Continued Erosion for Malaysia’s Ruling Coalition

Two by-elections held last week in rural Malaysian districts demonstrate that corruption allegations and an unpopular goods and services tax continue to cut into the popularity of the struggling Barisan Nasional run by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. But they don’t spell much better news for the coalition now headed by imprisoned opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.

“There was nothing really conclusive from both by-elections except that in both constituencies, the United Malays National Organization lost a little more Malay ground,” said a veteran political analyst in Kuala Lumpur. “Will it be enough to kick UMNO out in the next elections? I think there is not enough data to come to that conclusion. Are Malays fed up with UMNO’s leadership and did [former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad] play a role in decreasing UMNO support? Yes, certainly.”

Probably the big takeaway, other than the Barisan’s diminishing popularity, is that Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the Islamic leg of the opposition, failed in its campaign to make hudud, or harsh Islamic 7th century law governing social behavior, a central issue. And, while the infighting in the opposition coalition prevented Pakatan Rakyat from increasing its vote totals at a time of deep disillusion with the government, the Barisan was equally unable to capitalize.

Nonetheless, there is an obvious need for a strong leader to knock opposition heads before the Pakatan Rakyat comes apart. The Chinese, strongly organized in the Democratic Action Party, deeply wary of Islamic law and commanding the heights of Malaysian business, may eventually turn away from the opposition to some extent.

Najib, beset from inside his party by allies of Mahathir, who have accused him of a variety of shortcomings, needed a strong victory, particularly in the ethnic Malay stronghold of Rompin in Pahang state, where the seat held by one of Najib’s closest allies, Jamaludin Jarjis, came open when the 63-year-old Jamaludin was killed, ironically in a helicopter crash while flying back to Kuala Lumpur from Najib’s daughter’s wedding. The district is constituted of ethnic Malay, Najib’s base constituency.

Najib didn’t get the vote of approval that he had hoped for. Hasan Arifin, a veteran UMNO cadre and surrogate for Najib, handily won with 23,219 votes to 14,901 for Nazri Amad of PAS. But Hasan’s total vote was down by 20 percent from the 2013 general election, and his plurality was halved, an ominous shortfall that could spell trouble in the next general election.

Political analysts pointed out that PAS also didn’t pick up a lot of votes from its previous total. The loss was rather purely on the part of UMNO as ethnic Malay voters sat on their hands in irritation over the GST, which will add 6 percent to all purchase prices, and also over the continuing scandal of the state-backed investment fund 1MDB, which critics say has RMB42 billion in unfunded debt from unwise investments.

Meanwhile, in Permatang Pauh, a semi-rural district in Penang, Wan Azizah, a 63-year-old physician, succeeded in winning the seat vacated in February when Anwar was imprisoned for five years on what are widely considered to be trumped-up charges of sexual perversion with a former aide. She previously held the seat when her husband was last imprisoned on similar spurious charges.

Wan Azizah had to contend with not only UMNO’s Suhaimi Sabudih, but with the millstone of the conservative PAS, which is growing increasingly assertive in its drive to push Islamic law on an unwilling coalition, especially the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party.

Some PAS leaders had threatened to boycott the election, but that threat didn’t materialize. PAS’s campaigning on the issue of hudud, both in Rompin and Permatang Pauh, appears to have had little impact on Malay voters. However, political analysts say the issue is growing increasingly inflammatory in the party itself and could split it in the next general convention, with the religious extremists taking over, possibly aligning with UMNO, and the moderates leaving altogether.

While UMNO’s extravagantly funded campaign to take advantage of the infighting eroded Wan Azizah’s support slightly, with the PAS hudud threat driving some Chinese voters into the hands of the Barisan.

Nonetheless, despite the lower voter turnout, Wan Azizah won by about the same proportion as the 13th general election in 2013 when Anwar took 58.56 percent of the votes. Her win in effect makes also has the effect of making her the de facto national opposition leader.

“In Rompin, which is almost wholly Malay, PAS maintained its votes despite a lower turnout but UMNO saw its majority slashed by half,” the political analyst said. “They lost in two of their strong [mostly ethnic Malay smallholder area] polling stations and there was general decline in their Malay votes in traditional stronghold villages. In Permatang Pauh, the fact that Wan Azizah got a just slightly lower majority in a lower turnout, shows that the opposition support is intact while UMNO’s is decreasing.”