An Anwar realignment?

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Campaigning for the opposition, the former deputy premier could spark a significant change in voting patterns in the coming general election, observes Wong Chin Huat, after analysing recent voting patterns.

Keadilan did not fare as badly as appearances suggested in the 2007 Ijok by-election. Although the party lost to the Barisan Nasional with a greater margin than in 2004, the party did not lose ground overall. It only failed to pull as many new supporters in net terms (470) as the BN (671) votes, hence the greater margin of 201 votes.

Looking deeper, at the polling district level, the voting pattern has actually changed. In 2004, Keadilan carried all the four Malay-majority areas with 50-65% of support whereas the BN led in the remaining four areas with a majority of Indians or Chinese or combined with an impressive vote share of 65-80%.

This time around, Keadilan suffered a decline of support across all the four Malay-majority polling districts. The worst debacle happened in Jaya Setia, where the party lost about 130 votes while the BN garnered about 200 additional votes, resulting in Keadilan’s support dropping from 52% to 35%. Even in Kampung Ijok, the party’s only remaining stronghold, Keadilan saw its support plummeting from 65% to 57%.

Keadilan’s popularity remained low in Indian-majority areas. In Tuan Mee, where 77% of the electorate were Indians, Keadilan’s support improved slightly from 16% to 18%.

In contrast to the Malays, however, the Chinese in Ijok seemed to have swung towards Keadilan in big numbers. In Pekan Ijok, where the Chinese made up two-thirds of the electorate, Keadilan gained about 280 votes while the BN lost more than 150 votes, significantly improving Keadilan’s position from 28% to 49%.

Taking into account the ethnic composition and party votes from the various polling districts, a best-informed guess would suggest that Keadilan won support from about 45% of Malays, 60% of Chinese and 8% of Indians.

Why the pro-BN Malay swing?

 Why has the support for Keadilan declined amongst the Malays? The decline is alarming for Keadilan considering it managed to poll more than half the Malay votes in 2004 against the national trend. With a heavyweight candidate like Khalid Ibrahim and a super campaigner in Anwar Ibrahim, why has the party lost substantial ground?

There are two possible explanations. First, the nature of by-elections allowed the BN to sweep the small semi-rural seat with its full strength in machinery, money and media. The bonanza of RM36 million delivered or promised to the people of Ijok after the demise of its late assembly member amounts to about RM3,000 per person for the 12,272 voters there. Similarly, there were numerous allegations of phantom voters, vote buying and intimidation. Following this logic, the BN should have won with an even larger majority if there was “value for money”.

Second, the Anwar factor has had it ‘sell-by’ date. He has now lost his relevance amongst the Malays as his nemesis Mahathir is out of power. While his staying faithful to middle ground politics may have won praise amongst the intellectuals and social activists, his call for the repeal of the New Economic Policy and his measured defence of non-Muslims’ religious freedom may have not gone down well with the Malays. Lastly, his attacks on Najib and the Abdullah Government in general for corruption and abuse of power may not have resonated with the rural folks who are now enjoying good times, thanks to soaring commodity prices.

The implications of these two theories can never be farther apart. Taking the first theory, one would expect the opposition to do better in the coming general elections than in this by-election. Facing up to 222 parliamentary battles and 505 state contests, the BN’s resources would be stretched and it would be unable to replicate the Ijok effect across the country. So, Anwar is safe, Keadilan is safe, and so is the opposition in general. Their chance will be even better if the opposition, civil society and the general public can pressure the government to clean up the electoral process.

This argument forgets that a by-election is a double-edged knife. It also allowed the opposition, not just the BN, to concentrate its resource for a show-down in a single battle. In general elections, there will not be a candidate of Khalid’s stature in every constituency. Neither can Anwar and the opposition heavyweights campaign day and night in every constituency. The Hawthorne effect that put the people of Ijok under the national spot lights will not be there. If Keadilan could lose the hard-won Lunas seat in 2004, who dares to say it will not do worse in Ijok or in similar constituencies in the next election?

So, can we write off Anwar now? As much as Umno politicians would love to see it, it may not happen soon. While Anwar’s progressive politics might not have turned on some Malay voters, no evidence has been offered that they have been massively turned off by Anwar’s consistent attack on the NEP or criticism of religious extremism.

