The ‘March 8’ combo?

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Lim Hong Hai reviews a new book on the watershed general election: ‘March 8: Eclipsing May 13’, a thought-provoking collection of essays by Ooi Kee Beng, Johan Saravanamuttu and Lee Hock Guan.


Ooi Kee Beng, Johan Saravanamuttu and Lee Hock Guan, March 8: Eclipsing May 13. Singapore: ISEAS, 2008). 126 pages. RM55.

The book is a collection of complementary but self-contained essays on Malaysia’s 12th general election on 8 March 2008, supplemented by an epilogue on the Permatang Pauh by-election on 26 August, which returned Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim to Parliament.  

The subtitle, Eclipsing May 13, suggests that the essays would be tied together by common reflection on the larger significance of this ‘watershed’ election. This reflection, to the book’s credit, is not confined to whether and how May 13 has been eclipsed. What May 13 symbolises to the authors, moreover, is too cursorily explained in the introduction to suffice as agenda for reflection. A concluding chapter that offers the authors’ collective and systematic discussion of what March 8 signifies, portends or makes possible would have been useful. Even so, this book is worth reading for what it has brought together in a single volume and the thinking it provokes.


Widespread discontent

The first essay, by Ooi Kee Beng, has two parts. The first part, surveying important political events of 2007–8, strongly suggests a sharp deterioration in Barisan Nasional’s support in the 10 months before March 8. The second part, an impressionistic account of the election campaign in Penang, contends that the swing to the opposition in Penang only crystallised towards the end of the 13-day campaign. If this was also the case elsewhere, it would explain why virtually all political observers and politicians failed to predict the outcome of the election earlier.

Ooi concludes with several observations, some of which are further examined in the other two essays: the widespread discontent with BN and its successful mobilisation by the opposition as key factors for BN’s greatest ever setback; the prominent role and success of the multiracial and Malay-led Parti Keadilan Rakyat as an important reason for the absence of post-election violence; ‘that Malays tend to vote for the government and non-Malays for the opposition was broken, perhaps for good’; and ‘March 8 eclipses May 13 and will continue to do so’ in that ‘race alone no longer suffices in explaining Malaysia’s voting pattern and political behaviour.’

These points should provoke thought. To provide just one reaction: if PKR helped many voters to overcome the fear of violence that has been often and rascally used to haunt voters, then thanks are also due to Tan Sri Koh Tsu Koon and Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi for helping to bury the May 13 ghost.

Vote swing

Johan Saravanamuttu’s essay, an overall analysis of the election, covers the usual or expected topics: background, issues, campaign, results, likely reasons for the results, and some post-election developments. Johan highlights a key feature of March 8 that was shared only by the 1969 election, namely, BN’s failure to secure a majority of the popular vote in Peninsular Malaysia because of a shift in voter support, among all races, to the opposition. The cited estimates (Table 2.2, page 38) show that the percentage shift in 2008 is much lower among Malays than among non-Malays, especially Indians.  

Analysts have rightly stressed the vote swing. But a puzzle remains: BN’s peninsular vote share of 46.2 percent in 1969 was lower than the 49 percent in 2008 (Table 2.4, page 55). Why, then, is the outcome in terms of seats so much more devastating for BN in 2008 than in 1969? Electoral contests are about seats rather than votes per se, and a party’s share of seats is not proportional to its share of votesunder our first-past-the-post system. Something besides vote share or vote swing – and that affects the vote-seat relationship in our electoral system – must have produced the seat distribution in 2008.


Crossing ethnic lines

This is where Lee Hock Guan’s essay comes in. Focusing on Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, Lee shows how constituency delineation, in particular increasing the number of ethnically mixed constituencies in the last exercise in 2002, favours BN when voting follows ethnic lines. Then he convincingly shows the considerable cross-ethnic voting for the opposition that dissipated the hoped-for BN advantage in 2008. It appears that many voters were sufficiently dissatisfied not only to overcome fears of instability to vote opposition but to overcome ethnic affiliation to vote for any opposition. Lee concludes: ‘once the Opposition overcame [the barrier of] cross-ethnic voting, mixed constituencies no longer remained safe havens for BN.’

Lee’s implication – the pooling of the votes of all opposition party supporters for individual opposition candidates in 2008 – deserves to be emphasised. The opposition parties achieved this by putting up and campaigning for a single candidate against BN in each constituency. But in the final analysis, as Lee shows, its realisation depended on the willingness of opposition voters to cross ethnic lines. Opposition parties were thus able to counteract and largely negate BN’s advantage of vote-pooling under first-past-the-post election with similar vote-pooling of their own.     

The 2008 election may be special, then, because of the occurrence or combination of two factors in Peninsular Malaysia: overall opposition vote-majority and opposition vote-pooling in individual constituencies. This ‘March 8 combo’ explains BN’s greater seat loss in Peninsular Malaysia compared to 1969 and why BN’s loss of a two-thirds parliamentary majority could not be averted by even a virtual sweep of Sabah and Sarawak. It also explains why, in state contests, the opposition’s vote-majority (Table 2.1, page 37) translated into control of five state governments.  

Good ghost of March 8

The fruits of cooperation, which March 8 more clearly demonstrates than any previous election, should provide powerful incentives for Pakatan Rakyat to cohere and build – and bring about a competitive two-party system. To reap these fruits fully, PR should keep pressing for electoral reform, especially the reduction of the mal-apportionment in constituency delineation that largely benefits Umno.  

For BN, the challenge is to redress voter dissatisfaction, especially among non-Malays, to keep it below ‘tipping point’ or the level that pushes ‘too many’ voters to vote opposition, even regardless of ethnicity. In this connection, Johan criticises Abdullah Badawi for having ‘egregiously failed to deal effectively with issues’ and posits his departure (now scheduled for March 2009) as a necessary condition for BN’s recovery. Johan argues that ‘Abdullah’s stymied political hand only allows for tinkering rather than an overhauling of all that is wrong’.

Abdullah’s failures, more sins of omission than of commission, can hardly be disputed.  But surely the man has been shaken out of his complacency. And would his successor’s hand be any less stymied, whether by Umno or personal baggage? In other words, Abdullah’s departure, even if necessary, is insufficient. But Johan would probably agree with this point, and perhaps this too: the (good) ghost of March 8 will help to strengthen any BN leader’s reform hand, especially with many voters watching and expecting.

As stated in the book’s epilogue, ‘real political competition in Malaysia cannot but bring about great and beneficial changes.’  Good luck, then, to BN and PR.

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