Malaysia: Can Bersatu Survive The Next General Election? – Analysis


Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) was formed when then deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin was sacked by former prime minister Najib Razak, over his criticism of the 1MDB issue. Then it the support Bersatu received by the then opposition DAP, PKR, and Amanah components of the Pakatan Harapan during the last election campaign that propelled the party into the position it is in today. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed increased the parliamentary influence of Bersatu by brokering a number of defections from UMNO. Now, ironically, the future of Bersatu may be in the hands of UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, in how way he decides UMNO to go in the next general election. 

That’s the story of Bersatu, a party made up of politicians from other political parties, that has made a dramatic rise in power and influence through the fate of political events over the last half decade. The big question about Bersatu is whether it can survive the next general election, and if so, what role will it play in Malaysian politics?

Bersatu, formed in 2016, was soon joined by Mukhriz Mahathir, expelled from UMNO, and later by his father Mahathir Mohamed. Bersatu joined Pakatan Harapan in the 2018 general election, where Bersatu won 13 out of the 50 federal seats it contested. Since then, Bersatu has exercised an influence on Malaysian federal politics, well beyond its size. 

Mahathir gave Bersatu many of the high-profile ministries within the Pakatan Harapan government, 6 ministers and 6 deputy ministers. In the Muhyiddin Yassin ministry, after the collapse of the Pakatan government, Bersatu dominated the ministry with 12 ministers and 12 deputy ministers. In the recent Ismail Sabri cabinet, Bersatu has the same number of ministers as UMNO, with 12, and 10 deputy ministers. 

Bersatu also has a presence inside a number of state legislatures, which include Johor with 12/56 members, Kedah 6/36, Perak 6.59, Selangor 6/56, Penang 4/40, Melaka 2/28, and Kelantan 1/45. In Sabah, Bersatu holds 15/79 members, where Hajiji Noor of Bersatu is the current chief minister. 

Over its short lifespan, Bersatu has shown itself to be pragmatic. Its main focus has been to hold and maintain power. Insiders advised, that Muhyiddin during the Sheraton Putsch, had little choice but to enlist the support of UMNO and PAS to keep the party in power when Mahathir abandoned them. Similarly, Muhyiddin resigned his position as prime minister, in a move to maintain the influence of Bersatu within a subsequent government, given unpopularity and public outrage in his administration. Muhyiddin’s resignation hasn’t been recognized by many as being a strategic move to keep Bersatu relevant. 

The former Muhyiddin cabinet is basically still in place. Sixty out of 69 members of cabinet are the same as the former Muhyiddin cabinet, within the Ismail Sabri cabinet. Muhyiddin himself was appointed chairman of the National Recovery Council (NRC), a senior ministry rank. His move can be seen as more sideways, than out. Muhyiddin’s power and influence, and that of Bersatu is far from diminished. Arguably, he is probably still the most powerful person in government. He out manoeuvred Zahid and Najib over the last few weeks, and Mahathir back last year. 

Bersatu Ideology

Bersatu from the outset espoused a Malay-centric ideology. There should have been no surprises when former prime minister Mahathir attended the Malay Dignity Congress back in 2019. The party supports Islam as the national religion, and upholds the position of the Malay Monarchy, hence reliance on the Yang di-Petuan Agong, or king to settle political crisis, rather than the sovereignty of the parliament. This is indeed the Malay way of settling disputes, and for a Malay, Article 44 of the Federal Constitution That defines the parliament as the king, Dewan Rakyat, and Dewan Negara. affirms this. Bersatu believes in the democratic process, constitution, and role of Malay rulers in the process of governance. 

Bersatu recognizes that Malaysia is a multi-cultural nation and believes in freedom of religion, education, harmony, and culture. The keyword here is harmony, where this word must be interpreted through a Malay-centric view. For example, quotas in education are important to keep harmony, through a Malay-centric logic. Bersatu supports the special rights of the Malays and the native peoples of Sabah and Sarawak. Bersatu’s venture into Sabah, and interest in Sarawak reflect this. 

Bersatu ideology fits into that of the other Malay-centric parties, UMNO and PAS, and ideally sees these parties as natural allies. The party reaffirmed its Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay privilege ideology, after leaving the Pakatan Harapan government in February 2020, when Mahathir resigned as prime minister, thus dissolving the whole cabinet and government. Bersatu information chief Wan Saiful Wan Jun claimed that Pakatan Harapan fell because it failed to address Malay issues adequately. 

The organization structure of Bersatu is almost a mirror image of the UMNO structure. The majority of Bersatu office holders are ex-UMNO members. In fact, Bersatu internal party politics closely resembles internal UMNO party politics, as the recent Perlis state party infighting suggests.  

