A snap election may be on the cards after healthy returns in West Malaysian state votes.
In Malaysia’s 18 June double by-elections, Prime Minister Najib Razak and his ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) won a much-needed victory. After a deadly helicopter crash in May saw Kuala Kangsar and Sungai Besar vacated, BN candidates comfortably retained both parliamentary seats.
The wins were widely expected — particularly given the split between opposition parties and the subsequent ‘multi-cornered fight’ in both seats. However, it is also a timely legitimacy boost for the prime minister, who has been entangled in a multi-billion state investment company scandal for the past two years and is currently facing a continuous onslaught by former PM and mentor Mahathir Mohamed.
Najib could now claim he still has the support of the people, despite the scandal, and the ruling coalition’s support base is still unshakable.
The Kuala Kangsar and Sungai Besar by-elections were the first votes held in West Malaysia since the so-called ‘1MDB scandal’ erupted. Before this, a state election was held in Sarawak, and although BN won a remarkable majority by sweeping 72 state seats out of 82, distinct local political factors were at play. The Sarawak result is therefore not a meaningful barometer of Najib’s strength.
What makes the two by-elections more significant than the Sarawak result is that both were held in Malay-majority areas, traditionally the home ground of UMNO, the biggest party in the ruling coalition and currently led by Najib.
In the 2013 general election, BN won the two parliamentary seats with a very slim majority. In Kuala Kangsar (with a 68 per cent Malay, 24 per cent Chinese and 7 per cent Indian ethnic makeup), the late parliamentarian Wan Mohammad Khairil Anuar Wan Ahmad won the seat with 14,218 votes, defeating Islamic party PAS candidate Khalil Idham Lim Abdullah (13,136) and independent Kamilia Ibrahim (447) with a majority of 1,082.
In Sungai Besar (66 per cent Malay, 31 per cent Chinese and 2 per cent Indian), the majority was even smaller. The late Noriah Kasnon from BN then defeated PAS candidate Mohamed Salleh M Husin with a majority of 399 votes. Noriah garnered a total of 18,695 votes while Mohamed Salleh won 18,296.
Political pundits had been wondering whether there would be a swing among the Malay grassroots of BN and UMNO, given Najib’s personal popularity fell to an all-time low of 23 per cent last October (the final poll after the scandal erupted), and the fact that Mahathir has been openly campaigning against the prime minister.
PAS, the long-time political nemesis of UMNO, has also recently adjusted its political rhetoric to a more nationalist tone to woo UMNO supporters who are not happy with their party leadership. For the first time in the Islamic party’s history, its leaders had worn traditional Malay warrior costumes and even waived keris, a Malay traditional dagger, in the party’s general meeting that concluded just before the by-elections.
Despite a lower turnout, BN and UMNO’s support base is still considerably solid. In Kuala Kangsar, the wife of the late Mohammad Khairil Anuar, Mastura Mohd Yazid, defended her husband’s seat with a majority of 6,969 votes. She bagged a total of 12,653 votes, while the two main opposition candidates, Najihatussalehah Ahmad from PAS and Ahmad Termizi Ramli from Amanah (a PAS splinter party), were left trailing far behind with 5,684 and 4,883 votes respectively.
In Sungai Besar, BN candidate Budiman Mohd Zohdi also won with a majority of 9,191 votes. He garnered a total of 16,800 votes, while the opposition candidates, Rani Osman from PAS and Azhar Abdul Shukur only won 6,902 and 7,609 respectively.
After the announcement of the by-election results, Najib declared that the people had rejected Mahathir and the latter’s campaign to oust him as prime minister. Najib even noted that Mahathir had compared him to former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, saying “Well, the Idi Amin of Malaysia is more popular.”
The wins in the two by-elections may inspire Najib to call a snap election to solidify his position further. The term of the current government ends in 2018, but an earlier election could see BN return with more seats or even a two-thirds majority in the parliament, given the split in opposition parties. The by-election results have just reinforced this inference.
It is also better for Najib to call an election sooner rather than later. With his control over local government institutions, Najib had largely kept the 1MDB scandal at bay and till now no charges have been made against him. But, the scandal is still under investigation in at least seven countries, and Najib has no control over them. Dragging the election to a later date could expose Najib to more uncertainty.
However, Najib is also well known for being risk-adverse and sometimes excessively so. In Malaysia’s 2013 general election, he waited until almost the final days of his term to dissolve parliament, having passed over the chance to call elections when his popularity peaked in 2010 and 2011. In a press conference the day after the by-elections, Najib said that there are many issues to be considered before he calls a general election.
Whatever may happen in coming days, weeks and months, the embattled prime minister can now at least catch his breath.
Teck Chi Wong is a former journalist and editor with Malaysiakini. He is currently pursuing a Master of Public Policy at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy.