Barisan Nasional’s (BN) wins in the two recent by-elections – one in Cameron Highlands and the other in Semenyih – are nothing extraordinary.
There have been no major shifts in voting patterns, for just as in the case of Cameron Highlands, the Semenyih by-election was won by BN/Umno on the basis of support from PAS. Without the PAS factor, Pakatan Harapan (PH) could have won, although narrowly.
It is not that PH lost Malay support; it is just that the margin was reduced due to the devious game played by PAS.
It is quite obvious that corruption probes and accusations on the ostentatious living style of some PAS leaders did not sink into the minds of voters.
Umno seems to be still relevant among the Malays. In combination with PAS, it might prove deadly against PH or its Malay-based component parties.
It also appears that the numerous charges against former prime minister Najib Razak and other Umno leaders have not made any serious dent in the level of support for Umno or even Najib.
In the Semenyih by-election, Najib pulled more crowds during campaigning than PH leaders. Why was this so?
Non-Malay votes are often considered fixed deposits for PH. However, this fixed deposit should not be taken for granted.
In the Semenyih by-election, low voter turnout due to dissatisfaction with PH could have been a reason for PH’s loss. The poor performance of PH leaders in carrying out reforms and in implementing PH’s election manifesto were cited as reasons for dissatisfaction among the non-Malays.
A stronger voter turnout could have made a difference.
The rising cost of living, lack of opportunities for non-Malays and the arrogance of some PH leaders in addressing the legitimate grievances of this segment also worked against the PH candidate.
The victory by BN/Umno has sent ripples within the ranks of PH. While Umno and PAS have been emboldened by their race and religion formula, PH leaders are sending out mixed signals.
While PKR president Anwar Ibrahim called for a just solution for all Malaysians, his deputy president Azmin Ali felt PH should revitalise its Malay agenda.
Anwar, the next prime minister of Malaysia, seems to be on the right path to a broader multiracial solution for problems but others in PH are pandering to narrow identity politics that will put them in the same boat as Umno and PAS leaders.
The danger for PH is not from outside but from within, especially from leaders who are merely paying lip service to the needs of a multiracial and multi-religious Malaysia.
In fact, it could even be argued that it was the lack of an ideological cohesiveness that served as a setback for PH in the Semenyih by-election.
PH, as a responsible coalition with a larger reform agenda, should not stoop so low as to get involved in the narrow identity politics of Umno or PAS.
Whether you agree or not, PH cannot outperform both these parties on identity issues.
Both Umno and PAS, being in the opposition, have nothing to lose or to hold back on unleashing the worst forms of identity politics. But PH cannot do this.
The recent by-elections present a stark choice to Malaysians. If narrow sectarian politics are going to determine the future trajectory of the nation, then we have to return to the all-familiar terrain of ethnic and religious outbidding.
But if we don’t want this, then there is a serious need to rethink the options.
P Ramasamy is Penang deputy chief minister II.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.