By Liew Chin Tong
Malaysia will have a new government if Umno loses 40 seats in the peninsula to Pakatan Harapan (PH). If 50% of Malay voters choose PH across the board, the coalition will even be forming the new government with a two-thirds majority. This is the reality.
Therefore, I am appalled by the fact that some political analysts and politicians do not even bother to understand the electoral and demographic dynamics of what actually will decide the next general election.
Political cliches and reality
The biggest problem among these so-called pundits is that they like to repeat cliches that they don’t really understand.
Some of these opinion leaders do not think Malay voters will change en bloc. They base their assessments on the fact that, even though Malays did vote for the opposition, there was no uniform swing among Malays against Barisan Nasional (BN) in the last two general elections.
Hence, they are looking for a way out to justify their theory. They see Sabah and Sarawak as agents of change instead of the peninsula.
My assessment is that changes in Sarawak are minimal due to the ostensibly pro-autonomy political posturing of the Sarawak government, as well as the very difficult geographical terrain there.
Sabah, on the other hand, is a very interesting case. In the 2013 general election, the opposition won only three parliamentary seats. BN won several seats with less than 50% of the popular vote, thanks to planted multi-cornered fights. Now with the presence of Shafie Apdal as the new opposition leader on the east coast, and clarity in the Kadazan-Dusun-Murut (KDM) areas, the opposition could actually win up to 10 parliamentary seats.
Nevertheless, the ultimate battle is still in the peninsula.
Battle for the peninsula
In the last general election, Umno won 88 parliamentary seats nationally. Fourteen of them were in Sabah and one in Labuan. Of the 73 seats in the peninsula, about 30 of them are very small constituencies, often with sizeable numbers of Felda settlers, and quite rural in nature. Even with a huge swing among Malay voters, it won’t be easy for PH to win these seats.
The other 40-over seats are mostly Malay-majority mixed-ethnicities seats with a sizeable number of non-Malay voters residing within the constituency. Most of these seats are in semi-urban areas where a substantial proportion of their younger generation are living in Kuala Lumpur and other metropolitan areas.
In the 2013 general election, Pakatan Rakyat won 80 of the 165 peninsula seats. Currently, PAS holds 14 seats which are no longer considered PH seats. DAP lost Teluk Intan in a by-election in 2014.
At present, PH gained Pagoh through Muhyiddin Yassin’s entry into opposition politics. Effectively, PH representatives are incumbents in 66 seats in the peninsula.
The electoral challenge for PH is whether it can win 100 of 165 peninsula seats. If this is achieved, it would mean a very significant swing among Malay voters as well as the election of many more Malay MPs than non-Malay MPs. Both would secure PH’s legitimacy during the post-election challenge to form a stable government.
Upon PH winning 100 seats or more in the peninsula, with 15 to 20 additional seats shared between PH and its allies in Sabah and Sarawak, a new government is secured.
Can PH win 100 seats in peninsula?
Even before considering seats in Kelantan and Terengganu, there are already at least 40 BN marginal seats in the peninsula’s west coast states up for grabs. (For strategic reasons, I won’t name the seats but readers can do their own research to see the seats.)
Cluster 1 – Perlis/Kedah – 10
Cluster 2 – Penang/Northern Perak – 7
Cluster 3 – Northern Selangor/Southern Perak – 8
Cluster 4 – Greater Muar (Johor) – 5
Cluster 5 – Southern Johor – 6
Cluster 6 – Pahang – 4
The seats in Perlis and Kedah are mostly Malay super-majority seats. With the Mahathir factor, Kedah will have its own set of dynamics.
The rest of BN’s west coast marginal seats are mostly with 65% Malay voters at maximum, ie. they constitute sizeable non-Malay constituents. For the west coast seats, the PAS factor is negligible.
Three-cornered fights backfire against Umno
I previously argued that at some point, Umno would discover that a three-cornered fight strategy would kill its chances rather than PH’s in marginal seats.
In the Malay-majority mixed seats, non-Malay voters are more likely to vote for PH candidates rather than Umno or PAS.
If the current anti-establishment sentiment among Malay voters persists, some Umno and PAS supporters in the 2013 election are likely to switch to PH, too. Umno would need PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang’s loyalists to vote for Umno instead of voting for PAS in the west coast seats where PAS has no chance of winning.
It would not be surprising if it is Umno that calls off the three-cornered fight strategy very soon. In many ways, the current debate of three-cornered fights, including among opposition supporters, is a waste of time, really.
Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi who is also acting Umno deputy president, and Tourism and Culture Minister Nazri Aziz had both openly warned that the three-corner fight strategy might backfire against Umno. Understandably, the seats of Bagan Datok (Zahid’s seat) and Padang Rengas (Nazri’s) are exactly such west coast BN marginals that I just described.
Another shocker for Umno was Prime Minister Najib Razak’s recent meeting with Kelantan Umno leaders at the residence of Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.
During the meeting, Najib was told in no uncertain terms that Kelantan Umno wishes to fight PAS in every seat. The refusal of state Umno leaders to collaborate with PAS has thrown a spanner in the works for Najib’s already faltering three-cornered fight strategy.
As PH and its predecessor Pakatan Rakyat were previously more urban-centric, understanding the semi-urban psyche is crucial for the opposition’s victory.
From there, PH needs to create a winning social coalition that empowers at least half of Malay voters and energises a huge non-Malay turnout and support.
I never said it was going to be easy. All I said was that Umno and BN are now most vulnerable in the west coast semi-urban, Malay-majority mixed seats which BN won with a slim majority in the 2013 election.
In a way, these battlegrounds are our “Rust Belt” of sorts.
For Umno to lose these 40 or so seats in a uniform swing towards PH will surely be the birth of a new government.
Liew Chin Tong is Kluang MP and DAP central executive council member.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.