By: Kalimullah Hassan

Barisan’s Toughest Fight

I am not sure that how I voted would be how a smart man votes. Therefore, as I have said earlier, I will not predict as I could be wrong but one thing I am sure – this is probably the ruling coalition’s toughest fight in my country’s six-decade polling history.

Most of us have this psychological block. Given that Malaysia has never been ruled by any party other than the Barisan, there is a mind-set that no matter what, the ruling coalition will not lose. As human beings, we are afraid of uncertainty. But since 2008, Malaysians have also come to accept that it is now a two-party state and that the current opposition can and might one day sit on the government benches.

Certainly, although the opposition parties seem to have had greater traction in working together in the last two general elections, still, they shoot themselves in the foot all the time.

Enter a Nonagenarian

Nevertheless, their decision to anoint the 92-year-old ex-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as their prime minister-designate and their agreement in early January on seat allocations is certainly a major achievement.  In reality, with their leader Anwar Ibrahim in prison, the opposition parties do not have any other person as yet who can hold them together other than Mahathir, for all his faults.

Some may view the opposition’s choice of Mahathir and Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Aziz as the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister designate as a band-aid solution. Indeed it is. But given that besides Anwar, there is no one else who can command enough respect to hold this loose coalition together, Mahathir is the best solution for them. In the past, he has shown that he is a formidable adversary.

I believe the opposition has made inroads but they are still not a cohesive force. They are not as united as they were in the 2008 general elections or even the 2013 polls. Parti Islam seMalaysia,  the rural-based Islamist party, is almost totally estranged from them and they have two new partners – Amanah and Bersatu, headed by a new ally – Mahathir Mohamad.

Mahathir has opened many doors for the opposition – like in Malay-majority Kedah where he comes from and in Malay-dominated Felda schemes which were out of bounds to the opposition previously.  But even Mahathir has failed to make inroads into the fixed-deposit states of Sabah and Sarawak, whose populace have a deep mistrust for those from the peninsula, in particular Mahathir himself who is associated – rightly or wrongly – with many of the ills facing the country such as granting citizenship to Filipinos in Sabah to enlarge the BN’s vote bank in the 1990s.

Barisan’s Deep Purse

Further, the propensity and ability of the ruling party, despite its mounting weaknesses and scandals, to dish out money and goods during the pre-election and election campaign will have some effect in many of the rural areas. How does the unhappiness with a scandal-riven government offset the benefits of handouts? Does it square itself off and the vote bank remains with the ruling party? Or will people take the handouts and vote for change because they are just so fed up?

If we go by voting trends in the 60 years since Malaysia has gained independence, it would seem that dishing out goodies has worked. So has the gerrymandering which political parties in the developed countries as well use effectively, as Republicans in many US states can attest. Similarly, while the Barisan Nasional is again very likely to lose the popular vote in the next general election, it is uncertain that it will lose its parliamentary majority.

My view is that the last two general elections have shown that people have moved to accepting a two-party system. Despite being the gang-that-cannot-shoot-straight, the opposition has positioned itself as a viable alternative, winning in key states like Penang and Selangor and dramatically reducing the majorities in previous Umno strongholds such as Johore, Kedah and Perak. These states are still under threat. And the opposition has made inroads into other staunch Barisan strongholds. Hence, it is unlikely for the Barisan to win back the two-thirds majority it lost in 2008 or to improve on the 2013 lost popular vote.

If I am proven wrong, then I daresay that a two-thirds majority for the BN would surprise even the vast majority of BN leaders themselves. Publicly they may say they can and will win back the two-thirds majority; but privately, they are fearful that they will only scrape through with a simple majority. The possibility of losing has not escaped them either.

Surprise for the Barisan?

My view, like many of these leaders in the BN, is that the ruling coalition will find it hard to replicate even the results of the 2013 elections where they won 134 of 222 parliamentary seats although their strategists predict that “big data” shows they can win anywhere between 140 to 170 of the seats.

The opposition leaders I have spoken to are confident of winning 115 seats. You need 112 to form a simple majority. Having said that, I must also add both the Barisan and opposition were equally confident in 2013.

The more likely scenario is that the BN might win again, with support from Sarawak and Sabah, but rule with a smaller majority than even 2013. Still, with a perfect storm, all bets are off. For example, because PAS has split with their former opposition allies, the DAP and Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), there will be many three-cornered fights. In a scenario such as this, Barisan Nasional can again lose the popular votes, like David Cameron did in UK in the last elections, and still win comfortably.

But the more likely scenario is that the Islamist party will either be decimated or reduced to an inconsequential number of seats because the real fight is between the Barisan and the Pakatan Harapan. PAS has its pockets of support in the green belt of Terengganu, Kelantan and Kedah but that’s it.