A week has now passed since the Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar twin by-elections on the 18th of June, 2016. Much commentary and analysis has been written regarding the results. Having read through most of them, I hope to set the by election results in the larger context of by-elections which have taken place since the 1999 general elections. By doing so, I hope that we identify the factors which are important for Pakatan Harapan to take into account moving forward and some of the issues which are perhaps not as important in the larger scheme of things.
There have been a total of 42 by elections since the 1999 general elections – 8 between 1999 and 2004, 6 between 2004 and 2008, 16 between 2008 and 2013 and 12 since the 2013 general elections. (See Table 1 below) The incumbent party won 34 out of 42 by-elections (81%). Of these 34 by-elections, 22 were in BN held seats and 12 were in opposition held seats. In other words, unless there are unique circumstances, the incumbent, which is BN in most cases, will usually win by-elections.
Of the remaining 8 by-elections where the incumbent party was defeated, the BN emerged victors in 5 seats (the Pendang parliament seat in 2002 after the death of former PAS president Fadzil Noor, the Pengkalan Pasir state seat in Kelantan in 2005, the Hulu Selangor parliamentary seat in 2010, the Galas state seat in Kelantan in 2010 and most recently, the Teluk Intan parliament seat in 2014).
The opposition only managed to turn the tide to create an upset 3 times – in the Lunas state seat in Kedah in 2000, in the Kuala Terengganu parliament seat in 2009 and in the Sibu parliamentary seat in 2010.
In other words, it was very unlikely that the opposition would pull of an upset in either Sungai Besar or Kuala Kangsar when we examine the history of by-elections since 1999.
Of course, the presence of a three corner fight in both seats made it all but impossible for the opposition to capture either seat given that the pro-opposition votes were split between PAS and AMANAH.
The 3 corner fights in both seats which led to a big increase in BN’s majority masks the fact that BN’s vote share increased by only 3.5% in Sungai Besar and 3.6% in Kuala Kangsar. It is not unusual to see BN increase its vote share during by-elections where specific promises can be made to voters in the respective constituencies whether it is in the form of a new community center (in Jerlun, Kuala Kangsar) or to promise to allow fishermen in Sungai Besar to employ more foreign workers. In fact, in the 22 by elections won by BN incumbents, BN’s vote share increased by an average of 5.5%. BN’s vote share increased in 18 of these by-elections (compared to the general election) and decreased in only 3 (with one seat being previously uncontested during the general election).
This does not mean that the opposition has no chance to win these seats in the next general election or to win other seats that are currently being held by the BN. One can look to the example of the Ijok by-election held on the 28th of April 2007. The MIC candidate won this seat with an increased vote share (from 55.8% to 58.6%, an increase of 2.8%) during this by-election. But less than a year later, in the 2008 general election, this result was turned on its head and the PKR candidate (former MB, Khalid Ibrahim) won this seat with 56.8% of the vote. The question and the challenge for Pakatan Harapan is this: How do we create the conditions for the Ijok experience to be repeated nationwide in the next general election?
I fully admit that the challenges faced by Pakatan Harapan in the lead up to GE14 are far more serious compared to when the opposition sprung an unexpected surprise on the BN in GE12. The objective in GE14 is to capture Putrajaya compared to when the best the opposition could hope for in GE12 was to deny the BN a two thirds control of parliament. The opposition is divided both externally (PH and PAS) and internally. But I do believe that if we address three main challenges, this would make capturing Putrajaya a distinct possibility rather than what many perceive to be an impossible task as things stand right now.
Firstly, Pakatan Harapan needs to be strengthen as an opposition coalition. This means that there cannot be any 3 corner fights featuring component parties of PH like what happened in the recent Sarawak state elections. Many of our supporters were very critical of the decision by both PKR and DAP to field candidates in 5 state seats in Sarawak. Most voters were not interested in the internal dynamics of what led to this decision or the fact that multi-corner fights were avoided in the other 77 state seats. What they wanted to see was a united PH going up against the BN. While pro PH voters were more accepting of the 3 corner fights in Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar (since it involved PAS, who is not a member of the PH coalition), there were still critics who said that PH was not giving voters the impression that it was campaigning together. This impression has to be overturned and a new spirit or ‘semangat’ of PH needs to be created in the run-up to GE14 if we are to have any chance of defeating the BN.
Secondly, PH needs to create a compelling alternative narrative or narratives to voters who want change. Some commentators opined that the Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar campaigns were too focused on national issues such as 1MDB and the GST and not enough attention were being paid to local issues. In the same vein, some commentators also said that PH should provide concrete alternative policies to the BN rather than just criticizing the BN on issues of corruption and abuse of power. Having been at the Sungai Besar campaign for about a week, I can safely say that local issues to do with paddy production and subsidies as well as fishermen issues were brought up by the AMANAH candidate as well as by the various PH leaders via ceramahs, press conferences and hand phone messages. Also having been part of the policy team in Pakatan Rakyat and now Pakatan Harapan, I can also safely say that most voters get bored when one talks about policy issues whether in ceramahs or even in press statements. What voters want is to have confidence that PH can govern effectively as a coalition. The policy positions have to be discussed and then announced together over a sustained period of time in order to create this confidence that PH is a cohesive coalition capable of overcoming their internal differences to govern together. And these policy positions will then form the compelling alternative narratives to the BN’s platform. I say narratives because there needs to be targeted messages and positions for the rural as well as the urban audience, for voters in Peninsular Malaysia as well as for voters in Sabah and Sarawak.
Which leads me to the third and final point – that PH needs to use Penang and Selangor as showcase how the coalition can govern together and govern well. The impression that the Penang state government is a DAP government and that the Selangor government is a PKR government needs to be dispelled. Policies which reflect the aspirations of the rakyat at the national level needs to be pushed through and showcased as concrete examples of a PH government at the federal level can govern better than the BN.
Overcoming these three challenges are necessary but not sufficient conditions for PH to reach its goal of capturing Putrajaya. We still have to deal with the elephant in the room which is how to deal with PAS. But that is a matter for a separate discussion and perhaps it is an issue which PH has little control over at the end of the day. But first, let’s focus on getting our own house in order. Only then do we have hope to create another Ijok in the run-up to GE14.
*Dr. Ong Kian Ming is the MP for Serdang. He can be reached at [email protected].