The 13th general election will be the most watched and anxiously awaited event in the annals of Malaysian political history. Previous general elections have been tame affairs where the result was never in doubt; it was only a matter of how many seats the opposition could wrest away from BN. But the next election will be different as BN faces a real threat of losing power to a united opposition.
To be sure, this is not the first time that the opposition parties have grouped together to challenge BN. In the 1990 general election, Tengku Razaleigh’s Semangat 46 forged a coalition with other opposition parties and in 1999 DAP, PAS and Keadilan formed Barisan Alternatif to take advantage of public revulsion over Mahathir’s cruel treatment of Anwar.
But these opposition pacts did not even manage to deny BN its customary two-thirds majority. They failed because the social forces at that time were just not in their favour. The minorities were controlled by racial and religious fears and the mindset of the people then could not accept being governed by any coalition other than BN.
Things are certainly different now. Never before has there been such a nexus of events to influence the political destiny of the country. The coming together of the opposition, the dissipation of racial and religious fears, the sea change in mindset, the political awakening of Sabah and Sarawak and yet another sodomy outrage on Anwar have coalesced into the perfect storm to threaten BN.
The Tyranny of Numbers
Although chances to unseat BN have never been better one should not be mistaken into thinking that ousting the behemoth is easy or inevitable. In Malaysia there is no such thing as free and fair elections. The playing field is wholly tilted to BN which has almost unlimited funds and controls the mass media and all the levers of power which it shamelessly uses to its advantage.
There are 222 parliament seats so a party winning 112 seats gains a simple majority to form the government with the other side ending up with 110 seats. Of course such a slim majority is not workable in practice as a single defection will lose the majority. If PR wins a majority which is too thin BN will waste no time in scuttling their majority by inducing defections.
However the aim is to gain an idea of whether PR has any chance of winning, never mind the practicality of governance. After the 2008 general election, PR held 83 parliament seats to BN’s 139. This means PR must retain all the seats it won in 2008 plus an additional 29 seats to obtain the bare minimum majority. On the surface this looks rather optimistic.
But numbers can be deceptive. Our election system is based on “first past the post” which means that a win by 1 vote is still a win. Hence a small swing in vote share can result in a large number of seats changing hands. An alternative system is proportional representation where seat allocation is based on the proportion of votes secured but the disadvantage of such a system is that it tends to result in weak governments.
After the 2008 election there were many marginal seats won by both sides which could change hands with just a small swing in voter support. Based on data on marginal seats sourced from malaysiakini, a 6% swing to PR will result in PR capturing an additional 29 seats, i.e. winning 112 seats to BN’s 110.
An overall 6% swing in voter support is a large swing and this must come on the back of the 2008 swing against BN. To put this in perspective the overall swing to and against BN in past general elections are as follows: (sourced from The Star)
1995 – 11.8% swing to BN due to Dr. M’s liberalization policies
1999 – 8.7% swing to opposition due to Anwar factor
2004 – 7.4% swing to BN due to new PM Badawi
2008 – 10.7% swing to opposition due to tsunami.
So a 6% swing is within the range of possibility but the crux is that swings have alternated between BN and opposition from election to election. Since the last election saw a swing of 10.7% to the opposition an additional 6% swing in the same direction seems optimistic. Even more ominous, a mere 1.2% swing to BN will see BN regaining its two-thirds majority. Is BN safe in Putrajaya after all?
The Keys to Putrajaya
The key to break this tyranny of numbers is Sabah and Sarawak. To put it another way, Sabah and Sarawak hold the keys to Putrajaya.
In the above analysis we have assumed that the voting pattern in the two East Malaysian states will not differ greatly from 2008 subject to a moderate percentage swing. In 2008 the opposition only managed to capture only a single seat each in Sabah and Sarawak.
But Sabah and Sarawak are experiencing a political awakening in the wake of the 2008 tsunami. The notion of the two states being “fixed deposits” for BN is no longer true after the 2011 Sarawak state election. The mood in Sabah towards the federal government is anger at the hordes of illegal immigrants and Sabah is ripe for political change.
Hence we should treat Sabah and Sarawak differently on the basis that their normal voting pattern is going to be upset from the usual trend and moderate swings do not apply. Sabah has 26 parliament seats and Sarawak 31, numbers which are disproportionate to their population.
Results from the recently concluded Sarawak state election indicate that PR’s success can be translated into 6 to 8 parliamentary seats. As for Sabah it is certainly set to lose more than one seat.
If we assume that PR can capture 8 seats in Sarawak and 8 seats in Sabah and adding these to PR’s 81 Peninsula seats in 2008, this brings the total to 97. To achieve 112 seats PR will need to capture an additional 15 seats in the Peninsula, assuming that it is able to keep all the seats captured in 2008.
