on the general election, noting with confidence that Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak would continue to be Prime Minister.

He described Barisan's projected victory as "a near certainty" and that the support for Najib is growing, although not yet on par with that enjoyed in the 2013 elections.

Ibrahim added: "Barisan is 13 seats from regaining a 2/3 majority, may be in a position to regain."

During his presentation, Ibrahim - referring to one slide titled "Opposition Prospects Slim to Zero" - said Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang "appears keen to prevent a Pakatan win" and that the "redelineation would favour Barisan in some seats and Selangor".

He predicts the elections "may see the loss of Kelantan and Selangor" but that "non-Malay Opposition seats will not be affected".

What Ibrahim shared isn't exactly earth-shattering news. Others, like the respected London-based Economist magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore, have offered the same projection. Likewise the Swiss-based multi-national financial services company, Credit Suisse.

Only the most hardcore Opposition voters believe that the Barisan government will collapse in the coming general election.

Much of this enthusiasm comes from wishful thinking, coupled with the belief that the iconic Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad will deliver the Malay votes.

Note that even anti-establishment supporters are not saying Parti Keadilan Rakyat or Parti Amanah Negara, but Dr Mahathir. That in itself suggests that the two Malay-based Opposition parties are not sufficient in making the required changes.

More importantly, without the predominantly Malay electorate, nothing is likely to change.

Winning a general election is more than just securing popular votes. Changes to the parliamentary seats this time will make it even tougher for the Opposition to unseat the Barisan, especially with some Malay seats.

The DAP will hold onto its urban seats and may even win more popular votes, but that won't increase its numbers. The figure will remain, more or less, the same, but with the redelineation changes coming up, the Opposition party may even lose a few seats.

Truth be told, angry DAP voters can't dispose of Najib despite their loud voices because the political system and gerrymandering effect will not amount to that. That is how the first-past-the-post voting system, based on the Westminster electorate method, works. This means, the candidate with the most votes wins.

This is in contrast to the European proportional representation system, where seats are allocated based on a specific threshold of votes and the number of votes obtained.

But Chinese and Indian votes are crucial in tightly-fought, predominantly Malay constituencies, especially if Barisan and PAS are contesting, but a three-way fight between Barisan, PAS and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia or Amanah/Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) now looks on the cards.

And after the 2013 debacle, it is almost certain that the non-Malays will not be supporting PAS this time around.

In fact, they should be worried if the Malays vote for PAS instead of Barisan. In the end, as the saying goes, "Be careful what you wish for."

Chinese Opposition voters are fond of telling each other that "their Malay friends have given up on Barisan and will back the Opposition this time".

There are elements of truth in this in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Perak, and possibly parts of Johor, but a "Malay tsunami" is not anywhere on the horizon.

Said analyst Wan Saiful Wan Jan, the chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs: "Umno is entrenched in the psyche of both rural and urban Malays. Dislodging it from that position is not going to be easy.

"In fact, I think among the Malays, the urbanites are more difficult for Pribumi to attract than the rural villagers. They may be more educated and analytical, but in reality, they have a lot more to lose if a change were to occur.

"The urban, middle- and upper-class Malays also tend to complain in private, but the pretend heroism does not follow outside of their comfort zones. Pribumi will have trouble getting them into its ranks before GE14."

In short, many Malays have benefited, one way or another, from the system, and they are unlikely to want to rock the status quo.

But while Ibrahim believes that a 2/3 majority may be possible for Barisan, it will be most challenging for the coalition to hit that target.

In most democracies, and not just in Malaysia, it has become increasingly difficult to obtain that kind of huge mandate. Clear examples include the United Kingdom and Australia.

It doesn't help the Opposition's cause that a feud seems to have erupted between Dr Mahathir and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim before the first vote has even been cast.

It strengthens the perception that the game plan is merely to, first, finish Najib off, and then finish each other off after that.

The writer is Group Managing Director and CEO of the The Star Media Group, Malaysia. He writes a regular weekly column On The Beat. The Star is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media.