If and when the emergency lapses called in January with the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to protect Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s shaky Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, five major political forces will be competing to win the hearts and minds of ethnic Malay voters, who make up 63 percent of the population of Peninsular Malaysia, seeking leverage over who will exercise national leadership. The battle for ethnic Malay primacy – the key to government – is yet to be fought.
The Muhyiddin Yassin administration’s legitimacy and very survival has been on tenterhooks, since the Sheraton putsch, back in February 2020. Since Muhyiddin installed his Perikatan Nasional (PN) administration, Malaysia has been in political malaise, unable to move forward. This has suspended the Muhyiddin government within a political limbo, maintained by the Covid-19 pandemic, and resulting restrictions, such as the Movement Control Orders (MCOs). Muhyiddin is hanging onto power through an emergency decree granted to him by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Abdullah Sultan Shah Ahmad Shah in January, which enables him to avoid any leadership challenges, while providing extraordinary powers to introduce laws without the approval of parliament.
There has been wide speculation about the calling of a snap election. However, Muhyiddin doesn’t need to call an election until midway through 2023, unless the emergency decree lapses without extension, and a major parliamentary block formally withdraws support. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the current president of the United Malay National Organization (UMNO) was given carte blanche to remove the party’s support for Muhyiddin’s government by the membership at the recent general assembly. He is holding this card up his sleeve, while carrying on negotiations with Muhyiddin’s Party Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) on one side, and Anwar Ibrahim’s Party Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), on the other side.
What is evident is that five major political forces are vying to compete in winning the hearts and minds of voters within the Malay heartlands. The party and/or group that electorally dominates the heartlands will be in prime position of leverage over who will exercise national leadership. The next government of Malaysia will comprise of the grouping which dominates the Malay heartlands, and is able to muster up some urban electoral support, and an alliance with political party groupings within Sabah and Sarawak.
The battle for the Malay heartlands is yet to be fought.
Even though 77.5 percent of people within Malaysia reside in urban areas, electoral malapportionment has allowed rural and semi-rural constituencies, which make up 85 of 165 constituencies – just over 50 percent – to dominate. The average malapportionment ratio runs around one to six, with a rural vote worth many times an urban vote. Thus, if any political grouping can dominate the so-called Malay heartland, this would potentially make that grouping the largest minority group within the 222-seat federal parliament. With support from some urban constituency members, and across in Sabah and Sarawak, a government could be formed, which has been the practice since the formation of Malaysia in 1963.
Winning the Malay heartland is the key to government.
The Malay heartland is by far from homogenous, where local cultural variances, histories, personalities, and issues have shaped their nature and voting characteristics. Traditionally, the southern state of Johor had been staunchly loyal to UMNO, but this was eroded by Bersatu. Kelantan voters have been loyal to PAS over the last decades, but also shown loyalty to two UMNO stalwarts, Mustapa Mohamed and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, within the state. Perlis and Pahang have remained loyal to UMNO, where Kedah, Perak, Terengganu, Negeri Sembilan, have swayed from side to side across elections. Finally, Selangor has over the last couple of decades become a Pakatan Harapan (PH) stronghold.
Rural areas are quickly becoming urbanized, and many youth voters are moving to the cities in search of jobs and careers. This has weakened the Malay heartland as being a bank of support for any single Malay based party. It can now longer be assumed that Malay voters will support one party anymore, as was accepted in the past. Now constituencies within the Malay heartland are shared between five Malay based parties, UMNO, PAS, Bersatu, Amanah, the multi-racial, but still predominantly Malay PKR, and the Mahathir grouping, ousted from Bersatu.
This means that no one political party is able to take the reigns of government without some sort of collaboration with other political parties.
Today, political alliances are very fluid. If parliament was to sit, it is highly doubtful Muhyiddin would have the numbers to command a majority on the floor of the parliament. If one takes, UMNO’s rhetoric of formally abandoning support for the Muhyiddin administration, if not for the emergency, the government should fall.
However, this is made much more complicated, where 9 UMNO MPs are currently serving loyally in Muhyiddin’s cabinet. UMNO is itself in tatters, highly factionalized, with the court cluster still in control. Pundits see the court cluster as a major liability electorally, but former prime minister Najib Razak is very popular on the hustings and social media, despite being sentenced to 12 years in prison and facing additional charges. Parti Amanah led by the liberal Mohamed Sabu extolling a brand of Islam more like former Kelantan MB, the late Nik Aziz, will pair off against its nemesis, PAS, led by the firebrand Abdul Hadi Awang, while the small group of Mahathir supporters must decide where they want to go. Amanah is still aligned with the 95-year-old Mahathir who left Bersatu when Muhyiddin hijacked it out from under him, must decide where they want to go.
Muhyiddin survives because there is just no one credible and able to command a majority of supporters within the current parliament. Anwar has a number of times proclaimed he has the numbers to takeover government. On each occasion, nothing concrete had been presented to support his proclamations. He is now seen by many as the Malaysian boy who cried wolf, too many times.
There is now a political limbo, where all political parties are weighing up options, and contingencies to hedge their bets. Although many pundits believe an election may come sooner, rather than later, most want time to play out, in order to manoeuvre themselves into the best position possible for the coming election. For this reason, Covid aside, this term of parliament will most probably run the full course, especially if the Agong extends the emergency decree.
The key for the battle for the Malay heartland will be rearranging political alliances for the coming election.
Pakatan Harapan (PH) supporters are intent on trying to win back government, in what they believe was stolen from them through the betrayal of former party lieutenant Azmin Ali with what is now being called the Sheraton putsch in February 2020. They see the Muhyiddin government as totally illegitimate.