From the table of BN’s marginal seats and excluding those seats in Sabah and Sarawak, we find that a 4% swing will yield PR an additional 14 seats while a 5% swing will yield another 19 seats in the Peninsula.
So 4% swing in the Peninsula is just falls short while a 5% swing will yield a total of 116 seats for PR and 106 seats for BN with a majority of 10, not great but workable giving PR time consolidate its position by making much needed changes to the police, judiciary MACC and other enforcement divisions.
A 5% swing is still significant and we must remember that this must come on the back of a 10.7% swing in 2008 in the same direction. The next question is, “Will there be enough fence sitters to execute the swing given that a large number have already swung away from BN in 2008?”
The Racial Battleground
What sort of swing in each of the three major ethnic groups is needed to obtain this 5% swing in the Peninsula? Based on past by-elections the support level of the Chinese and Indians can be predicted with some reliability but the Malay ground is very hard to read.
The Chinese community can be considered to be won by PR with up to 80% support in by-elections which has increased from 2008 where 65% of Chinese voters supported PR. It is generally believed that the Indian community voted overwhelmingly against BN in 2008 but the numbers show that Indian support for BN was split down the middle at 48%. This was of course a huge swing from their normal 80% support level. Right now the Indian vote is still roughly split down the middle although by-elections have detected a slight drift back to BN. We should not read too much into these “buy-elections” where the poor and marginalized are most susceptible to handouts which cannot be repeated on a national scale.
Among the Malays there appear to be few fence sitters. This is why PR finds it hard to increase its Malay vote share. On the other hand even overt racism and ultra nationalism do little to enlarge Umno’s Malay base. The Malay ground is very hard to shift either way but a little means a lot due to their demography.
Analysis of BN’s Malay vote share in past general elections show 49% in 1999 due to the Anwar crisis, 59.1% in 2004 due to the new PM factor (or because Mahathir was gone) and 55% in 2008. Umno’s baseline Malay support appears to be about 55% and it can shift up or down by about 5%. This means that in 2008 it may have come down to its base support level and it possible to shift either way by a maximum of 5%.
The Critical Malay Vote
If we assume a 75% support level for PR from the Chinese and 48% support level from the Indians what sort of support level is required from Malays for an overall 5% swing to PR? The results are summarized in the table below.
Ethnic Group PR support 2008 PR support 13th GE (assumed) & swing within group Demography % overall swing
Chinese 65% 75% 10% 26% 2.6%
Indian 48% 48% 0% 8% 0%
Malay 55% 58.6% 3.6% 66% 2.4%
Hence it can be seen that a Malay swing to PR of 3.6% from the 2008 baseline is required to push PR into Putrajaya with a thin majority of 10 seats.
It is clear that the 13th general election will be a battle for the Malay vote. Only the Malays themselves can determine who governs them. There are no races acting as kingmakers.
The Road to Putrajaya
So the essential conditions for a PR victory are the capture of 8 seats each in Sabah and Sarawak, a 10% Chinese swing, no change in Indian support and critically, a 3.6% Malay swing to PR. Note that this analysis is based on national averages; it does not consider seat results due to local conditions, local demography or the popularity of a candidate.
As these conditions are within the range of possibility optimists may see this as a good chance to unseat BN. Pessimists may see it as unlikely to happen especially with the Malays reportedly drifting back to Umno.
Is there any likelihood of a cataclysmic event which will swing the Malay vote away from BN as what happened in 1999? Yes, there is – Anwar’s sodomy II which will probably end with his imprisonment and may yet yield the required Malay swing provided Umno is reckless enough to put him in jail.
Importance of a Pakatan Victory
What Malaysia badly needs is a two party system where democratic competition forces the ruling party to be more people centric and accountable. A party which has no fear of losing power invariably becomes corrupt and abusive.
Can PR function as a component of the two party system to put pressure on BN without gaining power? What if PR does not gain power but wins enough seats in the next general election to put real fear in BN and force it to reform?
But this is not likely to happen. Instead of reforming BN will take desperate measures to whip up racial sentiment, oppress the opposition and manipulate the electoral process to cement its power. A two party system will only exist in Malaysia if BN loses power at least once.
The road to Putrajaya is long and arduous so PR must stay focused and cohesive. There is no room for petty squabbling or in-fighting. Unseating BN with their absolute control of money, media and machinery is hard even with the opposition coalition at its optimum. Anything less and BN may even gain back their two-thirds majority instead of being ousted.
Written by Kenny Gan MalaysiaChronicle