The battle of localities in Malaysia’s General Elections

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With the 14th General Election (GE14) set to be held in the following few months, there are loads of commentaries and surveys being done on the chances of each coalition in winning the next election.

All these studies only showed that the GE14 will be another watershed election in Malaysian history, especially with the fact that former prime minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad will be up against the incumbent, Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

For the first time, we, Malaysians, will be witnessing the battle between the former prime minister as well as the incumbent for a seat in Putrajaya.

Precisely, it is due to such historic contest that any survey or commentary which looked into the chances of the two political personalities and political coalitions in the coming GE, will be an over-generalization of the political dynamics in our country. And there are three reasons for this:-

First, the unexpected ‘Mahathir factor’. Historically, we have seen Datuk Seri Onn Jaafar and Tengku Razaleigh came out of Umno to form their new parties and contested against the former in past GEs.

Onn Jaafar was a founder of the Umno which he left subsequently. Razaleigh was a member of the Umno when he contested for the party’s leadership against Mahathir but lost and subsequently left the party to form the Semangat 46. He rejoined Umno right before the ‘Reformasi’ in 1998.

But we certainly have never seen a former prime minister leading the opposition pact against the ruling coalition. Furthermore, this is the prime minister who has governed the country for 22 years and responsible to bring Malaysia into the rank of Asian tigers in the 1990s.

The second reason, however, is relatively predictable. It is the local regime-change trend that continued unabated after the GE12 when the defunct Pakatan Rakyat (PR) started to form state governments in the country.

Ever since that, there is an obvious and additional phenomenon of localization in Malaysian politics. Voters in Penang and Selangor started to hold their own perceptions and expectations about the Pakatan governments in these two states.

Such phenomenon is largely due to the policies of the two states for the last ten years which are distinctive than or even sometimes, conflictual with those of the federal government. In other words, we have witnessed an obvious contest of two regime systems spearheaded by BN and Pakatan Harapan (PH) for the past ten years.

Third is the local antagonisms among Sabahans and Sarawakians against federal ruling and opposition coalitions.

It is widely known that the call for autonomies by these two states have been long-standing, with successive BN federal administrations short of responding to such request.

And this includes the then prime minister, Mahathir, who even initiated ‘Project IC’ in what was rumored to be his attempt to change the demography of Sabah for electoral considerations.

Such blatant interference from the past federal government (coupled with the issue of autonomies provided in the Malaysian Agreement 1963) had created discontent among Sabahans in the long-term and understandably so.

The local sentiments that we witnessed in these two states today could be a direct result of such past events.

Sarawak, on the other hand, also responded to such call but the dominance of the BN ruling partner, Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu in the state, has somehow mitigated the extent of local antagonism as seen in his neighbour, Sabah.

So, what do all these developments mean for the GE14? On the ground, this means the GE14 will not just be fought at the national level between the two leaders of the political divides.

Neither it will not be solely the contest between two main political coalitions for federal power in Malaysia. But more importantly, it is also a battle of the localities between the two main political camps. In this context, there are three key battlegrounds which are worthwhile for us to gauge.

Among all, Kedah will be one of the hard-fought states for both coalitions. While PAS may exert a certain influence in the state, one should not underestimate Mahathir’s long-standing influence in Kedah since his political days.

While the former prime minister (and currently PM-designate) had been out of politics for quite some time, he still enjoyed strong support (or even idolization) among the Kedahans due to his past contributions to the state.

Should the contest in one of the constituencies of Kubang Pasu or Langkawi, his presence is bound to reverberate nostalgic sentiments among the locals which in turn, will exert significant pressure on the defending BN state government.

With his son tipped to be Kedah’s Menteri Besar again if the coalition wins there, local voters may view such possibility as a chance for his son to accomplish his interrupted career back in 2016.

Moreover, with BN taking over Kedah from PAS after the GE13, the state is still largely a marginal state rather a safe one for the former.

The second state will be Johor. With the formation of PPBM (or Bersatu), its president, Tan Sri Muhyddin Yassin is adamant to use Johor as the springboard for the party’s quest for influence nationwide. With Johor beingUmno’s fortress and birthplace since independence, Bersatu’s goal is to have a slice of the state but it is still a huge challenge to overcome.

As in the recent survey by analyst Wan Saiful, Johor’s Malay voters still look to Umno as the champion of their rights and fearful of the DAP in the PH.

Moreover, unlike Mahathir in Kedah, Muhyddin’s support base lies on the northern part of the state and not across the state — indicating the limits of Bersatu’s influence in Johor.

Hence, it is still likely that BN, with its strong election machinery and the support of local leaders like Datuk Haji Khaled Nordin and Datuk Seri Shahril Samad, will retain Johor in the next election.

But what may happen is that there will be more significant swing from the Chinese voters alongside a small portion of Malay voters in the state. And PH may get the minimum return among all its result predictions — adding a few parliamentary seats from the state.

The last is Sabah. As stated earlier, the brewing discontent among Sabahans towards
Putrajaya, is not something to be underrated in the coming GE.

With the rise of local-based Parti Warisan Sabah helmed by Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal, it may causeUmno a big surprise in the eastern part of the state (the support base of the former Umno man).

If BN is retained as the state government in the GE14, it will be due to not just its election machinery power and penetration to the rural areas, but also the disunited opposition parties in Sabah.

As the Sabah PH is seeking coalition with the rest of the local opposition parties for the next GE, it will be interesting to see what will be the eventual result of the straight fights between the two coalitions in the GE14.

As much as next GE a nationwide contest for political power in Putrajaya, it is equally a
battle of the localities.

As the old saying goes: “All politics is local.” What we are seeing today coincides with the phenomenon of ‘localization of politics’ that strikes many parts of the world today.

Thus, analysts and observers should go beyond the national (state-centric) perspective that seemingly becomes the ‘comfort zone’ of political analysis.

Considering that the next battle will be much more complicated than personality politics and the calculation of relative advantages between the BN and PH, it is timely for us to appreciate Malaysian politics from the local lens.
_______________________________________________________________________Lee Chee Leong is PhD Candidate at the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash
University (Malaysia Campus). Interested in the role of sub-states in the present world order, he is now a researcher of China’s sub-state ‘diplomacy’ in the region. Presently, he is also the Visiting Scholar at the School of Politics and Public Administration, Guangxi University for Nationalities (GXUN).

Chia Siang Kim is Researcher in Anbound Malaysia, a subsidiary of Anbound China which is a leading private think tank based in Beijing. The think tank is also a consultancy firm
specializing in China-ASEAN cooperation. For any feedback, please contact:
siangkimchia@anbound.com.

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