The ageing PKR leader, Anwar Ibrahim still has strong ambition to become prime minister and knows time is running out. Therefore, any alliance that could propel him to the prime minister’s chair is worth exploring, whether under the banner of reform, or a Malay-Malaysia paradigm. PKR control a large number of strategic constituencies across the rural, rural-urban, and urban spectrums. Within PKR, there is a hardcore band of supporters who believe Anwar should have a chance to become PM, a view shared by some voters. The PKR grassroots election machinery is improving, but not as strong as UMNO, although a high level of motivation exists within rank and file at election time.
At this point of time, PKR is open to any deal which is a potentially winning deal. Anwar’s personal strength has been bringing groups together. He is also a great orator on the hustings.
Nominally, the largest party within the Malay heartland is UMNO. UNMO suffered many defections to Bersatu, which the party wants to win back next election. UMNO also believes many BERSATU constituencies are naturally theirs, but stolen away. UMNO is the party that dominated politics for 70 years, and knows that the party is the potential kingmaker, and is sort after. UMNO believes it is the natural party to rule in the minds of the old guard.
This is Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s main card. However, the “court cluster” leadership of UMNO, also have a personal covert agenda of keeping out of jail. Holding the prime place of government is foremost in their mind. There is a paradox with the court cluster electorally. Most pundits argue that UMNO without removing the “court cluster” will do very poorly electorally. Nonetheless, the convicted Najib Razak’s personal popularity in the rural areas and on social media is strong. Some people in the Malay heartland believe Najib and Zahid are victims of political vengeance by Mahathir.
UMNO’s reformers don’t have the numbers to takeover and bring the party back to relevance. If they did, it would have already happened. The Muhyiddin support group is slowly being purged by the “court cluster” leadership. UMNO warlord Shahidan Kassim was removed as Perlis UMNO chief in favour of an ally just recently.
UMNO’s biggest asset is the grassroots electoral machinery it normally yields during elections. This requires massive funding, and it still remains to be seen, whether the party’s sources of funding still remain intact for the coming election.
Muhyiddin’s Bersatu is in an electoral quandary. The party has lost the Mahathir grouping with an ugly expulsion last year, but gained the Azmin Ali faction from PKR. In addition, a number of UMNO MPs defected to Bersatu. Bersatu is now a target of what could amount to electoral ‘blood sport’ if deals can’t be made. Bersatu would potentially be wiped out, if voting patterns remained the same as previous by-elections.
However, the political environment has drastically changed since then with a number of factors in play. Muhyiddin’s COVID management made him popular during the Sabah state election. However, the economy is worsening due to prolonged lockdowns, leading to financial hardship within the community. The Muhyiddin government has actually done very little in the area of economic management and policy wise is drifting aimlessly.
Last election, Bersatu was able to utilize DAP and PKR election logistic support, which it will have to replace for the next election. One ace up Muhyiddin’s sleeve is his control of the Village Security and Development Committees (JKKK) across rural Malaysia. They are overseen by two Bersatu cabinet ministers Abdul Latiff Haji Ahmad, minister of Rural Development and ex-PKR member Zuraida Kamaruddin, Minister of Housing and Local Government. The JKKK can be used to channel massive resources into selected rural constituencies. This is one of UMNO’s prime electoral weapons, now in control of Muhyiddin.
Bersatu desperately needs a strong alliance the where the party would be the senior partner to survive. The current electoral numbers indicate that Bersatu has exerted influence far beyond its size, and this wont last past the next election.
PAS and Amanah are most likely to maintain their status quo. Amanah will be restricted in how many seats it can contest due to any arrangements the party makes with a grouping, and the need to avoid three-way contests with “friendly” parties. Amanah also has very limited resources relative to PAS.
PAS, however faces a number of issues. Some kampong talk is critical about how PAS apparatchiks in government have behaved. Secondly, the performance of PAS in government has been lacklustre, where the party didn’t even get the religious affairs ministry, held by Zulkifli Mohamed Al-Bakri, where PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awang was out manoeuvred by Perlis Mufti Mohd. Asri Zainal Abidin, in arranging that appointment. Finally, the health of PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awang, signals an impending power struggle within PAS, which may change its very nature and narratives.
Finally, the Mahathir grouping made up of his son Mukhriz Mahathir, Amiruddin Hamzah, and former unpopular PH ministers Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman, and Maszlee Malik, are scattered in no-mans land. Dr Mahathir’s standing was severely damaged by his abrupt resignation during the Sheraton putsch, where his last bastion of support exists in senior citizens and retirees of the civil service. It’s really unknown whether the 85 year old Mahathir would run again for re-election, although he remains active. At the next general election, its very probable that the majority of the rest of the Mahathir grouping will lose their constituencies. Only a deal or defection will save this group.
Although the DAP will not be a factor within the Malay heartland, it will maintain the number of seats it has in parliament, even if there was a reduction in its aggregate votes for any reason. The DAP has become a pariah for Malay-centric parties, however the reality is that some accommodation may need to be made with the DAP, for any group to govern comfortably.
What will be certain until the next general election is that focus will be on Malay-centric narrative in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Malay heartland. No party has yet grappled with a definitive strategy about how to win the heartland, where all options are currently on the table for the various groupings.
One thing for sure, any firm new electoral groupings will be the product of relationships, rather than policy agreement. The arena is still full of the evergreen Malay politicians, who are preventing new blood from coming through, to takeover the reigns of power. For this reason, Malaysia is stuck in a malaise for at least the next five to eight years. Winning the Malay heartland is more about the preservation of the old guard than moving the nation forward.
An abridged version was published in the Asia Sentinel