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Can Mahathir's party win Malaysia?

PPBM seems to have made inroads among the young, but it will have to take on Umno in traditional Malay strongholds. Most importantly, it must manage its coalition partners.

A new political party, the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), or the Malaysian United Indigenous Party, was launched just over a year ago, on Jan 14, 2017. It boasts, among its top three leaders, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin and former Kedah chief minister Mukhriz Mahathir.

The party has positioned itself as a Malay party. In an era where opposition parties are generally racing to become colour-blind, PPBM's ethnic-driven strategy has raised eyebrows.

Under Tun Dr Mahathir's chairmanship, PPBM has moved quickly to establish itself across the Malaysian peninsula.It now has divisions in 137 out of the 165 parliamentary constituencies in Peninsular Malaysia. PPBM is deliberately staying out of Sabah and Sarawak in East Malaysia, acknowledging the rising sentiment of localism in the two states.

For a party that is just one year old, being able to cover more than 80 per cent of its targeted constituencies is no mean feat. This is recognised by its coalition partners in the opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan. When Pakatan announced the seat allocation for its component parties, PPBM was given the biggest share in Peninsular Malaysia with 52 seats.

The party is also attracting members, with the number of applications estimated at around 200,000. Of these, 55 per cent are below 35 years old, and for the majority, PPBM is their first party. This is impressive because the general assumption in Malaysia is that the young either reject ethnic-based politics or party politics altogether.

Almost all of the younger PPBM members I interviewed told me they joined the party because of Dr Mahathir. They were born in the early 1980s and for the first 22 years of their lives, he was prime minister. They were too young to understand the criticisms thrown at him at that time. But they saw modern infrastructure being built daily in a country that was enjoying respectable economic growth.

Thus for them, Dr Mahathir is a hero.

Many of the younger Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia members joined the party because of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. To them, Dr Mahathir is a hero. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

However, PPBM faces a major problem among female voters. This is a very important demographic group. About 50 per cent of registered voters are female, and almost all analyses show that Umno has a very strong influence on them. Umno, or the United Malays National Organisation, is the dominant party in the Barisan Nasional coalition now governing Malaysia.

This was reflected by a survey conducted in Johor last year by the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. Only 17 per cent of female voters said they favour PPBM, while 44 per cent rejected the party outright and 39 per cent were unsure.

Another hurdle for PPBM is the fact that its main target audience, the Malay voters, is still heavily influenced by identity politics. The same survey by ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute found that 85 per cent of Johor Malays are not in favour of the Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party (DAP), a partner of PPBM in Pakatan. From my interviews with Malay voters across Peninsular Malaysia, I found this sentiment prevalent outside Johor too.

There is a tendency among Malay voters to associate the rise of the DAP to the rising political clout of Malaysian Chinese, and by extension, the erosion of Malay political power. Thus, voting for any party that helps the DAP get into government is tantamount to jeopardising the Malays' special position.

It will be tough for the PPBM to win over Malay voters when they contest with a Pakatan coalition that includes the DAP.

The wider environment is clearly challenging for PPBM. But Dr Mahathir at the age of 92 is steaming ahead with a schedule that can wear out even those less than half his age. He zigzags across the country, speaking at ceramah (talk) sessions almost every night, attracting hundreds, if not thousands, willing to stay until midnight to listen to him.

  • 17%
    Percentage of Johor's female voters who would vote for Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM).
  • 85%
    Percentage of Johor Malays not in favour of the Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party (DAP).

In terms of electoral strategy, PPBM leaders told me that they want other Pakatan component parties to acknowledge PPBM's importance in winning the Malay votes. The opposition parties under former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim - who was imprisoned for sodomy but has become an opposition leader - had tried very hard to win Malay support but have reached a limit.

PPBM is offering a completely new push into the Malay heartland. For this vital contribution, it wants to be rewarded with a fair share of seats in places where the Pakatan coalition has a higher chance of winning, namely those with mixed-ethnic demographics. This is a big demand because among Pakatan parties, the expectation is for PPBM to contest in seats with a high Malay population since its raison d'etre is to replace Umno.

PPBM leaders, however, argue that Pakatan can win over mixed seats only if Malay voters in those areas are persuaded to its side, and that this will happen only if PPBM is present. Thus, if PPBM is the reason for Pakatan to win in mixed seats, its vital contribution must be reciprocated in the form of seats in mixed areas as well.

Seat allocation among Pakatan parties is therefore very important for PPBM's longer-term survival.

So far, PPBM seems happy with the parliamentary seats that have been allocated to it. But the tussle for seat distribution at the state level is ongoing.

The route towards winning Putrajaya is paved with many challenges, even for the master politician. None of the polls is siding with Dr Mahathir at the moment. This will be an uphill battle for him.

But, typical of Dr Mahathir, one can expect that he will put up a brave fight and give it all that he has.

• Wan Saiful Wan Jan is a visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2018, with the headline Can Mahathir's party win Malaysia?. Subscribe