Umno and PAS have lost three by-elections in a row since the May 9 polls. The timeworn parties lost in Sungai Kandis, Seri Setia and Balakong to the garden-fresh Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. This is a bad omen for both parties.
Since PH took over Putrajaya, Umno appears to have become erratic in its political strategies. PAS, too, has become higgledy-piggledy with no definite vision for its future. Groping for ways to make themselves relevant, Umno and PAS have chosen to collaborate, resorting to race and religion to gain the Malays’ support.
Umno leaders have begun to say that MCA is of no relevance to the party anymore. MCA, realising this, made the decision to contest the Balakong by-election under its own logo, dumping the Barisan Nasional (BN) symbol for the first time since 1973.
Desperate and seemingly at a loss over how to beat PH, there are now Umno leaders who want to befriend PAS and perhaps form a wobbly pact with their political nemesis of 61 years. They believe that they will only be able to defeat PH through the combined force of their parties.
To PAS, this is nothing odd. The Islamist party has been in and out of coalitions many times throughout the last six decades. Each time, it issues a decree or fatwa based on “religious” theories of its own making to convince its loyalists why it should do so.
Whether or not they form a pact, the camaraderie between Umno and PAS is nothing new. They were tacitly and tactically together, at least in Selangor, and in many other states as well during the 14th general election (GE14). There was even an implicit understanding between them to take over Selangor and Penang, leaving Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah for PAS to rule.
However, their strategy to win big went awry in GE14, as well as in the three recent by-elections in Selangor.
PAS is perceived by the non-Malays and well-read Malays as a party facing a trust deficit which is often capricious, policy-wise. These people sense that religion has been made a tool in PAS politics. To them, PAS is a very fickle party, making friends with many other parties only to split up later.
The party is also seen as inconsistent in its religious decrees, while Umno has become ambivalent and disarrayed in its strategy post-GE14. It swings to the extreme in using the race card to win Malay votes while at the same time pretentiously trying to appease the non-Malays.
In GE14, the political recipe was for PAS and Umno to contest against PH in all seats in order to split the Malay vote. The hope was for Umno or PAS to win enough seats to form the next Selangor government.
The stage was set for this as the hasty gerrymandering of constituencies just before the election saw an increase of Malay voters in majority seats. Chinese voters were lumped together in Chinese-majority constituencies, giving MCA, Gerakan and MIC virtually no hope of winning against DAP and PKR. But Umno did not mind losing Chinese-majority seats to DAP or PKR as long as it could win the Malay-majority seats with PAS’ support. It appeared as though Umno abandoned its non-Malay partners in favour of PAS for political expediency in GE14.
However, Umno and PAS failed in their strategy, losing in 51 out of 56 state seats and 22 out of 24 parliamentary seats in Selangor. Umno could only win four state seats and two parliamentary seats while PAS won one state seat and no parliamentary seats.
Out of 40 state seats in Penang, Umno only won two and PAS one, while for parliamentary seats Umno won two and PAS none.
Despite Umno’s cosy relationship with PAS, the PH coalition turned out to be the largest party in eight of 13 state legislative assemblies and formed the government in the states of Kedah, Penang, Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Melaka, Johor and Sabah. PH also formed a government with two-thirds majority in Penang, Selangor and Johor.
Umno strategists might have thought that with the huge gerrymandering exercise in the peninsula just before GE14 and their alliance with PAS, they would be able to breeze through in every state in the country. Instead, the party lost badly.
Umno and PAS began shifting their goal posts for the three by-elections after the thrashing they received from PH in GE14. They realised that a three-cornered contest would not favour them this time around since both Selangor and Putrajaya are under PH. The incumbency factor would give PH the edge in any three-way fight.