At least, Anwar is holding to about 45% of Malay voters in Ijok. However, cruelly speaking, that may also be the height of his electoral charm amongst the Malays for the near future. The same may be true for Pas as Ijok was actually more of a Pas stronghold than a Keadilan base. Thee 2004 Keadilan candidate was actually a Pas leader on secondment. Faced with a gentle and soft-spoken Abdullah, a combative and confrontational political style may not help the opposition to win the middle ground in Malay politics.

Analysis of general election scenarios

What do all these tell us about the next elections? Let’s look at the picture in 2004. When the parliamentary seats were to be arranged  in descending order of support for the opposition, we will find that opposition parties won the first 20 constituencies and at least 40% of valid votes in the next 36 seats. While most of these 56 seats were either heavily Chinese or Malay, there was no clear-cut pattern of ethnic voting across constituencies, suggesting party support, candidacy and other local factors at play.

Now, assuming the constituencies’ ethnic composition remains unchanged by next election, and the turnout rate (and percentage of spoiled votes) is uniform across ethnic groups, we may estimate the opposition vote shares based by loading in different opposition support rates within the ethnic groups. Assuming effective straight fights, we can count the number of seats the opposition may put up a good fight or even win.

If Ijok reflected a national trend, then we should expect 45% of Malays, 60% of Chinese, and 8% of Indians and others would support the opposition. My calculations show that almost all seats would then see the opposition winning at least 40% of votes. Considering how poorly the opposition fared in 2004, this is unlikely to happen in at least the last 56 seats where they won less than 30% support. Focusing on the first 70 odd seats, the opposition parties seem not only capable of defending the 20 seats they now hold, but also of taking quite a number of new seats, which are Chinese-majority mixed areas.

Ijok, however, was not a typical BN seat considering that the late MIC representative was resented by the local Umno, which explains the poorer than usual Umno machinery there. What if Anwar has indeed lost his charm and the opposition across the board can only expect to win 35% of Malay votes? Holding the Chinese at 60% (not unrealistic as a survey released by Merdeka Centre this February suggested that 60% of Chinese Malaysians believe it is time to vote for the opposition) and the rest at 8%, my calcutions show that the opposition would fare even worse than in 2004 for some of the best-performing 40 seats. In reality, the support for the opposition would likely be higher than these figures for them to fend off challenges. Interestingly enough, some seats where the opposition won only about 35% in 2004 may elect in some opposition MPs or at least allow the BN to win only on wafer-thin margins. Again, these are mixed seats with a substantial Chinese electorate.

How much different will it be if Anwar or the opposition can win higher non-Malay support, says, 65% of Chinese votes and 20% of Indians and others? The answer is significant. All in all, my calculations reveal the BN would lose five more seats and face stiff competition in 23 more seats. Even if we leave out the tail (BN strongholds with 70% support), at least several seats may change hand.

Should the Malay support for opposition fall further to 30%, the opposition can only hope to win more than 45% of the votes in seven BN-held seats, five from the MCA and two from Gerakan. And the only beneficiary will be the DAP. That would be Malaysian politics as usual.

The Anwar Factor

What’s the lesson from all these simulations? Ethnically speaking, the opposition will have to deliver at least 35% of the Malay votes. If they do so, their key hope in securing more seats lies with the non-Malay voters, especially the Chinese. A five-percent-point difference between 60% and 65% in Chinese support may make about 30 seats more favourable for the opposition.

Who can deliver the additional Chinese votes? It may not be DAP but Anwar. As much as MCA leaders would like to discredit Anwar by attacking his past in Umno, including the 1987 Chinese primary school crisis, which led to the Operasi Lalang, Anwar’s counter-attack seemed to resonate more with his Chinese audience in Ijok, “Cikgu Loot (referring to the veteran Chinese educationist who was present) opposed me then vigorously, but did the MCA leaders?”. He went on to challenge the BN Chinese politicians to oppose teaching science and mathematics in English, a policy opposed by many Malays, Chinese and Indians.

If the MCA in the past suffered attacks from the DAP for “kowtowing” to the Umno Malays, the same line coming from a former Umno number two can only be more deadly. Whenever Anwar attacked the NEP as a Malay and asked why the Chinese would want to support an Umno government the Malays are abandoning, there was simply no credible answer that could be offered by the MCA and Gerakan.

For his Chinese audience in Ijok and earlier in Machap, he has come from the other side of the ethnic divide to articulate the grievance of the alienated minority this side. They need not worry that such grievance will be demonised as ‘chauvinism’ and cause ethnic conflict – because he is a Malay. In fact, Anwar told Umno Youth leaders to point their keris at him before pointing it at the Chinese.

