fter weeks of intra-party wrangling and negotiations, the dust has finally settled and the line-up for the Hulu Selangor by-election has been determined.
Former Kota Bharu MP and de facto law minister, Zaid Ibrahim, representing Pakatan Rakyat, is set to take on MIC information chief P Kamalanathan.
This by-election arguably ranks as the most important since the Bukit Gantang by-election in May 2009. The stakes are indeed high. It is an important litmus test for Najib Razak’s popularity after approximately a year in the prime minister’s office. And it comes in the aftermath of a series of high-profile PKR defections.
This by-election has been quickly dubbed as a contest between a well-known PKR heavyweight against an unknown, and hence lightweight, MIC candidate. PKR’s incumbent status and the contrasts in the national profile of both candidates seem to tilt the race in Pakatan’s favour.
hulu selangor by-election nomination 170410 zaid ibrahim with pakatan leaders 03But is a Zaid victory assured? Is the confidence in a Pakatan victory misplaced, especially given the many rough patches PKR has been through over the past few months?
According to my analysis of the 2008 general election results, and given the candidate selection process within the BN, my initial assessment is that this by-election is Pakatan’s to lose.
Split voting among Malays
BN should have won the Hulu Selangor parliamentary seat in 2008 if not for the presence of split voting, most notably among the Malay voters in this constituency. All three state seats in Hulu Selangor were won by BN.
If all of the voters who voted for the BN at the state level also voted for the then MIC candidate, G Palanivel, at the parliamentary level, BN would have won 55% of the vote. Because of split voting, BN obtained approximately 3,300 fewer votes at the parliamentary level compared to the state level and subsequently lost this parliamentary seat by a mere 198 votes.
It is not unusual to observe split voting during Malaysian elections. Penang Chinese voters have long established the practice of voting for the DAP at the parliamentary level while giving their vote to BN at the state level. That is, until the last general election.
Split voting among the Malay voters was also observed in the 2004 general election in Kelantan when more votes went to the BN at the parliamentary compared to the state level, the reverse of the practice in Penang.
azlanMalay voters also tend to split their votes when a Malay opposition candidate is fielded against a non-Malay BN candidate. This effect is usually more noticeable, not surprisingly, in Malay-majority constituencies.
The Malay voter split voting factor explained why PKR decided to field a Malay candidate in the Teluk Kemang by-election in 2001.
In cases such as the Teluk Kemang by-election, split voting by the Malay voters usually does not hurt the non-Malay BN candidate because of the overwhelming support of the non-Malay voters.
In 2008, however, split voting among the Malay voters coincided with a significant drop in the level of non-Malay BN support, which allowed the PKR candidate to win the Hulu Selangor seat by the narrow margin of 198 votes.
According to my estimates, using polling station returns, the Malay support for BN was approximately 55% while the Chinese and Indian support were 37% and 51% respectively. If the BN could merely prevent the kind of split voting which allowed the PKR candidate to unexpectedly win this parliamentary seat in 2008, it could easily emerge victorious in this by-election.
Zaid to bag bulk of Chinese votes
However, there are a few reasons why I think that it is not realistic to expect that the BN will be able to increase its level of support to that which it enjoyed at the state level in 2008.
Firstly, I anticipate that the level of BN support among the Chinese voters will not increase and may actually take a further dip. While split voting among the Malay voters went against the BN at the parliamentary level, split voting among the Chinese voters, especially in the Chinese-majority polling districts in the Kuala Kubu Bahru state constituency, actually favoured the BN at the parliamentary level.
NONEThis was because more Chinese voters, such as those in the 82% Chinese Kampung Bahru Cina KKB polling station, voted for the DAP candidate at the state level compared to the PKR candidate at the parliamentary level.
In this particular polling station, the differential between the parliament and state returns was 11% in favour of the BN at the parliamentary level.
It is not altogether inconceivable that Pakatan, with the full participation of the DAP, would be able to convince a majority of this 11% to switch their support to Zaid Ibrahim. Zaid’s reputation as a progressive and as someone who has spoken out in favour of reforming the NEP will no doubt make the job of convincing more Chinese voters to support him a much easier one.
Furthermore, the leadership conflicts within the MCA, which do not seem to be fully resolved, make it very unlikely that the MCA can effectively campaign to swing the Chinese vote back in favour of BN. In fact, the opposite is likely to occur.
NONESecondly, I do not anticipate a significant swing back to the BN among the Indian voters. Much of this has to do with the candidate selection process involving the back and forth featuring MIC’s S Samy Vellu and his deputy and former Hulu Selangor incumbent, G Palanivel, on one side and the Umno leadership, on the other side.
While the president of BN – the prime minister and Umno president – has the final say over the chosen candidate, it is an unspoken convention that the president of the respective component party, in this case MIC, should be allowed to field his preferred candidate.
BN to bank on Najib’s popularity
Palanivel, given his position as the former incumbent and as the deputy president of MIC, should have been fielded, especially since Samy Vellu had forcefully insisted, even up to the 11th hour, that Palanivel should be the MIC candidate. Samy played a dangerous game of chicken by threatening an implicit boycott when he marshaled his forces behind the candidacy of Palanivel.
