by Ooi Kee Beng
Thursday, 09 April 2009 13:02
The results of the triple by-elections that the Election Commission took so much trouble to put on the same day, and a weekday at that, and suitably after the dominant Umno had held what was expected to be a disruptive party election, failed to convince Malaysians that the winds of change were now blowing against the opposition.
The Batang Ai state seat in Sarawak was closely watched for signs of whether Parti Keadilan Rakyat leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his allies had made any headway in persuading Malaysians in Sarawak to consider an alternative to the Barisan Nasional government. The increased margin that the BN attained seems to suggest that he has as yet not made any impression, at least among the hill Ibans.
To what extent he has gotten through to those living in the sprawling state’s urban and coastal areas has yet to be measured. The battle for votes in Sarawak is a protracted one, and the Batang Ai by-election has to be seen as a mere skirmish won by the defending forces.
The by-elections in Kedah and Perak, on the other hand, carry significantly more immediate import, mainly because these states constitute the frontline for the proverbial shooting war between the BN and Pakatan Rakyat.
Where Bukit Selambau is concerned, there was fear among PR supporters that the Indian vote might be badly split to the opposition’s disadvantage, and that the record number of contestants — 15 of them! — might tip the balance in favour of the BN, as had traditionally been the case.
Had this proven to be true, then some bad infighting within the PR was to be expected. If Hindraf, the Hindu rights organisation that played such a decisive role in the successes enjoyed by the opposition last year, had been hesitant in its support for Anwar, then one more weak point would have revealed in the PR’s position.
As things turned out, the Bukit Selambau loss suffered by the BN component party, the MIC, is most likely to be the final nail in its coffin.
Nowhere was the running battle between BN and PR more intense than in Perak. Not only was the Bukit Gantang seat a parliamentary one, unlike the other two, the opposition candidate was Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, the mentri besar who is being sidelined through BN-orchestrated defections.
The key role played by the Perak sovereign, Sultan Azlan Shah, in naming a new government to replaced the PR, had placed the PR in the difficult position of disobeying him without being disloyal to the monarch. The opposition feared that some rural Malay votes would be lost because of that.
The result of the Bukit Gantang polls shows that the campaign the BN carried out before the by-election to discredit Nizar and brand him a traitor has indeed failed. This puts further pressure on the Sultan to defuse the crisis in his state by calling for new elections soon.
Had either Bukit Selambau or Bukit Gantang been lost to the BN, there would have been some grounds for the Najib administration to contend that voters were growing disillusioned with the PR.
That would also have given the new premier reason to believe that his series of tactical moves was working, and that would have encouraged him and his advisors to stroll that path and lighten the reforming of Umno, the BN and Malaysian governance in general.
The bigger picture that emerges after April 7, 2009, is that the voter revolt that started in March the year before has not lessened in strength despite the concerted offensive by the BN.
Alongside aggressive actions such as the takeover of power in Perak through defections and the criminal charges levelled against Anwar and others in the opposition camp, the government’s offensive also involved softer tactical moves such as the release of 13 detainees held without trial under the Internal Security Act, including two Hindraf leaders; the lifting of a short-term ban put suspiciously recently on two opposition party newspapers; a comforting calling for “One Malaysia, People First, Performance Now”; and promises of institutional reforms.
The charm offensive included the return of former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad into Umno just in time for him to campaign in Bukit Gantang. The poll result suggests that that this tactic actually backfired, and the usefulness of Dr Mahathir may be limited, at least during elections.
What the BN can comfort itself with at this time is that Batang Ai was the first by-election it has won since the general election. Small comfort perhaps, especially when one compares with the increased margins with which the PR has won the other four by-elections carried out since that fateful day; but it is comfort that is rare at the moment.
An edited version of this article was published in TODAY Singapore.
The writer is Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His latest book is "Arrested Reform: The Undoing of Abdullah Badawi" (Refsa 2009).