Malaysia’s Government Risks Losing Ground in Selangor, Penang Strongholds at State Polls, Could Thwart Anwar’s Reforms: Observers

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Malaysia’s opposition is expected to make further inroads at local state polls on Saturday (Aug 12), leading to possible political instability and conservative policies after what is billed as a referendum on Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s unity government, say observers.

While analysts expect the unity government coalitions of Pakatan Harapan (PH) and Barisan Nasional (BN) to retain control of Penang, Negeri Sembilan and Selangor, they predict that the opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN) will emerge from the polls with more seats in these states than it currently has.

PN is also expected to win comfortably in Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah, where it is the incumbent, analysts tell CNA.

One analyst stopped short of ruling out a remotely possible loss for PH-BN in Selangor, which alongside Penang are PH strongholds where dismal results could have adverse effects for Mr Anwar.

While the state polls have no direct impact on the federal government, losing ground in these traditional powerbases could scupper the prime minister’s plans for economic reforms and weaken the already tenuous PH-BN alliance.

Putting longstanding rivalries aside, the multiracial PH and Malay-based BN are working together at an election for the first time, mirroring their partnership at the federal level after they unexpectedly joined hands to form the government following Malaysia’s 15th General Election (GE15) in 2022.

Their hope is that BN and its lynchpin party the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) will help PH shore up the Malay vote, which is deemed crucial for winning any election in Malaysia.

In Selangor, PH and BN held 45 seats in the 56-seat state assembly while PN held five. In Penang, PH and BN held 35 seats in the 40-seat house while PN held only one. PH and BN held all seats in the 36-seat Negeri Sembilan assembly. 

Over in Kedah, PN held 20 seats in the 36-seat assembly while PH and BN held 12. In Terengganu, PN and BN held 22 and 10 seats respectively in the 32-seat assembly, while in Kelantan, PN and BN held 38 and seven seats respectively in the 45-seat assembly.

BN SUPPORTERS COULD TURN TO PN

But BowerGroup Asia director Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani believes that PN will make further inroads in Selangor and Penang as he feels Mr Anwar has yet to win over the confidence of the conservative Malay electorate.

“UMNO, expected to bring the Malay seats to PH, is still very divided and recovering from its poor performance in the last general election,” he said, referring to how the party won less than 17 per cent of the seats it contested at GE15.

The election did not produce a clear winner as PH and BN won 82 and 30 seats respectively, while PN claimed 74 seats. Borneo-based Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) came in fourth with 23 seats. Coalitions needed a simple majority of 112 out of 222 parliamentary seats to form the government.

After days of negotiations failed to lead to a government, royal intervention forced through an alliance of PH, BN and other Borneo parties.

Mr Anwar’s appointment of UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is facing corruption charges, as deputy prime minister could also “alienate” new voters and current supporters of PH, Mr Asrul Hadi said.

If PH-BN only manages a slim majority in Selangor and Penang, he foresees that Mr Anwar will have to fight fires within both PH component parties and the coalition’s partnership with the Ahmad Zahid-led BN.

Mr Anwar’s own Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) sees Selangor as its “crown jewel”, while the Democratic Action Party (DAP) – which enjoys strong support in Penang – could express growing dissatisfaction after it was sidelined at the federal level.

DAP was only offered a few Cabinet positions despite outperforming every other PH component party at GE15, as Mr Anwar sought to strike a delicate balance amid the new alliance with BN.

Mr Anwar might also have to re-examine PH’s alliance with BN and the baggage that Ahmad Zahid brings, Mr Asrul Hadi said.     

“Expect continued political instability and greater pressure on the prime minister as Anwar will have to face battle on both fronts – PH and BN,” he added.

MORE CONSERVATIVE GOVERNMENT POLICIES?

Likewise, Professor James Chin from the University of Tasmania said Malay voters who picked BN in GE15 might turn to PN instead as they have not seen change in UMNO. 

Despite UMNO’s dismal showing at GE15, Ahmad Zahid resisted calls for his resignation and remained president after the party passed a no-contest motion on his post at internal elections. 

The UMNO chief then conducted what was described as a purge of the party, getting rid of figures observers say he felt were a threat.

“A lot of these Malays are very angry that Zahid is still around. They don’t like all this corruption and they also want UMNO to be a clean party,” he said, calling the state election an “indirect referendum” on Mr Anwar

If PH-BN retains control of the three states but loses the Malay vote, Prof Chin said Mr Anwar will shed political credibility and find it difficult to introduce his economic reforms, as he will have to pander to pro-Malay policies.

These include compulsory Bumiputera shareholding and tenders reserved for Bumiputera companies, he said, adding that these “affirmative action” policies need to be reformed as they have a huge impact on the Malaysian economy. 

“Anwar will adopt a lot more pro-Islamic, pro-Malay policies to placate supporters who (shifted to) PN,” he said, although he warned that an outwardly pro-Malay stance could risk “alienating” the core, non-Malay base of PH supporters.

Dr Wong Chin Huat from Sunway University used GE15 results as well as assumptions on vote transferability and voter turnout to predict that PH-BN and PN will retain control of the states they currently govern, but with the latter winning more seats.

And if this happens, “the government will be pressured to move to the right”, he said, referring similarly to the introduction of more conservative, pro-Malay policies.

For example, if UMNO suffers a “disastrous defeat”, Dr Wong suggested that PN will claim that the Malays rejected UMNO because of DAP.

“To shed off this accusation, UMNO will try to secure concessions by the unity government to the Malays and Islam. This can come in the form of resource allocation or value imposition,” he said, referring to things like funding for Malay institutions and the enforcement of Islamic values in public life.

PH-BN DEFEAT IN SELANGOR UNLIKELY

Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, painted a more dire picture for PH-BN.

He predicted that the alliance will lose its two-thirds majority in Penang and Negeri Sembilan, while Selangor remains a “toss-up”.

Dr Oh believes that BN voters will flock to PN as they fear PH’s liberal and multicultural outlook while PN’s consistent race-and-religion campaign narratives also tap into the increasing Malay fear of losing racial and religious primacy in the country.

“Economy or corruption takes a decidedly backseat to these more amorphous concerns,” he added, noting that PN’s “green wave” – referring to its growing popularity among Malay voters – remains “strong and kicking”.

Dr Ong Kian Ming, a senior visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said a PN win in Selangor or even Negeri Semblian will put “immense” pressure on the federal government.

“A series of resignations by BN MPs, leading to a series of parliamentary by-elections, may have a domino effect that may lead to a change in government,” he wrote in a commentary published by the think tank on Tuesday.

“The possibility for such an event is however very low.”

If PH-BN only manages to scrape through in Selangor, Dr Ong told CNA that PN will continue agitating to change the federal government by non-electoral means.

For instance, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) president Abdul Hadi Awang told parliament in March that PN was working on retaking Putrajaya not only through elections, citing votes of no confidence, statutory declarations and defections among government lawmakers as “normal” in politics.

“But stating this intention publicly has, ironically, weakened its electoral prospects, especially in a state like Selangor where political and economic stability is more highly valued, including among Malay voters,” Dr Ong said.

WHAT IF PN PERFORMED POORLY?

Analysts are not ruling out pleasant surprises for Mr Anwar’s coalition either.

Dr Ong, a former deputy minister of international trade and industry and DAP MP, said he observed PH-BN gaining momentum in the penultimate week of campaigning, adding that the alliance could spring a few surprises in areas that were previously thought of as advantage PN.

This includes some urban areas in Kedah – a state which produces a huge chunk of Malaysia’s rice – and in the Malay-majority paddy areas of northern mainland Penang, he said, pointing out that the government on Tuesday announced raises in paddy subsidies so farmers can earn more per tonne of produce.

If PH-BN defeats PN in Kedah or – though less likely – in Terengganu or Kelantan, Prof Chin said Muhyiddin Yassin’s position as PN leader will come under threat from the coalition’s secretary-general Hamzah Zainudin.

“Hamzah will push for the number one position, and nobody can stop him,” he said, asserting that the leader of the opposition is quite well-liked by PAS.

BowerGroup Asia’s Mr Asrul Hadi said a PN defeat in its strongholds will strengthen Mr Anwar’s position and ensure his government sees out its full term.

“It would also justify Anwar’s decision to appoint Zahid as his deputy prime minister and strengthen the relationship and confidence between PH and UMNO,” he added.