A split in Malay votes
Together, PAS and Umno have begun to seek Malay support but they do not appear to realise that PPBM, PKR, Amanah and DAP also have resilient Malay supporters. There is a split in the Malay vote, and it will be nearly impossible for Umno and PAS to get the majority Malay support in any mixed constituency in the country. To rub salt into the wound, Umno and PAS playing the race and religion cards will also put off non-Malay voters.
Strangely enough, on one hand Umno and PAS are yakking about race and religion but on the other hand, they are disingenuously trying to appease the non-Malays. Rational voters perceive this as their biggest act of hypocrisy. The approach has backfired and will only further enfeeble PAS and Umno.
Nevertheless, the old enemies have now become fond friends. Political ideologies have been put aside. Race and religion are used to the utmost to snatch Malay votes although they do not realise that such a move would dash their hopes of securing the non-Malay votes.
Umno leaders were seen on stage campaigning for the PAS candidate in Seri Setia, and vice versa in Sungai Kandis. PAS leaders campaigned for MCA in Balakong. Umno and PAS have been betrothed and are just waiting for the day when they will take their seats at the wedding dais.
In Sungai Kandis, PAS gave way to Umno. In Seri Setia, Umno gave way to PAS. In Balakong, just because MCA is still Umno’s political pal, PAS did not contest. In Sungai Kandis, the PKR candidate representing PH beat the Umno candidate with a majority of 5,842 votes. In Balakong, PH garnered 85% of the vote compared to the 77% it got in the May 9 general election. In Seri Setia, the opposition’s vote was reduced from 23% to 15%.
The numbers were reassuring for PH as these were a one-to-one fights as opposed to the multi-cornered fights in the May 9 polls. PAS’ move to campaign for the MCA candidate in Balakong further distanced non-Malay voters from MCA.
All three by-elections were a letdown for the Umno-PAS cooperation. It looks like with or without a deal, Umno and PAS will not be able to win with only the Malay votes. Non-Malays in general have distanced themselves from Umno and PAS, what more as the parties are now engaging in racial and religious rhetoric that makes non-Malays perceive them as “ultras”.
As a consequence of the Umno-PAS misfortune, there are now cliques within the parties that are unhappy with the fallacious strategy. This has cause a further split within the parties. They feel that a full-fledged cooperation between Umno and PAS would cause the parties to lose more supporters as there is an absence of genuine trust and understanding between them.
These factions are mindful that PAS has been steadfast in its religious stance in politics and will not easily give in to Umno in Malay-majority states. PAS, with its opinionated brand of politics, would be adamant and hold sway over states like Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and other rural seats where it can garner Malay votes without non-Malay support. Umno meanwhile would lose out more as the party has to slog in states where the Malay votes are split and non-Malay votes are crucial to any chance of them winning.
In the long run, the Umno-PAS collaboration will favour PAS more than Umno in Malay-dominant states in the peninsula. However, if PAS joins hands with Umno, both these parties will be rejected in Sabah and Sarawak.
Rejection of extreme politics
The reality is that an Umno-PAS collaboration will not work in defeating PH in the name of Malay unity. PH has PPBM, Amanah and PKR, which are all parties dominated by Malays. It also has a strong non-Malay support base with DAP and PKR as the main anchors. PH itself is perceived as a moderate coalition favouring the new era of Malaysians who abhor racism and religious extremism.
Moreover, Umno and PAS are perceived as uninterested in the scandals plaguing Umno, the loss of billions due to dishonesty and thievery, the lack of integrity and transparency in the previous government, and PAS’ incompetence in Kelantan.
Their approach to extreme politics of race and religion has alarmed the non-Malays and cannot be accepted by the rational Malays. It has also shattered MCA and MIC, with party members leaving to join PH. The Malay votes are split, thus an Umno-PAS pact or collaboration will not have much of an impact in multiracial constituencies, what more in efforts to capture Putrajaya without the support of non-Malay voters and voters from Sabah and Sarawak, where PAS and its brand of religious politics are considered a non-entity.
Moaz Nair is an FMT reader.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.