Half cup vote? Reflections on state polls outcome: Part 1

Malaysians in six states have spoken at the ballot box. While the coalitions elected to lead the states have not changed, the increased vote share for the federal opposition Perikatan Nasional, shifts in seat numbers and voting patterns, especially among Malays, and the tenor of campaigns indicate a need for reflection.

At a macro level, here are a few initial observations on the outcome. An analysis piece on the results and a detailed review of the chosen hot seats/predictions will follow in other articles.

Not an endorsement

First, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s government did not lose the referendum on its support, but it did not win it either.

Many voters supported Pakatan Harapan and Umno out of concern about the opposition, voting against the opposition instead of voting for Harapan/BN.

While not a defeat, this election was not a positive endorsement of his government. All three Harapan states also lost support as well, which should be seen as a wake-up call for these governments to strengthen their engagement with voters and, in particular, to address the concerns of their core supporters.

Harapan supporters, those who supported reform for decades, were taken for granted this election. Concerns about corruption, inclusion and better governance did not feature in Harapan’s campaign, as it was about retaining power. The reasons to vote for the Harapan government were not adequately strengthened.

Harapan was able to maintain its traditional political base, despite many in that base feeling battered, dismayed by alienating notices of misuse of laws such as the Printing Presses Act and a Mahathir-like focus on winning support from those who did (and would not) vote for Harapan.

The DAP was the party that anchored Anwar’s victory, retaining all its seats but one in Kedah – Derga.

It was Harapan supporters who rallied at the last minute; the elections in Harapan states were swayed by viral pressing calls by fellow citizens to others to go out to vote on polling afternoon.

Harapan voters gave the Anwar government the benefit of the doubt, a dynamic that cannot be assured looking forward.

Importantly, Anwar and his government were unable to meaningfully reach out to new voters, notably the young and Malays who have traditionally supported Umno and PAS.

Anwar’s coalition has only managed to win three seats since 2018, the first was Anwar’s contest for Parliament in Port Dickson, the second after the death of Steven Wong in Sandakan, and the third was Kota Lama, won by a few hundred votes in Kelantan in yesterday’s state polls.

The latter is the only seat gain for Harapan since 2018, in large part due to the quality of Amanah’s candidate, a hard-working grounded female doctor.

The lack of electoral outreach by Harapan only reinforces the need to strengthen the support of Harapan’s core base, to move forward with needed reforms.

Part of the outcome was due to Harapan’s poor campaign. Unlike BN in the past (before 2018) which had an organised campaign, focused narrative, and coordinated strategy, Harapan’s campaign was disorganised and disjointed.

The messaging was all over the place, defensive, and lacking traction on TikTok, and it centred too much around the leader rather than the substance of his leadership record.

Here is where less (talking, promises, and goodies) would have been more, a concentrated focus on a few successes and future plans.

As with the first Harapan government, where Mahathir focused on winning Malay support and lost the Harapan base by reversing promises of reform, this election is a wake-up call that history should not be repeated.

Not just the green wave

Support for the opposition also fell short. The opposition PN did not reach its professed goal of changing governments, but it did significantly increase its vote share and seats, including the election of Bersatu leaders as well as those in PAS, and further consolidated its hold on power in the states it now governs in the Malay heartland.

Many continue to believe this result is about the supposed ‘Green Wave’ – an easy explanation that rests on demonising the opposition and stoking fear to maintain support among Harapan supporters.

No one questions the reality that Malaysia has serious differences over Islamisation, erosion of rights, and growing conservatism. These issues have long been mismanaged and used as political fodder by both sides of the political divide for decades. The use of these issues is tearing the country apart.

Nevertheless, as an explanation of this state election outcome, the ‘Green Wave’ is being over-interpreted.

The PN ran a better, more strategic campaign in its choice of candidates, management of infighting, and in its campaign narrative.

It laid the bait of making the campaign a national narrative that was swallowed by the Anwar government and, importantly, focused on economic dissatisfaction.

PN gave reasons to its supporters to come out. Its core theme of ‘changing the federal government’ rallied its base, echoing similar calls for change when Harapan was in opposition.

The electoral impact of the arrests of party leaders, especially in the early morning of Muhammad Sanusi Mohd Nor, cannot be underestimated. As in 1999, there were sentiments of injustice and anger that resonated.

No longer in the federal government, PN also extended its outreach to voters by focusing on economic dissatisfaction, which always advantages an opposition.

They continue to be stronger in reaching out to voters through TikTok and its social networks. The link with PN served to make PAS much more acceptable among many more in the Malay community compared to the past.

Not to be left out is where they got their main electoral gains from – Umno. This party continues to face serious erosion in political support, winning less than a fifth of its seats and continuing a pattern of electoral decline since 2008.

The party held on in four of the six states, but its base is now only concentrated in the southern part of the country, Negeri Sembilan, Malacca, and Johor. It has followed the trajectory of PAS, becoming a regional party.

Given the variation in the performance of Umno across states, explanations of weak performance that blame alliance relationships with DAP will likely be overplayed. Umno’s problems rest primarily inside the party and with how it is engaging voters.

Deeply fragmented and weakened, Umno cannot deliver the Malay vote in its current condition. Its political reckoning has been long overdue as it is well past time for new leadership of the party.

The party also needs to reconnect with its voters by prioritising the struggles of its supporters rather than engaging in a struggle for its leaders. My next article will show that while losing seats, Umno still maintained half of its core supporters.

Nevertheless, it has a political base to rebuild, and its performance in the state polls only compounds the challenges ahead for the party as well as for the Anwar government. The state polls defeat provides an opportunity for Umno rather than an end.

Empty or full?

The same could be said for the resounding defeat of other parties as well. With the big coalitions at loggerheads, any other alternative would have difficulty gaining ground.

The youth party Muda faced serious obstacles, but its reform focus and aim to win progressive voters ironically made it the main target of supporters of Harapan, as did the mistakes of a few of its young candidates/members.

Muda did not split the vote as claimed. Even in the one seat where their vote share could have impacted the result, Sungai Kandis, there is no guarantee Umno would have won those votes.

Like Umno’s ‘blame the DAP’ narrative, there is the practice of looking to the outside rather than the inside in assessing performance in Harapan as well.

Muda has a long way to go to win support on its own, but its prioritisation of young people and their concerns strengthened political discourse, bringing in more focus on problems and solutions, rather than a myopic focus on identity politics.

Policy discussions did emerge in this state election campaign compared to earlier ones, even though they were overshadowed by a focus on personalities and sentiments and in some cases policies that were not carefully thought through.

All the parties did engage policies in debates, manifestoes, and speeches to some degree, although these were not decisive (yet) in shaping voting.

The campaign was less comparatively flush with cash and while identity politics were predominant (and as my next article shows remain serious in ethnic polarisation), the open attacks on other communities were less prominent.

In opting for change and in the variation in voting across different states, Malaysians showed they are demanding and expecting more.

Some will see the election outcome as half full, others half empty, and yet others empty altogether. These state elections mobilised dissatisfaction and negative emotions. This is the norm in democracies, especially those that are facing a serious economic recovery and long-standing policy challenges.

The biggest early test for Anwar’s government is over. He won three states and his base stayed with him (for now). The emptiness in the glass was largely from Umno losing further ground.

The time to focus on governing, filling the glass, and reflecting on what can strengthen Malaysia moving forward, has arrived.


First published on Malaysiakini.