By: Murray Hunter

By-elections are the traditional arena where voters are able to show their dissatisfaction about the government without changing it. Hence it’s not unheard of in any democracy to see large swings against government candidates in favor of independents or the opposition. On November 16, Malaysia’s voters appear to have done just that in the Johorean federal constituency of Tanjung Plai, where the government’s candidate was not just drubbed but humiliated.

The surprise win by Pakatan Harapan (PH) in last year’s general election over the Barisan Nasional (BN) was met by shock, euphoria, and hopes for a new Malaysia. Many at the time saw the event as equivalent to Merdeka, Malaysia’s Independence Day. Mahathir Mohamed, as leader of the Pakatan coalition, was regarded as a savior, driving out the tired, corrupt, Malay supremist UMNO. 

Eighteen months later, PH has lost five of nine by-elections and is generally perceived to have failed to deliver its promises. It is the target of not just disappointment, but a growing anger out of a feeling on the part of the voters of having been cheated.

The Tanjung Plai by-election became necessary after the sudden death of Bersatu MP Mohamed Farid Md Rafik in September. Farid narrowly defeated the sitting Malaysian Chinese Association MP Wee Jeck Seng, who had held the seat from 2008-18. The demographics of the constituency – 57 percent Malay, 42 percent Chinese and 1 percent Indian – broadly represent the ethnicity of the Malaysian peninsula at large, so the election was seen as a litmus test of the popularity of the Pakatan government and particularly the leadership of Mahathir, against the popularity of the recently formed alliance between the United Malays National Organization and the rural Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS. Into the Muafakat Nasional-BN. 

Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia selected a local religious figure, Karmaine Sardini, as their candidate, hoping he would appeal to the Malay vote and believing Chinese voters would never vote for the Muafakat Nasional, with its racial and religious overtones. However, UMNO revigorated its connection with the Malaysian Chinese Association and brought back Wee Jeck Seng, who had been a popular grassroots MP during the decade he represented the district. 

The roles of Pakatan Harapan and Muafakat Nasional-BN appeared to reverse during the campaign. Observers on the ground noticed that the Muafakat didn’t campaign on racial issues at all. In contrast, Pakatan ministers made promises to their constituents and played up racial issues. Just a few days before voting, the Perak chief minister, Ahmad Faizal Azumu, a member of Bersatu, made comments on a film clip circulating around social media that Bersatu would withdraw from Pakatan because of the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP). 

With Mahathir’s appearance at the controversial Malay Unity Congress early last month, the prime minister came to symbolize ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) and everything wrong with the Pakatan government. 

For months on end, there has been disappointment after disappointment to the ubah (change) voters who supported the government in the mixed constituencies like Tanjung Plai. For Chinese voters, in particular, the failure to recognize the United Examination Certificate (UEC) for vernacular schools, the inclusion of khat calligraphy – basically Arab calligraphy – in the primary school syllabus, and the funding cuts to the MCA-owned Tun Abdul Rahman University College were issues that brought out anger. 

Other issues that angered the constituency included the failure to extradite the fugitive firebrand Islamist preacher Zahir Niak back to India, the renewal of the Lynas operating license for a controversial heavy metals processing plant, the return of crony capitalism, the arrogance and lavish lifestyles of ministers, the Malay-centric rhetoric, and most importantly rising living costs. This also motivated many Malay voters to come out and vote. Anger enough to motivate a sizeable 74.3 percent voting turnout.  

In contrast, former Prime Minister Najib Razak attracted large crowds at campaign meetings around Tanjung Plai. The weapon that won the last general election, the US$43.8 billion 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal has fatigued voters. People are starting to ask if Najib has done so much wrong, why isn’t he already in prison? After the lengthy on-again, off-again trial, many see Najib as being selectively prosecuted. 

The result on Saturday night surprised all the pundits. There was a common belief that Wee would win with a comfortable majority, but not a 15,086-vote drubbing of Sardini, who polled only 10,380 votes to Wee’s 25,466. 

Muafakat leaders were very quick to hail the result as an acceptance of the UMNO-PAS-BN electoral pact. However, as by-elections go, this was more an attempt by the voters of Tanjung Plai to express their dissatisfaction with the government. The failure of Gerakan candidate Wendy Subramanian to garner more than 1,707 votes indicates the constituency wanted to punish PH rather than think about any third force in politics this by-election. The voters wanted Wee to win to inflict maximum damage on PH.

It could be argued that the result was also a rejection of Ketuanan Melayu politics with Wee as the challenger to the Bersatu candidate, with his religious background. Not only Chinese voted against PH, many Malays also left PH to vote for a Chinese candidate. 

