Last Saturday, Malaysia's ruling BN (Barisan Nasional coalition) faced two crucial by-elections which tested its popularity amid scandals hitting its leader, Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The parliamentary seats contested were Sungai Besar (Selangor) and Kuala Kangsar (Perak). Malays make up about two-thirds of the population in both wards, and between 24 per cent and 31 per cent are Chinese. In the 2013 general election, BN won both seats by narrow margins: in Kuala Kangsar, BN secured 50.4 per cent of the vote; in Sungai Besar, it won by 1 percentage point.
This time, BN candidates secured more convincing victories. In Sungai Besar, BN's Mr Budiman Mohd Zohdi obtained 16,800 votes against PAS' (Parti Islam SeMalaysia) Dr Abdul Rani Osman with 6,902 votes and Amanah's Mr Azhar Abdul Shukur on 7,609 votes. This worked out to 53 per cent of the vote for the BN candidate.
In Kuala Kangsar, BN candidate Mastura Mohd Yazid won 53.8 per cent of vote share, which translates to 12,653 votes. Of her opponents, PAS' Dr Najihatussalehah Ahmad obtained 5,684 votes, Amanah's Dr Ahmad Termizi Ramli had 4,883 votes and independent candidate Izat Bukhary Ismail obtained only 54 votes, losing his election deposit for not meeting the minimum threshold.
Although BN can be relieved with these triumphs, it now has to make a tough choice between working more closely with PAS or remaining committed to its traditional BN partners.
Malaysia's mainstream newspapers were quick to point that the results indicate that Malaysians' trust of the Najib administration has been restored. For months, Datuk Seri Najib has been distracted by the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) saga, and he needed to convince his critics that Malaysians were behind him. In May, his coalition won handsomely in the Sarawak state elections, and he needed to repeat that performance to be persuaded that peninsular Malaysians, particularly the Malays, continued to support him.
Some commentators even claimed that in these two by-elections, BN has recovered the 60 per cent of Chinese votes it lost in the last elections. Since the 2008 elections, most Chinese voters have supported the opposition. If the reports about the Chinese voting for the BN candidates in last week's by-elections are true, then BN is indeed on the road to achieve improved results in the next general election (GE), which has to be called in 2018 at the latest.
Mr Najib also used the double victories to swipe at his mentor turned nemesis, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed, declaring that "Malaysians have rejected Tun Mahathir's lies". The 90-year-old statesman has been leading the "Save Malaysia Coalition" campaign to oust Mr Najib as the prime minister. In an unprecedented move, Dr Mahathir also helped campaign for the opposition against his former party Umno (United Malays National Organisation).
In fact, many factors contributed to both victories. The circumstances that triggered the elections were the tragic deaths of two BN parliamentarians in a helicopter crash in Sarawak. These drew sympathy votes to the incumbent party. BN also pumped in huge resources during the campaign, with several high-ranking ministers joining forces with the grassroots.
More importantly, the opposition was divided. The opposition votes were split between PAS and Amanah and many Malays turned back to Umno, the dominant party in the BN coalition.
Among the Chinese, many are reported to have voted for either BN or Amanah. In Sungai Besar, voters were confused about whether the Pakatan Harapan, led by PKR's Mr Azmin Ali, was supporting PAS or Amanah. While Mr Azmin endorsed Amanah's candidate, his party is in alliance with PAS in the Selangor state government.
A more thorough look at the election results will show that if the opposition parties were combined, BN's majority was less than 55 per cent: for Sungai Besar, 53 per cent (margin of 2,289 votes); and for Kuala Kangsar, 53.8 per cent (margin of 2,032 votes). Dr Mahathir's support for Amanah in Sungai Besar contributed to the party overtaking PAS.
Hence, BN and Mr Najib should be cautiously optimistic with the results, especially as they chart the way forward to the next GE. Recently, BN ministers have been open to the idea of upgrading the syariah courts in the states. On the last day of the last parliamentary session, the Speaker of Parliament allowed PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang to table a private member's Bill to amend the Syariah Courts Act 1965, or Act 355, to expand the powers of the Islamic courts. This move angered non-Malay partners in BN, which have threatened to leave the coalition. Interestingly, during its last congress held earlier this month, PAS too appeared conciliatory towards Umno.
The signs are clear that Umno's move to boost its Islamic image has resulted in bigger margins of votes this time round. As it appears, Chinese voters too have voted against PAS, which is a signal that they may also turn against BN if the party continues to push too hard on the syariah Bill. While the Islamic card works in majority Malay/Muslim seats such as Kuala Kangsar and Sungai Besar, it may turn against the party in more Chinese-dominant or ethnically diverse seats.
Ultimately, it may be tempting for BN to use these results as projections for the next GE. Yet, the party should be mindful that there were several other factors which gained them the victory, which need to be taken into account.
Norshahril Saat is a fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He researches on Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia politics.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2016, with the headline 'PM Najib should be cautiously optimistic after by-election victories'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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