Pakatan’s painful lessons from past by-elections

After the last general election in May 2018, seven by-elections have been held. The earlier four by-elections were won by Pakatan Harapan (PH), giving an indication that all was well with the governing coalition.

However, the recent three by-elections might have turned the tide of popularity in favour of Barisan Nasional (BN).

By-elections in Cameron Highlands, Semenyih and, very recently, Rantau have given some indications that the popularity of PH cannot be taken for granted.

Some hard decisions have to be made if PH is to remain relevant to Malaysians in years to come.

An in-depth study is necessary as to why PH, despite its earlier popularity, is losing ground not only among the Malays but also among the non-Malays.

In the Cameron Highlands by-election, non-Malays might not have voted for BN but their low turnout and the combined strength of Umno and PAS contributed to the victory of BN.

Similarly, in Semenyih, Malay votes and some degree of non-Malay votes went to the BN candidate, suggesting the votes of the latter cannot be taken for granted.

In Rantau, it was not the Malay support for BN candidate Mohamad Hasan or Tok Mat, the three-term menteri besar, that surprised many, but how some sections of Chinese and Indian communities supported him.

So, what really emerges from the three recent by-elections is that PH cannot take it for granted that non-Malay support will be a fixed deposit in the future.

Why are non-Malay voters becoming disillusioned with PH? Is it because their daily lives have not really improved under the new government? Or is it because PH has not delivered what was promised?

While there are no clear answers to the non-performance of PH in the last 11 months or so, the lack of tangible economic benefits for the rakyat resulting from non-implementation of the promises made earlier could be the main reasons.

There is nothing permanent in politics. PH cannot assume that even if Malay support is not forthcoming, non-Malays will bail them out. This was a mistake made in Rantau. Even some sections of non-Malay voters abandoned PH.

Similarly, the tendency to focus to the maximum in getting non-Malay support might have been counterproductive in getting the support of the Malays.

While Umno and PAS fully capitalised on getting the support of the Malays even to the extent of using race and religion to the maximum, an effective approach to get the undivided support of non-Malays was somewhat lacking at least in the last three by-elections.

In the case of Rantau, the corruption allegations against Tok Mat simply did not have the desired effect in turning away Malay voters.

Given the primacy of race and religion, matters such as corruption, abuse of power and others really did not matter.

When it came to the non-Malay voters, the attempt by some PH leaders to brag about the achievements of the ruling coalition apparently failed in convincing them.

The performance of some PH national leaders in their campaign speeches was miserable.

In short, PH leaders were not able to convince them that their lives have improved under the PH government. To this date, there is not even a schedule to suggest a systematic implementation of the election manifesto.

In Negeri Sembilan, even the long-standing problem of Gatco land settlers has yet to be resolved under the PH-led state government.

Even if macro issues are not significant when it comes to by-elections, the failure on the part of the PH government to translate some important election promises might not have gone well with the non-Malays.

It is not Cameron Highlands or Semenyih, but Rantau that should be the real eye-opener for PH. Multiracial constituencies cannot be taken for granted anymore. They pose serious challenges for PH in the coming years.

Painful lessons have to be learned on the basis of the disappointing lessons of the last three by-elections.

If PH is to win the next general election, painful and unpopular decisions have to be made to get the support of the rakyat.

P Ramasamy is deputy chief minister II of Penang.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.