Put simply, Anwar is now a Malay hero defending the Chinese. He gave them the moral high ground that asserting inter-ethnic equality is not a communal sin. In the context of ethnic politics, he is even more precious than a Chinese hero defending the Chinese, let alone Chinese leaders seen as “sell-outs”. If the BN Chinese politicians have been preaching the virtue of moderation and compromise, Anwar has just provided their constituency the antidote to Malay extremism.

Quite a few Chinese and Indians followed Anwar to listen to his speeches in Malay villages, both in Ijok and Machap. They wanted to examine his consistency and many were impressed listening to lines like “this is our land, we Malays, we Chinese, we Indians ……”


An Anwar realignment?

Should Anwar desire, he may help to realign party politics in Malaysia. Party alignment refers to the phenomenon where the majority members of a social group support a particular political party. For example, the working class in the UK was traditionally aligned to Labour while the middle class to the Conservatives.

Alignments can change due to some historical events or long-term social change. A bloc of voters may no longer align to a party (dealignment) or it may shift en mass to another party (realignment). In the US, the blacks were originally aligned to the Republican party of President Lincoln, who liberated the slaves. In 1the 930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt managed to realign the ethnic minority to the Democrats with his New Deal policy.

In Malaysia, the Malays have been aligned to Umno since 1946. This alignment was evident in the first election in 1955, when the 84%-Malay electorate returned an Umno-led coalition with 82% of the votes. On the other hand, the non-Malays were fragmented up to 1969. The post-1969 NEP and Barisan Nasional projects helped Umno to consolidate its Malay ground and brought about an alignment of Chinese voters to the DAP for the next two decades.

Mahathir’s Vision 2020 and other policies after 1990 (what DAP called “minor liberalisation”, resulting in what Francis Loh termed “developmen-talism”, dealigned the Chinese from DAP. Since 1995, DAP candidates can no longer count on heavily-Chinese constituencies to be sure wins.

The Malays, on the other hand, had not experienced real realignment or dealignment. The 1990 and 1999 revolts against Umno were immediately followed by “homecoming” voting patterns in the following elections, suggesting the volatility was only temporal. It does not appear that a free Anwar can now realign the Malay bloc more than an imprisoned Anwar.

Anwar, however, may be able to realign the Chinese to the opposition, undoing Mahathir’s dealignment in 1995. He may be pulling in new Chinese supporters not only for Keadilan, but also for the DAP in areas such as Petaling Jaya, where the Chinese probably place more consideration on candidates than parties. If Anwar can offer a vision of a new Malaysia, he may be able to persuade enough of them to abandon the popular MCA front-benchers there.
 
If DAP candidates eventually need Anwar to deliver some extra Chinese votes alongside the Malay votes, and Keadilan performs reasonably well, the merger between these two multi-ethnic and supposedly left-of-the-centre parties, once proposed by the DAP’s former chief Lim Kit Siang after 2004 may become feasible.

Malaysian politics may then change in an unprecedented manner. The Chinese representation in the BN may be seriously eroded, not by a Chinese opposition party, but by a multi-ethnic opposition bloc voted in by non-Malays and progressive Malays.

If the BN reacts to it vindictively and becomes more Umno-dominant, the non-Malays and urban electorate will be further pushed towards the multi-ethnic opposition bloc.

Meanwhile, the attractiveness of Pas in Malay politics owes much to its position as the second-largest Malay party since 1955 except from 1990-1995. What if, with substantial non-Malay support, Keadilan takes over Pas as the second Malay party in the coming election?

Politics need not be as usual. I witnessed this in the rally in the Chinese village of Machap Baru on the eve of polling. When Anwar finished his speech, a political activist from Kuala Lumpur routinely shouted “Reformasi! Reformasi!”, embarrassingly to no response from the packed crowd of a thousand. But when Anwar left the rally, I heard the local Chinese youth clapping hands and cheering “Anwar! Anwar! Anwar!” as if he was a David Beckham or Jay Chou.

Now that we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Independence and 44 years of Malaysia, would he be Malaysia’s Abraham Lincoln or FDR, who renews the nation and redefines the politics? Of course, he may also become just another Dato’ Onn, buried alive if the non-Malays choose to support Umno, as their parents or grandparents did in the 1952 Kuala Lumpur municipal elections.

Wong Chin Huat is a lecturer and writer who pays keen attention on Malaysia’s electoral politics. 

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