Leadership and Party Congruency

Even though Muhyiddin has stepped down as prime minister, Bersatu is still very much under his control. There are no indications that Muhyiddin intends stepping down. 

A post Muhyiddin Bersatu could be potentially leaderless. In his wake would be leaders like Ahmad Faizal Azumu, Ronald Kiandee from Sabah, and Radzi Md Jidin. As yet, none of these are household political names. The ambitious and current home affairs minister Hamzah Zainuddin is probably the strongest. 

Within Bersatu there are three factions. The Muhyiddin group, the ex-UMNO group with MPs like Mas Ermieyati Samsudin, Abdul Latif Ahmad, and Mustafa Mohamed, and the ex-PKR group, led by Azmin Ali, with Zuraida Kamaruddin, and Kamaruddin Jaafar.

Without Muhyiddin, these groups could erupt in a future battle for control of the party. The future of Bersatu Sabah will be interesting as it is part of a Ketuanan Melayu party in a state that is primarily multi-cultural orientated. There is only a small elite group of Brunei Malays in Sabah. UMNO was hoping with the demise of Muhyiddin, it could have swallowed up Bersatu.  

Electoral Prospects

In the 2018 general election, Bersatu stood in 50 federal seats and won 13, obtaining 5.95 percent of the aggregate national vote. Bersatu’s parliamentary representation increased to 32 with defectors primarily from UMNO, along with the ex-PKR Azmin Ali group. 

If UMNO doesn’t cooperate with Bersatu next election, Bersatu is likely to lose up to 10 seats. Expanding into contesting more constituencies is going to be very difficult as Bersatu doesn’t have a well developed grassroot branch structure to assist in electioneering. This would mean that Bersatu would be a party with 15-25 seats in the next parliament. 

Only an agreement with UMNO and PAS to prevent three-cornered constituency electoral fights would prevent Bersatu losing seats, and maintaining its current representation in parliament. With an electoral agreement with UMNO and PAS, Bersatu could attempt to reclaim the constituency of Langkawi, held by Mahathir, who may retire once again from parliament, and contest Jerlun held by Mukhriz Mahathir, Kuabang Pasu held by Amiruddin Hamzah, Muar held by Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul, Sri Gading held by Shahruddin Md Salleh, and Simpang Renggam held by Maszlee Malik, all former Bersatu members.  

While Bersatu has been in discussions with PAS on an electoral pact, UMNO is still divided on how they will treat Bersatu next election. How the Ismail Sabri government evolves may influence this. 

Bersatu’s electoral talent is all imported from UMNO and PKR. Thus, individual electoral success will very much depend upon their individual electoral branding. The major issue here is where these politicians brought over grassroot members when they defected to Bersatu to help their campaigns. On the negative side, Muhyiddin is extremely unpopular with part of the electorate. Most Pakatan supporters blaming him for the backdoor government. However, this is not the case in the Malay heartland where Bersatu must do well electorally. Azmin Ali has baggage with his role in the Sheraton Putsch and sex video issue a couple of years ago. However, Azmin and Zuraida have large majorities in their respective constituencies and control over the local grassroots. 

The future of Bersatu will be more dependent on backroom discussions between the leaders of the Malay-centric parties than the electoral process. There is evidence to indicate that the Bersatu leadership is very well aware of this and have been strengthening political ties with UMNO and PAS. What remains to be seen is whether any agreement over which party contests which constituency can be made between Bersatu, UMNO, and PAS. They see the common enemy as Pakatan. Some pundits say that UMNO-PAS have concluded an agreement to the exclusion of Bersatu. 

Bersatu is not without leverage. If the party remains intact after the next election and has around 15 percent of the parliamentary seats, where even with a terrible result can salvage 15-20 seats, gives the party an important “king-making” block. Bersatu’s role in Sabah could be crucial in the final seat count. 

The resignation of Muhyiddin as prime minister may have positive electoral prospects for Bersatu. Public outrage will subside, focus on Ismail Sabri as prime minister may benefit Bersatu. Bersatu not having the prime minister’s position during the Covid pandemic and economic crisis may play in Bersatu’s favour. Muhyiddin as chairman of the NRC, if the pandemic subsides will reflect positively on Muhyiddin. 

Bersatu will challenge the traditional two-party competition for the 80 or so Malay heartland seats. This could splinter into three parties, where the advantage of cooperating will be to keep out Pakatan. This will bring a new era to the Malay heartland. 

Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here 

Murray Hunter

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.

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