The message is loud and clear to Pakatan. Unless there is a total change in direction, PH will be completely decimated in the next general election. This is particularly so of Mahathir’s Bersatu party. The Muafakat-BN also showed it will be a formidable opponent, come general election time. 

For Mahathir personally, the defeat of Bersatu in Tanjung Plai last Saturday is probably his greatest failure since he lost his parliamentary seat to Yusof Rawa of PAS in the 1969 general election. Any of Mahathir’s residual prestige within PH is diminished. His bargaining power over both PH and opposition MPs has also been greatly weakened. 

PH has many problems currently. Infighting between Anwar Ibrahim and Azmin Ali in the open, the silence of those within PKR and DAP, and the poor job ministers are doing is losing public support. However, Mahathir is now perceived as the scapegoat. His unpopularity is a liability to the survival of the PH government.

A prime minister would not normally resign after a poor showing in a by-election. However, the context of Tanjung Plai is different. Ubah voters wanted Anwar as their prime minister, and agreed to Mahathir as a caretaker, as he promised he would be for two years. That’s what the Malaysian electorate was told and that’s what they understood.

Its unlikely Mahathir will stand down in the foreseeable future. We are now entering a phase where more and more people will see his premiership as illegitimate. 

Tanjung Plai has played into Anwar’s hands, who looked to have pushed himself completely out of the picture after the Inspector General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador indirectly blamed him for instigating a sex video of Azmin Ali, chief rival for primacy in the coalition.

This leaves the Malaysian political landscape in total instability. Mahathir will be looking for ways to maintain his leadership and control, encouraged by party cadres who are unlikely to survive in an Anwar led government. Anwar believes that the prime ministership is justifiably his. There is no doubt after Tanjung Plai his cause will attract fence sitters. Anwar knows, if he doesn’t make a move sooner rather than later, at age 72 his chance of leading the country will be gone. 

Correctly any formal Anwar move should be at the Pakatan Harapan Presidential Council. This requires direct confrontation on the issue of coalition leadership, which could rupture the coalition. Mahathir’s refusal and reasons for not stating a handover date are wearing thin. Covert confrontation is already occurring but being direct to Mahathir is something so far DAP, AMANAH, and PKR have not done. 

Anwar’s second option of collecting Statutory declarations of a majority of MPs and visiting the Yang Dipertuan Agong – the king – is long, cumbersome, and would lead to an uncertain result. Without Mahathir of his own free will standing down, the job of removing him could cause great political turmoil, something the Anwar forces want to avoid.

Anwar’s track record on political moves isn’t good. However, he is good at building alliances. That’s his strong point. Anwar has his own 47 PKR seats in Parliament. However, he could lose around 10 seats through a breakaway Azmin faction if it drifted to Mahathir. Together with the 42 seats the DAP has and 11 seats AMANAH has, the Anwar faction would have around 90 seats needing 22 more to form a government. Anwar could garner these seats from Sabah and an approach to the Sarawak GPS, which could get him over the line. 

In contrast, Bersatu is now seeing a reverse defection to UMNO. Bersatu’s entry into Sarawak has alienated the GPS. DAP and AMANAH will follow Anwar. There are too many animosities for Mahathir to team up with an UMNO with Najib and PAS. Many UMNO members would now think twice about supporting a Mahathir government now. 

Anwar’s rhetoric of late has become much more inclusive. Anwar talks more about a Malaysian Malaysia, echoing much of what Lim Kit Siang has been blogging online this year. It will soon become apparent to Anwar, if it hasn’t already, that he will not take over as prime minister without having one last-ditch battle against Mahathir. Short of Mahathir making a surprise stand-down in favor of Anwar, that’s the way it will be. If Anwar waits until the next general election, his chance of being prime minister is likely to be lost in a Barisan takeover. 

Mahathir currently controls all the state apparatus of power. His use of the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA) on DAP members of the defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is a sign that he will use them. 

Najib Razak is also now once again in Mahathir’s line of fire, and may go to prison sooner rather than later to neutralize any potential electoral threat by him. Any linking of Anwar and Najib, although almost totally unlikely, would be Mahathir’s worst nightmare. 

The only hope for PH to win the next general election is to have a new leader. Everyone knows that now. The last hope is not only a new leader, but a new ministry, and a revised manifesto which will be seen by the people to be acted upon. The government needs three years to achieve this. Lim Kit Siang personally needs to come forward and play a pivotal role here to return Chinese voters respect for his party. 

The 63 percent of the vote Wee Jeck Seng received in Tanjung Plai was not because the voters support the Muafakat-BN alliance. It was just a protest. These votes are winnable by a new Pakatan administration. Tanjung Plai was not just the beginning of a Pakatan Harapan and UMNO-PAS-BN battle for power, but the beginning of the final showdown for Mahathir and Anwar. It has put Anwar back into contention once again.