The national unity charter signed last month by long-time political adversaries Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) and the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) to uphold the interests of Malays and designate Islam as the country’s official religion probably means the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition will be a one-term government.
Before the last general election UMNO and the Barisan national were tired and deeply mired in corruption. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed, leading his own party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, tapped into the sense of loyalty many older Malays, gaining trust from the Malay heartlands to save Malaysia from UMNO. He headed a coalition made up of Anwar Ibraham’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, made up largely of rural moderate ethnic Malays, Parti Amanah Negara, composed of rural ethnic Malays, the Democratic Action Party, dominated by ethnic Chinese, and smaller splinter parties.
Pakatan’s election last year has resulted in one disappointment after another, especially for those who expected political reform. In addition, ugly racial bigotry and religious fervor is on the rise. The Pakatan government is starting to be perceived as betraying those who voted for them as indicated by a series of by-election losses year.
Who gave Pakatan the mandate to govern?
The win for Pakatan was not like the 2008 electoral tsunami in which the then Pakatan Rakyat was swept into power across five states, achieving 47.5 percent of the popular vote. There was no increase in aggregate votes in the recent election compared to previous elections. Pakatan received only 45.68 percent of the popular vote, down on the 50.87 percent in 2013.
However, in a first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, what is important is where the votes are cast, rather than the aggregate vote. Pakatan was able to gain enough seats to form a government with PAS contesting every peninsula seat, creating three-cornered contests, diluting the Barisan vote and enabling Pakatan to form the government.
The PAS spoiler strategy thus cost the Barisan dearly. Pakatan picked up seats in the Malay rural heartlands of Kedah, Terengganu, Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan, Melaka, and Johor. Only about 20 percent of the seats Pakatan picked up came from urban areas. The rest came from winning four extra in Sarawak and eight from its partner Warisan in Sabah, giving Pakatan a slim majority
Around a dozen UMNO defectors in the following months crossed over mainly to Mahahir’s Bersatu. In addition, defectors from Sabah UMNO, in a near collapse, crossed over to WARISAN giving Pakatan a very comfortable majority in Parliament. Pakatan also won over state governments in Kedah, Perak, Negri Sembilan, Melaka, Johor, and Sabah.
Pakatan’s new gains built upon the traditional support base of the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, anchored in the urban and township areas of Penang, Perak, Selangor, Klang Valley, Selangor, Melaka, and Johor. In East Malaysia, the DAP has a smattering of seats in urban concentrations in Sarawak and Sabah, supplemented with a number of Parti Keadilan Rakyatseats also in the urban and township areas, where support has gradually grown. Pakatan’s traditional support base remains relatively resistant to swings against the coalition, with about 60 or so safe seats.
Many of the DAP and PKR seats have above-average numbers of registered voters, such as the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Damansara with 121,263 registered voters, where the national average is 67,300. These seats are gerrymandered and malapportioned to give DAP and PKR seats with large majorities (61-85 percent), thus diluting their national representation.
Pakatan owes its victory not to the faithful urban electors but rather voters from the rural Malay heartlands who listened to Mahathir’s message. A change of government was only actually enabled through the spoiler PAS although Pakatan also owes victory to the voters of Sabah and Sarawak.
Consequently, Pakatan’s reform mandate is more fiction than fact. Pakatan’s real mandate is replacing UMNO with a viable alternative and fulfilling its promises to Sabah and Sarawak. Meeting that mandate to the satisfaction of the swing seats Pakatan picked up last election is the only way it can stay in government.