Three strategies PH used to pull off a stunning electoral victory

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Photograph: Sumisha Naidu/CNA

The PH election victory was founded on the ability of its parties to sacrifice their rigid ideological leanings and identity for a larger purpose, writes Ronald Benjamin.

The history created by Pakatan Harapan (PH) in defeating Barisan Nasional in the general election against all odds is something to cherish for years to come.

This significant moment of history has happened despite the lopsided constituency boundary changes made by the Electoral Commission, creating ethnic enclaves to divide and rule, in its assumption that certain ethnic communities would vote in a particular way. Barisan Nasional tactics of this sort helped it maintain its political hegemony for over 60 years – until 9 May 2018.

Malaysians joined hands with a conviction to vote out a kleptocratic government. Multi-ethnic solidarity of this nature to bring about change is something BN always feared because its political strategy was about harping on the fears and insecurities of ethnic communities. This allowed BN to stay in power even when its accountability was questioned.

The PH leadership accepted such insecurities but it came up with a common theme of People Power and dignity that resonated well with the majority of Malaysians.

Here are three critical elements that helped Pakatan emerge winners in the general election.

Using a common logo and struggle

First, there was something distinctive about the kind of political cooperation it forged. PH used a different political approach from the earlier Pakatan Rakyat, which was a loose coalition in which all parties held on to their respective identities and ideologies while working on certain areas of common interest, sometimes uncomfortably as they drove head on on an ideological collision cause. For example, Pas’ goal of forming an Islamic state required a corresponding response from DAP. In the end, the coalition collapsed.

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This time around, Dr Mahathir Mohamad was able to convince the coalition parties to use a common symbol and struggle that reduced the ideological inclinations of the respective parties. The DAP leadership looked at the bigger picture and agreed to the use of a common logo.

This sacrifice reflected its willingness to work within a framework of coalition realities especially as the threat of the imposition of an Islamic state was no longer there. Its leaders were able to soften the image of DAP as a Chinese-dominated party that was perceived to be insensitive to the feelings and insecurities of the Malay community.

The new-found relationship of DAP leaders with Mahathir, regarded by conservative Malays as a strong Malay leader who would not bulge when it came to their rights and who had a track record of standing up to foreign powers, helped mitigate their fear of DAP. Simiarly, Mahathir’s Bersatu allayed their fear of PH.

Connecting to Malay psyche and pride

Second, there was an underlying theme of change to restore the nation’s pride. Such a theme would not have been possible without confronting the BN’s Achilles heel: Najib’s “cash is king” mantra.

Mahathir consistently portrayed Najib and Umno as morally corrupt and willing to buy over anyone to meet its objective. In social psychology, anything that is repeated tends to stay in the subconscious mind of the masses. Mahathir’s strategy to connect to the psyche of the Malay-Muslim community by saying that the community’s pride was at stake was a political killer blow to BN.

In his speech on the eve of the general election, he used the phrase “demi bangsa, agama dan negara” to resonate with Malay pride and linked it to the potential loss of land to foreign interests. The previous PR failed in reaching out to the pride of the rural Malay community with its leader Anwar Ibrahim lacking such nationalistic credentials.

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Banging on GST and rising cost of living

Third, there was a common and widespread issue: the rising cost of living, with GST being singled out. The high cost of living cut across all ethnic communities, and this was a great opportunity for PH to capitalise on this issue. The broader strategy of highlighting the high cost of living reverberated around the country, sparking a significant Malay tsunami.

Furthermore, the support of the multi-ethnic MTUC for PH, despite its chairman endorsing BN, was another example of how a certain degree of multi-ethnic solidarity on a given issue could produce significant results.

So, the PH election victory was founded on the ability of its parties to sacrifice their rigid ideological leanings and identity for a larger purpose: appealing to the identity and pride that resonates with conservative Malays and highlighting the broad issue of their common suffering from the high cost of living, which also affected other ethnic groups whether they were from the conservative, grey or liberal camps.

These were the factors that propelled PH to an historic win. Hopefully, this momentum of restoring the pride of the nation will continue, with the common good in mind, ensuring that ethnicity and religion are not manipulated for selfish ends. The British legacy of divide-and-rule that Umno and Pas inherited should end.

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Can they continue the sacrifice when they are ruling?