Malaysia's next GE

Pakatan Harapan assesses chessboard

Pakatan Harapan's leaders reckon it has to win at least 80 seats in Peninsular Malaysia in order to safeguard Malaysian democracy.

In GE14 in 2018, against all odds, PH came to power having won 114 seats, two seats more than the simple majority of 112. PHOTO: THE STAR

Amid talk of an early election, Pakatan Harapan (PH) must first decide what would be the desired outcome of Malaysia's 15th General Election (GE15) for the coalition and if it is going into the election with a winning mindset.

Winning is not as straightforward as it seems. On Aug 27, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who is vice-president of Umno, briefed the Umno Supreme Council that all intelligence reports point to a hung Parliament.

In GE14 in 2018, against all odds, PH came to power having won 114 seats, two seats more than the simple majority of 112 (a Kuala Lumpur seat won by an independent proxy was later counted into its tally).

Of the seats won by PH, 98 came from the peninsula, 10 from Sarawak and six from Sabah. It was a breakthrough in the East Malaysian states.

Sabah and Sarawak have very different dynamics from the peninsula, and the parties in these states will not be as tightly linked to Barisan Nasional (BN) in GE15 as they were in the past.

Thus, in the upcoming election battle for Malaysia's 222 parliamentary seats, we have to focus first on the seats in the peninsula. Of the 165 seats on offer, BN strategists are optimistic that their coalition can secure 70 seats, a significant increase from the 49 seats it won in the peninsula in 2018.

The mathematics is pretty straightforward. PH has at least 55 seats solid in its column, having won them consistently in 2018 and earlier in 2013 and 2008 when it was then known as Pakatan Rakyat.

Thus far, there does not appear to be an obvious collapse of support for Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) in its traditional strongholds of Kelantan and Terengganu. Consequently, it is feasible for PAS to win at least 15 seats. Currently, PAS is in a coalition with Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) in the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition.

On balance, the possible seat tallies for BN, PH and PAS could be 70, 55 and 15 respectively. This means that the focus of the GE15 electoral battle would be on the remaining 25 seats at stake in the peninsula.

But PH must also look beyond these 25 seats and understand the various possible post-election scenarios that come from its vote tally.

If PH wins fewer than 60 seats in the peninsula, the other parties would have many possible permutations to exclude it from any post-election discussions on forming a government. They will also be able to amend the Federal Constitution as they see fit, as they would hold a two-thirds majority in Parliament (148 out of the 222 seats).

Should this be the case, whatever meagre reform gains made since 2018 will be reversed. Consequently, democracy in Malaysia would face serious setbacks in the coming decade, and the survival of a meaningful opposition would be in serious jeopardy.

If PH wins 80 seats in the peninsula, at the very least the Federal Constitution can be amended only if PH supports it. And PH would be at the negotiating table one way or the other.

The 'three kingdoms'

In the event PH wins more than 80 seats, BN is likely to win fewer than 80 among the 165 seats on offer in the peninsula. This is because the third coalition - PN - may also gain some seats. This is what we call the 'three kingdoms' scenario. In this case, PH will have the legitimacy to invite other parties to form a coalition government.

In GE13 and GE14, PH's aim was to win 100 seats in the peninsula. In GE14, it won 98 seats. If PH wins 100 seats in the peninsula in GE15, other parties will gravitate towards the coalition to negotiate the formation of a PH-led coalition government.

In short, PH winning 60, 80 or 100 seats among the 165 seats in the peninsula has totally different meanings and outcomes.

All the political leaders in PH - a coalition comprising Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Democratic Action Party (DAP), Parti Amanah Negara and United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation - must realise that they must do everything possible to collectively win at least 80 seats to safeguard Malaysian democracy and move the nation forward. Benjamin Franklin famously said: "We must, indeed, all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

To do this, PH will need to inspire and energise a high turnout of voters. The Melaka and Johor state elections clearly showed BN retaining its base, albeit a shrunken one, compared with previous elections. BN's popular vote share was 38 per cent in Melaka and 43 per cent in Johor. BN commanded more than 60 per cent of Malay support in GE14 in both Melaka and Johor, but its vote share among the Malay electorates dropped to around 50 per cent in the two state elections.

High turnout crucial

PH can win only if there is a very high turnout that dilutes the importance of BN's voter base. BN strategists know this, which is why there are two messages being pushed.

The first is that Umno-BN is very strong and hard to defeat; and the second is that there is no point in voting anyway.

Both messages aim to dissuade those voters who are either against Umno-BN or pro-opposition/reform from coming out to vote.

There were 14.9 million registered voters in the May 2018 GE14, out of which 82.3 per cent or 12.29 million turned out to vote. In GE13, the voter turnout was 11.05 million, or 85 per cent - the highest recorded in the country's history.

As at May 2022, the electoral roll listed 21.02 million voters - a jump of more than six million over GE14. This tremendous increase is due to the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 years old and automatic voter registration.

To explain the challenge PH is facing in stark but simple terms - if fewer than 12 million or 57 per cent of eligible voters turn out to vote, BN is likely to win big. If more than 16 million voters (or 76 per cent) make the trek to the polling booths, PH could edge towards the 100-seat mark.

To energise 16 million voters to vote, PH would have to inspire them by providing positive and persuasive narratives on nation rebuilding and economic recovery. This will not be easy.

But therein lies the challenge for all PH leaders and the Malaysian electorate, to ponder and take action.

  • Liew Chin Tong is the opposition leader in the Johor state assembly and DAP national election director.
  • Dzulkefly Ahmad is the strategy director for Parti Amanah Negara and Member of Parliament for the Kuala Selangor federal constituency.
  • This is an edited version of an article first published in Fulcrum, the news analysis and commentary website of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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