Sunday 14 Jul 2024
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KUALA LUMPUR (July 10): The recent Sungai Bakap state by-election result was not surprising in that it followed the trend of by-election results post 15th general election (GE15), where the incumbent party retained the seat. At the same time, the results were also surprising in that the margin of victory for the incumbent, Perikatan Nasional (PN)/PAS, in this case, was larger than expected. The increase in support for PN was driven by a small increase in its overall support and more importantly, a significant decline in the non-Malay turnout. The many missteps in the Pakatan Harapan-Barisan Nasional (PH-BN) campaign exacerbated the already challenging political and economic landscape for the unity government at the national level. If the key parties within the Madani government do not heed these warning signals, these trends will likely worsen, and the point of no return may be crossed well before the next general election.

Table 1 below compares the results for the Sungai Bakap seat for the 2023 state election and the recent by-election. The winning majority increased from 1,563 to 4,267 in favour of PN, and support for PN increased from 52.3% to 58.1%, while turnout fell by 13.4% from 76.8% to 63.5%.

One of the key highlights from this by-election is the much larger drop in the non-Malay turnout compared to the Malay turnout. Figure 1 below shows the turnout percentage against the percentage of Malay voters in each 'saluran' or polling stream for the 2023 state election and the 2024 by-election. For the 2023 state election, there was no significant difference in the turnout of Malay versus non-Malay voters as seen by the more or less horizontal line. The situation was very different for the 2024 by-election, where there was a significant drop in the non-Malay turnout, and a much smaller drop in the Malay turnout. The estimated Malay and non-Malay turnouts in 2023 were 78% and 73% respectively, while the estimated Malay and non-Malay turnouts in 2024 were 76% and 46% respectively, meaning that the estimated Malay turnout fell by 2%, while the non-Malay turnout fell by a massive 27% from 2023 to 2024.

(I was not able to estimate the Chinese and Indian turnouts separately, because of the relatively small percentages of Chinese and Indian voters in most of the polling stations.)

With this differential in turnout among Malay and non-Malay voters, the Sungai Bakap seat effectively went from being a 60% Malay/40% non-Malay seat to a 70% Malay/30% non-Malay seat.

This is in contrast to the Kuala Kubu Baharu (KKB) by-election, which took place on May 7, 2024, where the turnout of Malay voters fell by 10% from 68% to 58%, while the turnout of non-Malay voters fell from by only 2% from 66% to 64% compared to the 2023 state election (See Figure 2 below). This means that KKB went from a 50% Malay/50% non-Malay seat to a 47% Malay/53% non-Malay seat.

The shift in Malay and non-Malay support against PH was more balanced among the voters who turned out to vote. According to Figure 3, the estimated Malay support for PH fell by 6% from 22% in 2023 to 16% in 2024, whereas the estimated non-Malay support for PH fell by 5% from 88% in 2023 to 83% in 2024 (See Figure 3 below). PH suffered a double whammy in that not only did it lose some Malay and non-Malay support from 2023 to 2024, but there was also a significant drop in the non-Malay turnout, the overwhelming majority of whom supported PH in 2023 and previous elections.

In the KKB by-election, the estimated PH Malay support fell by 5% from 22% in 2023 to 17% in 2024, but this was compensated by an increase of 6% in non-Malay support from 86% in 2023 to 93% in 2024. The fact that the non-Malay turnout fell by less than the Malay turnout in KKB also explains why PH was able to maintain this seat with a similar majority and a slight increase in vote share, in contrast to the situation in Sungai Bakap (See Figure 4 below).

Table 2 below summarises the differences between the turnout rates and the levels of PH support for the Sungai Bakap and the KKB by-elections in 2024, and the results for the same seats in the 2023 state election.

It was always going to be an uphill task for PH to win back this seat from PN right from the start of the campaign because of the following reasons: i) the challenge to counter the narrative of rising costs of living in the post Covid landscape under the unity government; ii) poor communications with regard to the policy direction of the unity government; and iii) the tough reality that there are more issues for the opposition to attack the government on compared to the positive outcomes which the government can claim credit for.

The battle was made harder during the campaign because of: i) the inability of the government to effectively explain the reasons for the introduction of the targeted diesel subsidy; ii) the incessant politicisation by the opposition of the Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd or MAHB (KL:AIRPORT) privatisation exercise involving a minority share by Global Infrastructure Partners, which was acquired by BlackRock; and iii) the unfortunate use of derogatory remarks by PKR elections campaign director Mohd Rafizi Ramli against the opposition, and the unnecessary playing up of the differences in academic qualifications of the PH candidate versus the PN candidate.

The dramatic fall in the non-Malay turnout reflected growing disappointment among the Chinese and Indian communities towards the unity government over unfilled promises and poor performance amid an uncertain economic landscape. The poor handling of the Dual Language Program (DLP) and the Matriculation related issues also likely contributed to this sense of unhappiness. The lower turnout as a protest vote among the non-Malays and the slight shift in the non-Malay vote towards PN should be a warning sign to PH, and to Umno. If this trend continues and if it cannot be reversed before GE16, a sizeable number of marginal seats won by PH in GE15, and some of the seats which Umno are hoping to hold on to via an electoral pact with PH, may be lost to PN. Will Sungai Bakap be a positive wake-up call for the unity government? Time will tell, but I am not particularly optimistic at this point.

Professor Dr Ong Kian Ming is a former member of Parliament and former deputy minister, currently the pro-vice chancellor of Taylor’s University.

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