BN has changed tack as the 13th general election looms, and the new strategies appear to pay off.
Ever since Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak took office in 2009, speculation on the date of the 13th general election (GE13) has been rife and constant. As we enter the fourth year of Najib’s term in office, the polls have still not been called. However, with March the most likely polling month, a macro overview of Barisan Nasional’s strategies over the past three years – analysing their effectiveness and BN’s final tactics these two months – is in order.
When Najib took over in 2009, BN’s political rhetoric has been one based on moderation. He started the 1Malaysia slogan that has since been incorporated in numerous government programmes. He promised political change which he did fulfil albeit very reservedly.
All the predictions pointed to a possible May 2012 general election when Najib abolished various restrictive laws and also touted the nation’s economic success through the Economic Transformation Progamme (ETP). That was the time Najib most probably planned to have the GE13.
However, the focus and tone of BN’s political rhetoric have shifted drastically from one of successful economic policies and liberalisation with the occasional race/religious issues to one of frequent racial/religious issues, with occasional mentions of budget benefits.
This drastic change could be detected at the Umno general assembly late last year when there was a warning about another repeat of May 13 race riot as well as the singing of a racist song. The current controversy over “Amanat Haji Hadi” (Hadi’s message delivered in 1981 branding Umno members and supporters as infidels ) and the “Allah” issue are just further proof of BN’s shifting rhetoric.
After three years of running a positive campaign, Najib abandoned it for the previously tried and proven Umno-BN campaign of racial/religious division prominently pushed by former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad. If this tactic is exploited by the opposition and when people start looking it at with disapproval, it will strongly undermine BN’s commitment to change and moderation.
One of BN’s main strategies for the past three years has been to consolidate a core group of BN supporters, that is, the lower to middle income group of voters with household income of below RM3,000 a month.
This strategy is an effective one when one takes a look at total households in Malaysia. Those in the target group – some 60% – make up the vast majority of the new voters. Also, according to the World Bank, households who make up this target group account for almost 67% of total households in Malaysia.
BN’s tactics have succeeded. The most recent poll done in the middle to late December showed that BN approval ratings with those earning below RM1,500 monthly stood at an overwhelming 69%. For those earning RM1,500-RM3,000 monthly, BN’s approval ratings with them stood at almost 50%. This gives BN a 56% popularity rating with almost two-thirds of the households in Malaysia. This contrasts with those living with an household income of above RM3,000, where BN’s popularity rating stood at a mere 38%. Of this target group, many are Malays with whom BN’s approval rating is 63%.
BN’s success in capturing this section of the voters can be attributed to two major factors.
First and foremost are the various policies that have been spelt out in the national budgets of the past two years. Faced with the clear likelihood of a general election in 2012, Najib announced an election year budget that was laden with goodies that predominantly benefited the lower income group.
The programmes announced ranged from providing low-cost housing to shoring up healthcare. Among them were KAR1SMA, KR1M, BR1M, Klink 1Malaysia and so on.
Budget 2013 is a mirror of 2012, but this time with added benefits and handouts. The most prominent is that of BR1M 2.0, which has been expanded to include single, unmarried individuals aged 21 and above, and earning not more than RM2,000 a month. BR1M 2.0 is expected to benefit almost 77% of households this time around.
Secondly, BN has managed to tackle a problem that will largely influence how people vote – the economy.
In 2008, the government’s unsatisfactory tackling of inflation was one of the main reasons for its poor showing in the general election. Before the 12th general election, 72% of the people were dissatisfied with the rising cost of living, with many coming from the lower and middle classes. The cost of living was also the biggest problem facing the country.
Fast forward to December 2012, and the situation is much better managed. The economy is still the biggest problem the people are facing. However, people’s perception of the government’s management of the economy and its future outlook has drastically improved.
Some 52% of the people believed that their personal finances and the economy have improved from a year ago. For households earning under RM3,000, 60% felt the economy had improved since a year ago and 53% felt confident about the economy in 2013.
This surge in confidence is clearly due to the positive message BN has managed to convey about GDP growth, and curbing budget deficits as well as the success of the ETP.
Another reason is the opposition’s relative lack of alternatives to BN’s economic plans. This is one of the missed opportunities for the opposition Pakatan Rakyat. Besides proposing the scrapping of PTPTN (student loan scheme) and promoting free education, the opposition did not come up with any other concrete proposals or counter-attack the BN.
With polls inching closer by the day, the BN will probably have just two months to tackle some final matters that will influence the voters.
The two most important matters are BR1M 2.0 which will be handed out in February (it was postponed from January probably to achieve maximum impact) and the divisive religious issue. Even when dealing with these two issues, we can see that BN’s focus is on the lower and middle income groups.
While there has been much ado about how BR1M is an effective vote-getting policy, the reality may be otherwise. Contrary to popular opinion, these handouts may not boost support for BN. Various parties have claimed that the handouts is just a blatant form of vote buying and many voters have come to believe in this allegation.
Some 56% of the people believed that BR1M is merely a vote-buying tool. BR1M’s target group –the lower income earners – is not so convinced that this is genuine assistance by the government. Only 50% of the respondents earning under RM3,000 believed that the government was giving them genuine help. Also, only 46% believed it should be continued, while the rest believed that the funds could be used for longer-term projects.
Champion of Islam
On religious/racial issues, BN is clearly playing them up for the benefit of the rural, lower income groups. The Amanat Haji Hadi controversy and the Allah debate are being used to portray BN, especially Umno, as a champion of Islam. Perhaps, Umno sees this as a more effective strategy than to be champions of the Malays.
There is much proof to back this up. In 2007, surveys showed that Malays believed that Umno have not effectively defended Malay rights and interests. The constant attacks by Pakatan leaders that Umno is only fighting for the interests of its Malay cronies have further eroded the Malays’ trust in Umno.
How will these issues affect BN? It is still unclear. There is still no clear solution to the Allah issue, with PAS’ Majlis Syura contradicting Pakatan’s official stand. But now it’s Perkasa chief Ibrahim Ali’s Bible-burning threat that will probably decide how the sensitive matter will be resolved. Both Perkasa and Ibrahim are closely associated with BN and this will definitely hurt the latter.
At least 17% of voters remain unsure of their personal feelings towards BN. These voters consist of Malays (6%), Chinese (9%) and Indians (2%). With such a large number of Chinese and Indian votes up for grabs, religious issues will only benefit the opposition.
In conclusion, while BN has succeeded in garnering the support of the majority of the lower to middle income groups, the support is not substantial enough to see them over the top. As of December, its approval ratings stand at 49%.
*The statistics used above are available from Merdeka Centre.
Galvin Wong is a political analyst.