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What next for Malaysian politics as PAS, Umno cement alliance

The recently concluded Cameron Highlands by-election has given the opposition Barisan Nasional (BN) pact a much needed relief. Following its disastrous performance in the 14th Malaysian General Elections and a string of by-election defeats, its improved performance in the Cameron Highlands by-election could mark an important shift in BN’s fortune.

Barisan Nasional (BN) retained the Cameron Highlands parliamentary seat with Ramli Mohd Nor (centre) winning the by-election with a 3,238-vote majority.

Barisan Nasional (BN) retained the Cameron Highlands parliamentary seat with Ramli Mohd Nor (centre) winning the by-election with a 3,238-vote majority.

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The recently concluded Cameron Highlands by-election has given the opposition Barisan Nasional (BN) pact a much needed relief.

Following its disastrous performance in the 14th Malaysian General Elections and a string of by-election defeats, its improved performance in the Cameron Highlands by-election could mark an important shift in BN’s fortune.

WHY BN DID WELL

The by-election saw a high turnout of 68.8 per cent, slightly less than the 79 per cent turnout in the 2018 general elections.

Mr Ramli Mohd Nor, the BN candidate from its largest component party United Malays National Organisation (Umno), secured 56 per cent of the votes.

This marked improvement from the 42 per cent won by BN in the 2018 general election was largely due to the decision of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) to throw its weight behind Mr Ramli.

Several other factors contributed to this result.

First, the decision to field Mr Ramli — an Orang Asli and former senior police officer with an excellent track record — proved apt.

Mr Ramli was also active in Islamic grassroots activities and was thus acceptable to PAS supporters.

Second, PAS’ decision to root for the BN candidate was crucial. Many of the party’s top leaders including party president Hadi Awang, deputy president Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man and Terengganu chief minister Ahmad Shamsuri Mokhtar campaigned hard for BN.

This led to BN’s victory in districts previously won by PAS.

The Umno and PAS grassroots also co-operated effectively during the campaign.

Third, the honeymoon period marked by the euphoria over the change of government has worn off and many voters are now holding the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government accountable for a failure to fulfil some of the promises it made during last year's election.

Perhaps the most significant factor for BN's win is the successful employment of the race and religion card during the campaign which saw Malays giving their overwhelming support to Mr Ramli.

The employment of the racial card could be seen in a speech given by Umno acting president, Datuk Seri Mohamad Hassan, who claimed that the PH government marginalises Islam and described PH's Democratic Action Party (DAP) as one with animosity towards the Malay community.

AN ENDURING PAS-UMNO ALLIANCE?

The Cameron Highlands by-election is the clearest indicator that the Umno-PAS alliance has yielded a positive result for BN.

Unlike the previous Sungai Kandis and Balakong by-elections which pointed to the reluctance of PAS members and supporters to vote for a BN candidate, support for BN amongst PAS supporters in Cameron Highlands was overwhelming.

Likewise, PAS’ electoral machinery played an important role in galvanising Malay support for BN.

The significance of the alliance was underscored by Mr Mohamad, the Umno president, who thanked PAS for its assistance in a post-election speech.

PAS president Hadi told me that it took a lot of work on the part of party leaders to convince its members in Cameron Highlands to vote for Umno.

The result in Cameron Highlands has clearly cemented the PAS-Umno alliance.

WHAT NEXT?

One enduring but disturbing trend that can be discerned from the Cameron Highlands by-election is the continuous support that BN and PAS received from Malay voters.

The notion that Malays are politically marginalised under the PH government have been advocated by PAS and Umno leaders to instill deep fears in Malay voters.

The distrust of Malay voters especially in rural areas towards the PH government stems from the belief that the current government is dominated by the DAP which is deemed as anti-Malay and anti-Islam.

Such a view is so dominant in the Malay heartland that the PH government risks losing more seats in northern Malaysia in future elections.

Clearly the biggest benefactor of the by-election and the current political situation is PAS.

Since winning Terengganu in the general election, the party has been building on its electoral gain to consolidate its position in the north-east state.

Confidence in the leadership of Chief Minister Ahmad Samsuri Mokhtar in the state has led to droves of Umno members joining PAS.

PAS leaders have set their sights on wrestling state governments in Pahang, Kedah and Perak in the next election, possibly in an alliance with Umno.

This alliance however hinges of Umno’s support for PAS’ Islamic agenda and fielding candidates with sufficient Islamic credentials.

PAS and Umno leaders have announced that they will once again come together in the upcoming Semenyih by-election in Selangor on March 2.

BN will have a good chance of wrestling the seat from PH.

In the 2018 election, PH secured the seat with 50.7 per cent of the votes whereas the combined Umno and PAS support stood at 46.3 per cent of the votes.

A mere 4 per cent swing can cause the seat to fall.

Such a result would prove disastrous for PH.

Given that Semenyih is a seat with 68 per cent Malay constituents, a repeat of the Cameron Highlands results would prove that even urban Malays would have been swayed by the rhetoric of race and religion.

A win for BN in Semenyih will provide an impetus for Umno members who are currently uncertain about its future to remain in the party and marshal its resources and grassroots network to try to recapture Putrajaya.

PAS leaders can convince its members who are currently reluctantly supporting Umno that its Islamic ideals can only be attained through an alliance with Umno.

On its part, PH, in particular the DAP, will need to convince Malay voters that it does not seek to diminish the position of Islam or Malay rights.

Such perceptions remain entrenched and PH cannot afford to lose the confidence of urban Malays which will result in the coalition being a one-term government.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman is an Assistant Professor with the Malaysia Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). He also coordinates RSIS’ Seminar Series on Muslim Societies in Asia.

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