[Analytics] Lessons from Pakatan Harapan’s by-election losses

Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad has promised to step down before the next general election as agreed by the Pakatan Harapan coalition before it won last year's polls.PHOTO: REUTERS. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Following the Kimanis by-election in the Malaysian state of Sabah, the opposition Barisan Nasional (BN) has now won five contests in a row. Across the five seats, BN’s victory margins ranged between a slim 4 per cent and a whopping 38 per cent. While by-election election results are by no means definitive accounts of a party’s electoral popularity, these results reveal important trends that the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition government should pay close attention to. Rahman Hussin specially for the East Asia Forum.

Parties in power have the advantage of using the full range of government machinery in their favour. Political leaders typically do so by allocating resources to constituents they identify as key to their electoral success. This is to impress upon voters that their well-being is contingent upon their loyalty to their political leaders.

Such patronage politics have long defined Malaysian politics. In the BN’s 61 years in power, this was generally an effective strategy to secure votes and win elections. It is not surprising that PH and Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan) utilised the same approach during the recent by-elections.

The recent Kimanis by-election saw the Warisan state government publicise plans to allocate funds to benefit fishermen, rubber tree tappers and bird’s nest harvesters. These are the three main economic activities in Kimanis.

During the November 2019 Tanjung Piai by-election, various ministers repeatedly announced projects and cash transfers to voters amounting in the millions. The by-election was called after the then incumbent, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia’s (Bersatu) Md Farik Rafik passed away. Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman said that the RM4 million (US$966,000) allocated towards upgrades was the late parliamentarian’s ‘wish’ that he felt compelled to fulfil. This was a common reason given by most of PH’s ministers.

Even though PH and Warisan allocated millions of ringgit across all five by-elections, patronage politics failed — in some cases spectacularly. Does this signal an end to patronage as an election tool? Far from it. Malaysian politics is culturally feudal. The practice of co-opting loyalty through patronage is well entrenched. But these trends suggest that patronage politics cannot entirely compensate for a government’s lacklustre performance. This is precisely the issue BN faced in the 2018 general election, which it lost.

It is no secret that Malaysians are increasingly frustrated with PH’s overpromising and underdelivering.

For instance, while the government stated in its election manifesto that it would abolish highway tolls, it did not take long before it broke this promise. There has also been confusion over how the government claimed it would address student debt. It initially gave the impression that student debt would be forgiven, but no such promise has been given since. The move to abolish the Goods and Services Tax in favour of the Sales and Services Tax has had a negligible impact on living costs as well.

Apart from ineptitude, PH ministers generally struggle to develop good working relationships with career civil servants. There is speculation that many civil servants remain loyal to BN. These individuals are arguably responsible for allegations that civil servants are undermining government policy. But it should be noted that PH has not been particularly consultative in developing a working relationship with the civil service. If civil servants perceive their new bosses to be making the execution of their duties challenging, it is hardly surprising that many would become resentful and uncooperative.

Unlike BN, PH fielded weak candidates in all five by-elections. The Bersatu candidates in Semenyih and Tanjung Piai lacked experience, had negligible grassroots pull, and struggled to resonate with voters.

Even in the Kimanis by-election, Bersatu’s grassroots struggled to mobilise support for Warisan in polling areas the party was in charge of. One argument is that Bersatu is competing with Warisan in Sabah. Still, the party’s machinery in Sabah, as well as West Malaysia, is weak.

In the Cameron Highlands by-election, the Democratic Action Party stuck with a candidate who lost both the 2013 and 2018 contests in the same seat. In the Rantau by-election, the Parti Keadilan Rakyat candidate is believed to have actively politicked for the seat even though he was not expected to make a dent. Yet, in instances where the BN candidate may have lacked experience, he was backed up by strong party machinery.

These by-elections underscore the notion that PH continues to lack a depth of candidates and credibility in areas that are either somewhat rural or have significant Malay voters. It is difficult to imagine how the coalition intends to work around this — especially now that the alliance between the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) (the biggest constituent party of the BN) and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) could attain an unassailable grip over the Malay vote.

PH’s by-election losses are frequently being characterised as a protest vote. But it is important to note that UMNO has a formidable and experienced machinery that can canvass for votes effectively. UMNO and PAS have also successfully exploited racial and religious divisiveness for political gain. Despite this, many PH leaders seem oblivious to BN’s well-entrenched grassroots presence. They believe that focussing campaigns on issues such as the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad scandal will still work.

This is not to say that Malaysians have forgiven the corruption of Najib Razak or BN. But it seems clear that as a by-election strategy, the kleptocracy narrative is a fluttering one. It would be prudent for PH to keep this in mind. With five losses in a row, coalition instability is expected to worsen. As BN gradually rebuilds, PH risks finding itself in a quagmire.

Rahman Hussin is founder and CEO of RNA Consulting, a government affairs firm based in Singapore.

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