State polls: Federal split factor

The arrest of caretaker Kedah Menteri Besar Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor brings to the fore the importance of federal-state relations in the six state elections campaign.

The case for sedition will be assessed on its merits. The remarks reflect an escalating pattern of combativeness between Sanusi and the Anwar-led federal government and its coalition partners, which spilt over into comments on the Sultan of Selangor.

As has been made clear in the news coverage, Sanusi is leading the Perikatan Nasional election campaign. He is one of the most followed Malay leaders on social media, despite having his old TikTok account closed.

His new account is gaining followers at a rapid rate. He has clearly set his sights on strengthening the opposition, using his position as a state leader to attack the federal government.

Fighting and blaming

Sanusi has put a new “fighter” brand on an old formula. He is projecting himself as a “hero” for Kedah, fighting against “enemies” – the federal government and its supporters.

The attacks have ranged from questioning the legal status of Penang (a direct challenge to the Federal Constitution) to accusations of lack of federal funding for Kedah’s development, notably for an airport in Kulim.

Opposition parties have long blamed the federal government for a lack of support for the state government.

From approvals in projects in Penang, to the allocation of the oil royalty in Borneo, Kelantan and Terengganu, state governments have directed anger toward perceived unfairness in how the federal government has treated a particular state – its leaders have regularly played a blame game.

Yet, there have also been efforts to galvanise local state identities. Kelantanese support for a PAS government has included a sense of pride in Kelantan being different.

In some areas, leaders and parties have implicitly stoked state nationalism. This is most clear in Sabah and Sarawak, where concerns about autonomy and rights have transformed politics in these areas.

Sanusi is calculatingly tapping into similar sentiments of Kedah state identity, channelling local dissatisfaction and anger toward federal power.

This method draws attention away from the shortcomings in deliverables during his tenure in government, including concerns with floods and management of the environment.

As the election leader for PAS/PN, this anti-federal sentiment extends nationally to Kelantan and Terengganu.

So far, this has worked effectively for Sanusi in Kedah; he has become a polarising national figure, perceived as a “hero” standing up to federal power for his supporters and despised as a dangerous buffoon by his detractors. Kedah issues have gained greater national attention.

Deciding on the federal-state relationship

Kedah voters, however, have to decide whether to support his leadership and combative style, endorse his tactics or reject them.

An important dimension of this is to factor in whether they want a cordial or fraught relationship with the federal government.

Given what has happened to date, a vote for Sanusi will be a vote for a strained relationship. The tenor of the attacks goes beyond the usual political banter.

Unlike Kelantan and Terengganu, which has oil and gas revenue, Kedah is more dependent on federal funds. Voters will be making the decision whether they want to go it alone, hoping to wait if the federal government will change. It will be a risky wait as in the interim, it could impact livelihoods.

During the PN government, for example, its poor relationship with the Selangor government interfered in the efforts of the state government to manage Covid-19.

Cordial relations between the federal and state governments do impact the well-being of those in individual states.

Given the importance of the federal-state relationship, it is not surprising that this issue is prominent in the coming state election.

Anwar’s government campaign in Kedah has adopted the banner “Ini Kali Sama” (This time the same). The aim is to encourage voters to support the federal government, and to realign the state with Anwar’s coalition in government.

Explicitly, the appeal rests on forging a better federal-state relationship for Kedah.

What makes this campaign interesting historically is that the usual pattern of split voting has been to give support to the party in the federal government at the national level in parliament contests.

The “Ini Kali Sama” banner echoes efforts in Kelantan to win over PAS supporters to Umno at the state level, efforts that have been largely unsuccessful so far.

This strategy is being reused. The promises to address Kelantan’s water crisis, for example, reflect similar aims to win over state support towards aligning with the federal government.

A look at split voting

In this third piece of my state polls series, I look at voting patterns between the state and federal levels. I draw from an analysis of split voting patterns in four previous elections, 2004-2018.

Split voting refers to when voters vote for different coalitions at the parliament level compared to that of the state level.

Beyond wanting a particular party in the different types of government, split voting is also driven by local candidate loyalties.

For example, in Tambun, many voters supported Anwar Ibrahim for prime minister, but voted for Umno candidates to represent them in the Perak state government.

In looking at the patterns of split voting in the six states, I go back to 2004, analysing the polling station results.

Of the six states in focus, detailed in the chart below, split voting was most pronounced in 2004 and 2008 – in Penang and Selangor. Then voters opted for BN at the national level but opted for Pakatan Harapan for the state government.

This was similar in Negeri Sembilan although at a lower level. As voting became more polarised, split voting reduced in these states.

For other states, the history of split voting is different. Kelantan has a consistent pattern, where 12 to 18 percent of voters split their vote depending on the election, almost one out of five.

Split voting was common in Jeli, where the popular now retired former minister Mustapa Mohamed was a long-serving incumbent.

It was in Kelantan, and to a lower degree Terengganu, where alignment with the federal government, a voice for representation to engage federal stakeholders was traditionally seen as important, due to the oil royalty issue and dependence on funds from Putrajaya.

In 2018, Kedah had the highest level of split voting of the six states in coming polls, one out of five voters. Recall that voting was divided among three coalitions in fierce competitive battles in this state.

Political support in Kedah became more fragmented. There had been more unanimity in voting across federal and state contests in 2013, by comparison.

A close look at Kedah’s split voting found that a small share of the splits at the polling station level was above 15 percent (especially in 2008), suggesting more stark differences in the 2018 election.

While the findings do confirm that voters do engage in split voting, they do not tell us whether and the extent to which these practices will continue in the coming polls. The six state polls are a new election, but voters may be considering switching their vote at the state level.

In Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu, the Anwar government’s campaign is counting on this happening and the potential split/switch working in their favour. PAS is hoping for the opposite.

Differences in federal and state voting are at the heart of the ambitions to gain electoral ground in other states as well, noticeably in Selangor, Penang and Negeri Sembilan.

For PN in these west coast states, there is hope that the trends from GE15 will continue.

It will be voters, however, that will decide. The issue will not only be who will govern the six states but also the viability of different states to work cordially with the federal government.

Today’s event, shows that at least in Kedah, the splits between the state and federal leadership are growing.


Read other parts of the series: Electoral lay of the land: Pre-nomination scenarios, State polls: Important Indian vote


First published on Malaysiakini.