Doomsayers are having a field day following the overwhelming win for Barisan Nasional’s Wee Jeck Seng in the Tanjung Piai by-election.
The scale of the loss, just over a year into the first term of the “Malaysia Baharu” regime, may appear shocking and even unbelievable. But without trying to downplay the significance of the voters’ message, I do think the situation warrants an objective perspective.
In the 2013 general election, the then-Pakatan Rakyat created history by winning a lion’s share of the popular vote for the first time in history. That a regime change did not happen caused Malaysians to cry foul. By and large, voters felt robbed. They wanted change, and indeed voted for it, but the electoral system denied them.
Elation soon led to deflation as people began to lose hope in the promise of change. A year on, a tragic loss led to a curious by-election opportunity in the semi-rural seat of Teluk Intan, Perak.
It was a seat that the incumbent DAP candidate had won in 2013 with an emphatic 7,313 majority, defeating the prominent ex-local MP and Gerakan president Mah Siew Keong. It was also a mixed seat with a Chinese plurality, which meant that while it was by no means a stronghold for DAP, it was nevertheless a very winnable seat.
In the end, Mah prevailed with a 238 majority over DAP’s Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud. A seven-thousand majority loss had been converted into a win. Undeniably, BN had managed to swing votes over, including from Chinese voters, despite an elaborate campaign by Pakatan featuring all its leaders, including Mohamad Sabu, Lim Guan Eng and Anwar Ibrahim.
BN were, of course, delighted by their victory. Claiming that the tide had turned, they appeared to go from strength to strength, winning three out of four by-elections held after that, with the exception being Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail ’s victory by a reduced majority in the 2015 Permatang Pauh by-election following her husband’s jailing and subsequent disqualification from Parliament.
By 2016, things had only gotten worse. Pakatan Rakyat had broken up, DAP was knee-deep in the hudud quagmire, Malay support for the coalition was at a record low and no observer would have been faulted for predicting a total loss for the opposition coalition in the next general election.
But as we all now know, Pakatan went on to form the next federal government in 2018.
To be sure, no two by-elections are the same. The contexts for Teluk Intan in 2014 and Tanjung Piai in 2019 differ greatly. For one thing, the government of the day at both state and federal levels are different.
That said, the point to note here is that by-election voting patterns are completely distinctive to general election voting patterns. To begin with, the stakes are worlds apart. In a general election, there is an awareness of a bigger picture at play, not to mention different campaigning dynamics and the significant votes from returning outstation and overseas voters. In a general election, people also vote to choose a government.
By-elections, on the other hand, are usually an opportunity for voters to either gain something or to express displeasure. In short, the Tanjung Piai by-election loss is neither shocking nor a foretelling of doom for Pakatan Harapan. It is what it is – a by-election loss and one that is rather consistent with historical trends. It is also unlikely to reflect voting patterns in the next general election.
But while there is no need to panic unnecessarily, it would also be foolhardy to ignore the sentiment of the voters. Clearly, a message has been loudly delivered. There is disillusionment and frustration from voters who perhaps expect much more from the new government.
At the same time, it also proves the efficacy of the Trumpian strategy of fake news and hate speech. So pervasive has it become that Lim Kit Siang even described the by-election as the “most despicable and unprincipled” he has ever seen.
BN will undoubtedly bask in the glory of their strong victory. However, to read too much into it would be their folly. Just because they won does not mean that the people have forgiven them, or that they can accept former prime minister Najib Razak again, or that they want BN back at the helm, especially with PAS as their new ally.
For PH, this defeat could easily spiral out of control if the coalition does not get its act together, particularly where information and communication is concerned. It is particularly disconcerting that BN appears to be winning the media war, both traditional and social.
The prevalence of fake news and hate speech, and its effect on voter sentiment, is not to be underestimated and needs addressing. As we all know, politics is very much about perception. Much thought and reflection are required if PH wishes to repair its image.
So where do we go from here? Hopefully, not back.
Zairil Khir Johari is Penang DAP vice-chairman.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.