Middle ground is battle ground

by Liew Chin Tong
SEPT 27 — Going by our newspapers, Malaysia seems to be on the path of polarisation, politically or otherwise. But a 10 per cent vote swing either way will finish Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat. It is the middle ground that matters.

A swing in BN’s favour will see PR reduced to 29 seats only, and if the tide is in PR’s favour the nascent coalition will come to power with 139 seats, the number of seats BN currently holds.
It goes without saying that every election is a different one involving new personalities, a different sentiment, and changing themes. Thus, results from the previous election can only serve as a reference. Yet it is still worthwhile to draw some lessons from it.
It is undeniable that a 10 per cent across-the-board national swing is massive which doesn’t always happen. But it is not impossible. BN’s national vote share was 65 per cent in the 1995 general election, 57 per cent in 1999, 64 per cent in 2004, and 51 per cent in 2008. Between 1995 and 1999 elections, BN’s vote share declined by 8 per cent while between the 2004 and 2008 elections it suffered a sharp 13 per cent dive.
PR won 83 of 222 parliamentary seats in the 2008 election. Of BN’s 139 seats, 54 are from Sabah and Sarawak. In Peninsular Malaysia, BN has a very small advantage of 85 seats over PR’s 81. It is interesting to note that PR obtained 51 per cent of votes in the peninsula.
Of PR’s 83 seats, 54 were won with a majority of less than 10 per cent, which are usually called “marginal seats”. Assuming a 10 per cent swing in BN’s favour, the three PR parties, namely DAP, PKR and PAS, will be left with merely 29 seats.
On the other hand, 56 of BN’s 139 seats were won with a majority of less than 10 per cent. A 10 per cent swing in PR’s favour will end BN’s rule convincingly.
The magic number of a simple majority in the lower house is 112 seats. The two groups of marginal seats from both sides of the divide combined are 110 seats. The middle ground is really the battle ground.
Of BN’s 56 marginal seats, 14 are from Sabah and Sarawak while another 22 are multiethnic peninsula seats with less than 70 per cent Malay voters. Of PR’s 54 marginal seats, 34 are multiethnic peninsula seats.
Support for BN non-Malay component parties has not recovered since Umno’s turn to extreme racial positions in the form of the renewal of the Malay agenda in 2005. Between 1991 and 2005 Umno practised a soft approach on race in the context of Vision 2020.
Post the 2008 election, BN component parties, especially MCA and MIC, are now disintegrating by day. At the same time, Umno leaders and the party’s mouthpiece Utusan Malaysia continue to hurt non-Malay feelings through their various comments and outbursts while trying to shore up support for Umno among Malays.
Such settings provide opportunities for Pakatan Rakyat to project a centrist leadership for the 10 per cent middle ground whose swing will decide who wins government at the federal level.
The by-elections of Bukit Gantang and Permatang Pasir are instructive for this purpose. In the case of Bukit Gantang, which profile of 63 per cent Malay voters, 27 per cent Chinese, and 9 per cent Indians – resembling Malaysia’s national population profile — despite intense attacks by Umno and Utusan, as well as the weight of BN’s national machinery, PAS’s candidate emerged as victor with 3 per cent loss in Malay votes and at least 15 per cent increase in non-Malay support. Likewise, the case of Permatang Pasir saw a decline of less than 2 per cent Malay support but an increase of at least 5 per cent non-Malay support (in a seat where non-Malay support was already very high in the last election).
In short, the middle ground is the battle ground that BN and PR should devote their energies.