A blue wave in GE15? An overview and context – Part 1

When Umno-BN pressured for the 15th general election (GE15) to be called, they expected to win.

Now, three days out from the polls, BN appears far from achieving its “big” win. Rather than build momentum, another coalition using blue colours has challenged Umno leadership of the Malays, namely the ultra-Malay nationalist Perikatan Nasional (PN).

Moreover, despite disappointment with Pakatan Harapan’s performance earlier in the government and coalition infighting, its political base has started to return, boosting its political fortunes.

While fighting hard, the inclusive coalition wrestles with achieving the numbers it needs to form a government.

This “Blue Wave” three-part study looks at what has happened in the past week in Malaysia’s campaign and lays out a projection, an analysis based on fieldwork across all 13 states and a statistical analysis of possible voting trends.

Part 1, here, lays out the context for the analysis.


Umno blues: What is happening?

When history looks back at Umno-BN’s performance in the GE15 campaign, two features will stand out.

First is the role of Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, his predecessor Najib Abdul Razak’s protégé. Like his mentor, he is leading his party to defeat.

Zahid is not only one of the most negatively perceived men in Malaysia, a leader who will bring shame to the country if he is prime minister due to his tainted corruption cases but the mishandling of his own party has seriously undercut BN’s electoral chances.

From Perlis to Pahang, the decision on whom to slate and how it was done has backfired. Repeatedly, Umno party workers across the country talk about the lack of spirit and resources on the ground. With old banners and stale messaging, it is arguably one of the worst campaigns in Umno history to date.

Second is the reality of a divided Umno. The party’s message has been one of stability, but what has featured in the campaign is its conflict.

The public shaming of caretaker prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, pushed aside (both literally and figuratively), and the punishing of Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, whose campaign has showcased the problems in Umno as he tries to run as the “I am not really Umno” candidate under the party’s banner.

As the GE15 campaign has evolved, it has become crystal clear that the party is not united on who will lead them and it will take – minimally – a party election (and legal decisions) to resolve some of the party’s divisions.

Despite the party actually fielding some capable candidates notably in Negeri Sembilan and Johor, a vote for the Umno-BN brand is not a vote for stability.

Despite lower-than-expected projections, Umno cannot be fully ruled out, as political history has taught Malaysians that when pressured Umno responds and fights back.

Many in the party remain desperate to get back into government at all costs, including the public risk of flooding which has become all too evident in too many places across Malaysia. Their campaign is one to watch in these final days.

Nevertheless, the dream of returning to dominance on the national stage, however, is becoming just that, something far away.


Rising PN tide: Becoming Umno

Muhyiddin Yassin’s PN, also cloaked in blue, has gained political traction. Its slick campaign, greater resources and targeted ultra-ethno-nationalist messaging (flooding social media advertising) have won support.

They have painted themselves as the “safe” alternative for the Malays and focused intensely on undecided voters. As I note in my earlier piece, PN has engaged in targeted voting among the most vulnerable communities.

PN also has carefully positioned itself as the non-Umno while engaging in traditional campaign tactics of Umno. Ironically, PN in its bid for national power and to displace Umno, has in fact become “Umno” – a party of greater funds, organised strategic campaigning aimed at winning political legitimacy from the Malay community.

The main support of PN rests with PAS, its core supporters and machinery, and base in three important states – Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah.

Despite disgraceful sexist remarks, for example, Kedah Menteri Besar Mohammad Sanusi Md Nor remains a popular figure among many Malays, as do many PAS leaders, including Abdul Hadi Awang.

Their popularity comes from the ultra-conservative messages they espouse. While these archaic views are widely rejected by the majority of Malaysians, there remains a deep conservative core whose worldview is different from most readers of Malaysiakini.

PAS’ political fortunes have been boosted by money and its dream of holding national power seems closer, enhanced by the party’s alliances that allow it to compete in blue. As will be shown, PAS is poised to gain seats this election.


Hope remains alive

On its part, and in spite of itself, Harapan has made headway in this campaign. Part of the essence of what makes us human, hope is after all one of those things that can remain alive, even after a battering.

And Harapan’s biggest achievement so far in this campaign has been to revive hope, even if it is not as idealistic as in the past.

It has been slow going, with many of the Harapan leaning seats, still extremely close. The split among the Malays does not always work in Harapan’s favour, and may in fact undercut the coalition’s performance in many seats.

Also problematic has been the insistence of some in the campaign that (only) they know best, undercutting teamwork and refusing to accept collective decisions on logo colour and messaging. Egos overshadow Harapan’s GE15 campaign.

What has revived Harapan’s fortunes is two-fold?

First is the reality of a greater shared purpose. Harapan 2.0 is more united in its goals for reform than was the case with Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the helm.

Being the non-Mahathir Harapan has helped the coalition heal and have greater focus. The core of reformasi has returned, with the common purpose to improve governance.

Second, Harapan has benefitted the most from the mistakes of the other coalitions – namely Zahid’s bully leadership of Umno-BN and the destructive (and extreme) racialised messages of PN.

While Harapan has its own problems in managing racial issues, the level of hate speech from PN, including a call for violence, has deeply upset Malaysians.

Voters are asking who represents them, and what do they want the country’s leadership to represent.

Here, despite many who have reservations, PKR president Anwar Ibrahim has emerged stronger compared to other candidates.

And it helps that Harapan that has the only campaign with clarity on who is its prime minister candidate.

Part 2 of this series would lay out my projections of where they stand now in the campaign.


First published on malaysiakini.com.