NONEWhen Palanivel was dropped in favour of Kamalanathan, Samy had to do a quick U-turn to show that he was willing to support the new candidate. But the well has already been poisoned.
Samy not only showed himself to be powerless to fend off interference by Umno in the candidate selection process, his forceful and ultimately unsuccessful defense of Palanivel’s candidacy has probably resulted in the demoralisation of many of the grassroot MIC members.
Even if Palanivel is promised a senatorship and a deputy minister position, one cannot help but wonder if he and his supporters will be willing to campaign all out for the new MIC candidate, especially if the new kid on the block can threaten Palanivel’s own position within MIC if he wins this by-election.
NONEBy reducing the status of MIC’s president and deputy, BN has left itself in the precarious position of relying solely on the popularity of Najib to win back the Indian vote and at the same time, hoping that there will not be a backlash against the new MIC candidate because he has been seemingly ‘parachuted’ into Hulu Selangor at Umno’s behest.
While the salience of the Hindraf factor has certainly declined since the 2008 elections, it is hard for me to envision a significant increase in the level of Indian support for BN, especially given the confusion and animosity generated as a result of the candidate selection process within the BN.
All this only provides more campaigning fodder for Pakatan to use. Zaid’s position among the Indian voters is likely to be strengthened given that there is no other prominent Indian candidate contesting either as an independent or a third party candidate.
Incentives for Malays not to vote BN
The BN is most likely to benefit from an increase in its support among the Malay voters in Hulu Selangor. Zaid’s position on the NEP can and no doubt will be used against him in the Malay-majority polling stations.
The by-elections in Bukit Gantang and Permatang Pasir showed a small but noticeable increase in the level of Malay support for BN, probably because of the transition from Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to Najib and also because of a certain degree of discomfort over the power and positions held by the non-Malay leaders in Pakatan.
NONEBut I am willing to hazard a guess that the electoral incentives for not voting for the BN candidate will likely outweigh the benefits of supporting the BN candidate thereby limiting the potential BN gain among the Malay voters.
What prompts me to have this conjecture? Again, I turn to the candidate selection process. Right from the beginning, certain leaders within Umno, including many from within the Hulu Selangor division, were already voicing their opinion that this seat should be given to Umno to contest.
I am of the opinion that an Umno candidate would have stood a much better chance of winning this seat compared to an MIC candidate because an Umno candidate would be able to limit the effects of split voting among the Malay voters.
NONEIn fact, if former Batang Kali state assemblyman and former menteri besar, Muhammad Muhammad Taib, would have been the chosen candidate, I am quite sure that he would win this by-election courtesy of his local popularity.
The Umno leaders at the division level, knowing that another MIC loss will likely lead to this seat being given to Umno in the next general election, will have much less incentive to campaign all out for the MIC candidate. After all, why deprive themselves of the chance of being selected as the Umno candidate in the next general election?
Similarly, Umno members would also realise the likely consequences of an MIC loss – that this seat would be given to Umno. Lastly, sophisticated Malay voters who want to see this seat given back to Umno in the next general election, would have greater incentive to vote for the Pakatan candidate (or spoil their votes) rather than to vote for the MIC candidate.
Regardless of the chest thumping and bravado issued by Umno leaders that they will go all out to campaign for BN irrespective of party or candidate, the expectation that an MIC loss will result in this seat being given to Umno has already been set. This way, Umno can benefit regardless of the result.
If BN wins, credit goes to the prime minister for choosing the right candidate and for winning over the hearts and minds of the voters. If BN loses, then blame goes to the MIC, its candidate and its president. And Hulu Selangor can be reclaimed by Umno in the next general election.
Pakatan likely to win
There has been some mention that the higher number of spoilt votes in the 2008 general election will be significantly reduced if the unpopular Palanivel was dropped as a candidate. I want to correct this notion.
The number of spoilt votes in 2008 – 1,466 to be exact – constitutes approximately 3% of total votes, only slightly higher than the 2.2% average in Selangor and only 195 more than the 1,266 spoilt votes at the state level, less than the eventual margin of victory. Hence, I do not expect a decrease in the number of spoilt votes to play a decisive role in this by-election.
NONEFor all the reasons outlined above, I posit that Pakatan should be favoured to win this by-election, despite the problems faced by PKR in the past few months.
They do have a higher profile candidate, one who is likely to receive a higher level of support among the Chinese and probably the Indian voters as well.
The public relations disaster that was the candidate selection process within BN has most likely poisoned the well among the Indian voters. And the underlying electoral calculus, that an MIC loss will result in a future Umno candidacy, will not be lost among Umno leaders and campaigners as well as among the sophisticated Malay voters.
A lot of course can happen in the course of the campaigning period. But perhaps the biggest danger facing Pakatan is the danger of overconfidence and complacency, given its initial political advantage. Pakatan’s biggest enemy in this by-election may just be itself.
ONG KIAN MING holds a PhD in political science from Duke University. He can be reached at [email protected].
Hulu Selangor is Pakatan's to lose