By-elections a litmus test for Barisan Nasional

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 26 — Five by-elections in one year is startling enough but to have three of them squashed into one month is pretty extraordinary. Two by-elections have been held since the March 2008 general election, which saw the Barisan Nasional ruling coalition take a severe beating, turning Malaysia’s political landscape topsy-turvy.

Three more by-elections will be held by April. And a further two could be in the pipeline, making it seven in all. And that is just for one year.

It is no surprise that many Malaysians are calling it “a year of by-elections”.

By comparison, in the last parliamentary term (2004 to 2008), there were just six by-elections, or an average of 1.5 a year.

But what is particularly interesting about the five by-elections this year is the diverse range of seats. Each is in a different state (Penang, Terengganu, Kedah, Perak and Sarawak) with a different racial mix.

Short of another general election, these by-elections will collectively offer a pretty accurate view of voter sentiment. Almost like a mini general election.

“It’s as close as you can get,” said political analyst Ong Kian Ming who researches electoral trends.

Considering that such polls arise only by chance — through a death or resignation — the coincidence could not be more stark.

The death of a Sarawak assemblyman on Tuesday triggered the latest by-election. There is no date yet for the Batang Ai poll, but it is likely to be close to the April 7 by-elections in Perak and Kedah.

Perak’s Bukit Gantang called the poll after its MP died, while the by-election in Kedah’s Bukit Selambau comes after its assemblyman quit abruptly.

Earlier, there were the Kuala Terengganu and Permatang Pauh (Penang) by-elections, both won by the opposition.

“We won with a larger majority and in Malay-majority seats, against the odds. The BN poured in great resources… It is very telling,” said opposition DAP MP Liew Chin Tong.

Both seats, in semi-urban areas, offered a gauge of the Malay vote — Kuala Terengganu’s voter population was almost 90 per cent Malay, and Permatang

Pauh’s was 70 per cent.

It was a sweet victory for the opposition, which had an uphill task convincing Malay voters that their interests were not being sidelined in favour of the non-Malays.

The next two by-elections — in Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau — are also in semi-urban seats, but with a different racial mix.

In both seats, the Malay voters comprise 50 to 60 per cent of the total. In Bukit Gantang, the Chinese make up almost 30 per cent, while in Bukit Selambau, the Indians make up about 30 per cent.

In constituencies where the Malays are not dominant, it is believed that BN has traditionally been the Malays’ choice. So, the results for these two seats would shed important light on whether the level of Malay support in these type of constituencies has changed.

“They are important yardsticks,” said Liew.

The Batang Ai seat in Sarawak is a totally different game. Its voter base is 95 per cent Iban, with the Malay-Melanau part at under 2 per cent. It will be a key test of the East Malaysian sentiment. Sabah and Sarawak support is crucial to the BN but the non-Muslim East Malaysians have become increasingly unhappy over issues like the loss of their customary land.

“If the Pakatan Rakyat can win there, it will be a real coup,” said Liew.

The five by-election results will give a fairly good sense of the sentiment on the ground.

The only type of seat that is not in the mix is a BN stronghold.

“None of the five seats is a slam-dunk win for the BN,” said Ong.

“If we win all five, especially Batang Ai in Sarawak, it means that the BN really has to change or they are looking at possible defeat in the next general election,” said Liew. — The Straits Time

The Malaysian Insider

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