No One Party Can Rule Malaysia – Analysis


Melaka will be a good barometer for the next general election

The fall of the Melaka state government earlier this month indicates that political infighting among the Malay based parties is still continuing in earnest. Some temporary stability was expected when the Yang di-Pertuan Agong appointed UMNO Ismail Sabri Yaakob as prime minister last month, after 18 months of political infighting at the federal level. This is the third prime minister in three years, after Muhyiddin Yassin was appointed prime minister due to the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government collapse. 

The Melaka state assembly was dissolved after four members withdrew support for UMNO chief minister Sulaiman Md Ali. The four members were Nor Azman Hassan (UMNO), Noor Effandi Ahmad (Bersatu), Norhizam Hassan Baktee, a former DAP member, now independent, and a former UMNO chief minister Idris Haron. 

This means there will most probably be a state election, unless it is postponed due to considerations over the danger of spreading more infections in the pandemic. 

Before the fall of the Sulaiman government, the 28 member state assembly consisted of 12 UMNO, and one Bersatu members for the government, and 7 DAP, 2 Amanah, and 2 PKR members, with 4 independents that supported the government. In the last general election Pakatan Harapan took over government with 51.11 percent of the vote, while the Barisan Nasional received 37.84 percent of the vote. PAS which didn’t win any seats won 10.78 percent of the aggregate vote. The Adly Zahari led PH government collapsed in March 2020, shortly after the federal PH government collapsed.  This coincided with Bersatu and the Azmin Ali group from PKR withdrawing support for the Pakatan federal government to form the Muhyiddin administration, PAS and UMNO support. 

The Melaka state election, if held, is set to have an impact far beyond the state. It may settle the leadership question within UMNO, determine the strength of Ismail Sabri as prime minister, determine future election strategy for the Malay based parties, and indicate the viability of PH retaking Putra Jaya in GE15. 

All eyes are on Bersatu, Pas, and UMNO and how they will engage each other during the Melaka state election. Although UMNO president Ahmed Zahid Hamidi has said the Maufakat Nasional alliance with PAS is dead, and UMNO will end the Perikatan Nasional alliance with Bersatu at the general election, this is more theatrics than realty. 

Ahmad Maslan, secretary general of UMNO recently told the media that seat allocation between UMNO, Bersatu and PAS would be determined at a supreme council meeting. Due to the three parties cooperating with each other within the current federal government, it would be surprising if Bersatu, PAS, and UMNO didn’t cooperate and present a united front, especially when the Pakatan Harapan opposition have a chance of winning the Melaka state election. 

One hint that resistance to a Malay alliance would not come from the so called “court-cluster” within UMNO, are the two recent court decisions releasing Zahid’s passport so he can receive medical treatment in Germany, and Najib Razak’s wife Rosmah’s passport, so she can visit her daughter in Singapore. 

The significance of the Melaka state election goes far beyond which group will rule the state. This is the first direct stand-off between the Malay party grouping, and Pakatan Harapan. Melaka, as an urbanized state, with an ethic population demographic not unsimilar to the rest of the peninsula; Malays 66.8 percent, Chinese 26 percent, and Indians 6.2 percent, will be a good litmus test of how both groupings would perform electorally nationally. In Melaka currently, state issues are very similar to those facing the rest of the country. 

This makes it an open electoral contest, which can be used as a guide across most of the peninsula.

A win for Pakatan would boost morale for the coming general election (GE15). This would psychologically prime the party for a much larger fight, tipped by some pundits to be as early as mid 2022. In contrast, a win for the Bersatu, PAS, UMNO troika would boost confidence that a united front would the best strategy to engage GE15 with, subject to support from GPS Sarawak, and UMNO Sabah. 

The Melaka state election would be the first time prime minister Ismail Sabri and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim faced-off in an electoral contest. If they decide not to face-off by proxy, the winner would gain electoral stature. A win for Ismail Sabri would greatly strengthen his claim on the UMNO presidency. A win would give him a lot more moral authority within the party machinery. This might give him enough good-will to call the shots within the party, bringing some temporarily appearance of unity. 

However, with these high stakes involved, Zahid may decide to make things difficult for Ismail Sabri over such issues as the selection of candidates. Zahid may decide to put in his own supporters ahead of Ismail Sabri’s. There is currently a scramble among candidates to sure up their nominations. 

There is a great incentive for Anwar to take ownership of the campaign for Pakatan. A big win would make him electorally relevant again and regain some waning respect. Pakatan would be very eager to regain Telok Mas held by Noor Effandi Ahmad, of Bersatu, who ran under the Pakatan banner last election, and Pengkalan Batu, held by Norhizam Hassan Baktee, a DAP deserter. 

Zahid’s wish for UMNO to go alone would greatly weaken the Malay party grouping position electorally, bringing on the situation where three-cornered fights would occur within many constituencies. This would greatly advantage Pakatan, as was seen in a number of constituencies in the 2018 general election. An electoral fight between UMNO and Bersatu at this stage would make Zahid’s survival as UMNO president untenable. 

This leads to the bigger picture. A strong win for Ismail Sabri will almost certainly lead to an early general election. This could be held in conjunction with the Sarawak state election, which is tipped for February 2022. A poor performance will lead to more political infighting and instability. PAS would no doubt stand back and join the winner, as it appears to only be interested in being part of the government and controlling the religious affairs portfolio. Even over the coming Melaka state election, PAS is playing this game. 

One sticking point to Malay party unity will be seat allocations. UMNO now has 38 seats, but lost 16 seats, through members defecting to Bersatu. The question is how will this be resolved. Which party would be allocated candidacy against Mahathir’s Pejuang grouping? Pejuang is in a quandary, fight or join the other Malay parties. Mahathir’s sticking point is the “court cluster”. However, Mahathir needs to maintain a political career path for his son Mukhriz Mahathir, currently the MP for Jerlun in Kedah. In addition, there is Maszlee Malik’s seat in Johor, who is now an independent and will struggle to hold onto it, and Syed Saddiq Syed Rahman, also an independent facing corruption charges, and trying to start his own political party the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), which is rumoured to be ready to field a number of young candidates across the country, although the party is struggling to obtain registration. 

MUDA, together with the newly proclaimed “spoiler” party formed by prime minister Ismail Sabri’s brother Kamarazaman Yaakob, Party Kuasa Rakyat, is sure to mean a number of 3 or even 4 corned electoral contests. On face value, they look like they will disadvantage Pakatan, but this may not necessarily be the case, with Parti Kuasa Rakyat. 

If Zahid does remain UMNO party president before the next general election and he gets his way of going alone, this could mean the sudden exodus of UMNO cabinet ministers, splitting UMNO mortally. This would lead to a very messy election where the biggest fight would be among the Malay parties themselves. 

What is clear, no one party or even grouping will be able to govern federally after GE15. UMNO alone, under the best circumstances might be able to muster 60 to 70 seats, and that’s optimistic. Pakatan might be able to maintain its current position, and will need strong support from Sabah and Sarawak to govern. 

Melaka will be a good barometer. 

Originally published in the Asia Sentinel 

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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