Barisan must reclaim the middle ground
A day after Tuesday’s by-elections, the message for the ruling Barisan Nasional is clearer than ever: It has to rethink its race-based strategy.
Tuesday’s two losses meant four straight victories in Peninsula Malaysia for the opposition alliance, Pakatan Rakyat (PR), since the 2008 general election.
The PR’s strategy of multi-racialism has reaped results. It dons the mantle of a champion of the masses up against an out-of-touch elite ruling class.
It calls for reforms and economic assistance based on need, not ethnicity. These twin messages resonate among both the liberal urbanites, as well as the marginalised rural and urban poor.
On the other hand, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) has persisted with the tried-and-tested race-based agenda. Its component parties work the ground separately with mixed messages and despite being an established coalition, its unity sometimes appears illusory.
For instance, a leaflet distributed in the by-election campaign in Bukit Gantang warned that Umno is being pressured by non-Malay components, and this may happen to Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) in their opposition coalition.
In the Bukit Gantang seat in Perak, Umno campaigned along the lines of Malay power being eroded in the state under the former opposition government which was toppled by the BN in February. It labelled the ousted PR chief minister Nizar Jamaluddin, who stood as the PR candidate, a Chinese puppet.
On Tuesday, Mr Nizar won the seat with a higher majority. It was partly because of the sympathy vote as many Perakians were aghast at the takeover.
But the BN race-based model is not winning the coalition the votes it needs. The BN also regularly touts its track record of development but this no longer has cachet. The instant pledges of donations also do not seem to impress voters.
Instead, many see the BN track record as tainted with corruption and cronyism.
To many, including Malays, the pledges of development mean projects for the politically connected. It may not be a fair perception but it is widely held.
In a survey by the independent Merdeka Centre before the Kuala Terengganu by-election in January (which Umno lost), almost three-quarters of the Malays polled said the threat to their community came from corrupt Malay leaders. They disagreed that Malay power was threatened by the non-Malays.
‘We can now see that if you lose the middle ground, you will lose badly,’ said opposition MP Liew Chin Tong, an election strategist for the Democratic Action Party (DAP).
For 50 years, the BN was seen as middle-of-the-road, with the DAP regarded as overtly Chinese and the PAS as an extremist
Muslim party. But with the PKR as the glue, the Pakatan Rakyat alliance has come to occupy the middle ground.
The BN is seen as extreme and appealing only to the rural areas. If this perception becomes embedded, the reality for the BN must be a dwindling base of support as Malaysia is urbanising rapidly.
It is not all that cut-and-dried, of course. Malay insecurity remains. But the problem is Umno believes it can continue to tap on it to rule forever.
Umno’s campaign, assisted by a perception of a strengthened party and the presence of former premier Mahathir Mohamad, did help it make some gains in Bukit Gantang.
The full data on racial voting patterns is not available yet, but the PAS’ preliminary estimates for Bukit Gantang showed that Malay support for Umno had gone up from 53 per cent in the 2008 general election to 57 per cent this time.
It is likely due to the return of Umno members who deserted in 2008 because they disliked the parachute candidate. But if Umno perceives it is making gains in Malay territory because of the old formula of strong Malay rhetoric, it may be tempted to go further.
‘It will lose greater power if it does so,’ said Mr Liew.
It would be detrimental to the BN coalition partners, in particular the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Chinese-based Gerakan and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).
‘The consistent and continued shift of support of the non-Malay voters to the opposition spells the technical demise of BN’s component parties,’ wrote historian Neil Khor, who has authored a book on non-sectarian politics in Malaysia.
He wrote in Malaysiakini that Gerakan will be the first to go, followed by the MCA and MIC if the trend continues.
Gerakan has been haemorrhaging talent since it lost its power base of Penang. The MCA and MIC are surviving, for now, as they still have patronage to offer.
But while the outcome is bad for the BN, some Malaysians think it could be good for Malaysia.
‘We should look at the results as a reminder to BN to effect reform more concretely. If so, it might be a blessing in disguise for BN in the long run,’ Gerakan president Koh Tsu Koon said.
Mr Khor said the strong victory for the PAS in Bukit Gantang may quieten the voices in PAS urging a unity government with Umno to create a ‘super-ethno-nationalist Malay-Muslim party’.
The BN will have to ‘change or be changed’, as Prime Minister Najib Razak has said in recent weeks. Will he resist the temptation to stick to the old script of feeding on the insecurity of Malays?
Today, when he unveils his Cabinet, he will reveal through his choices an early hint of how he will answer that question.