Three takeaways from the Balakong and Seri Setia by-elections

Ida Lim
Pakatan Harapan’s Wong Siew Ki celebrates her victory at the Balakong by-election at Pejabat Tanah dan Daerah Hulu Langat, Bangi September 8, 2018. ― Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 9 ― Pakatan Harapan (PH) last night emerged as the winner in the two Selangor state seats that it was defending simultaneously in straight fights against rivals MCA and PAS.

But what do the Seri Setia and Balakong by-elections ― the second and third in just four months after GE14 ― tell us?

Malay Mail takes a quick look at three key things:

1. New record for low turnout

Despite being held on a weekend, the twin by-elections for the Seri Setia and Balakong seat both failed to garner voter attention and hit a glaring historic low turnout rate of just 44 per cent and 43 per cent.

This is markedly different from the 14th general election, where the Election Commission's decision to fix polling day in the middle of the week actually spurred upset voters to turn out in droves despite the inconvenience for those working.

A high turnout of 82.32 per cent was recorded then for the polls that would determine who helms the federal government and state governments.

It makes one wonder if Malaysians can stomach another by-election in the very near future, where one of the PKR MPs are speculated to be giving up the seat he or she won for Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to contest. Or might those circumstances be different?

Datuk Seri Syed Arabi Idid, a professor at the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM), pointed out that it was the holiday period and also cited voter fatigue for the low turnout.

“To the voter, whoever wins won't have any effect on the state government,” he told Malay Mail, adding that the low voter-turnout and it being early days of PH in power means that these by-election results shouldn't be read too deeply into.

The by-elections fell on the long weekend as the coming Monday and Tuesday are holidays, while Selangor is firmly under PH rule with the coalition winning 51 out of 56 seats there unlike some other states where a seat or two could change the balance of power.

Ibrahim Suffian of independent pollster Merdeka Center said the turnout among non-Malay voters for both seats were very low, which he told Malay Mail indicated that “many didn't see the elections as very important as it didn't change anything”.

He also observed that anecdotes suggest younger voters stayed away while the older ones took the trouble to vote.

2. Of lone rangers

In the Balakong by-election, DAP's Wong Siew Ki won 22,508 votes in the Chinese majority seat with a 18,533 vote majority against Tan Chee Teong (3,975 votes) of MCA.

Wong's predecessor Eddie Ng won 41,768 votes with a majority of 35,538 votes in a three corner fight with PAS (6,230) and MCA (5,874).

Oh Ei Sun, principal adviser of the Pacific Research Center, said “MCA did not gain advantage by using its own logo.” He said the “gimmick” could not hide the fact that MCA still works closely with Umno and even PAS.

Pakatan Harapan’s Seri Setia by-election candidate, Halimey Abu Bakar, celebrates after winning the by-election in Dewan Sivik MBPJ, Petaling Jaya, September 9, 2018. ― Picture by Hari Anggara

Syed Arabi said MCA had tried out contesting under its own logo, but believed that it still needs BN and the help of other parties.

“On their own, I don't think they can march on...This is a good trial run for them, they thought they will be able to capture more Chinese votes but they don't have the machinery. If they had stood under the BN logo, Umno will help, MIC will help,” he said.

3. Is the PAS-Umno formula a winning combination?

But perhaps the Malay-majority seat Seri Setia was the most closely-watched, with PAS cheering despite losing to PKR's Halimey Abu Bakar as it improved on its GE14 performance to win 9,698 votes. Halimey won 13,725 votes and by a vote majority of 4,027.

Back in GE14, PKR’s Prof Shaharuddin Badaruddin had a 19,372 vote majority as he won 29,250 votes in a four-corner fight against PAS (4,563), Umno (9,878) and an independent candidate (217).

But Oh said support for PH in Seri Setia has actually increased proportionately, noting that PH retained its vote majority of around 4,000 in both GE14 and the by-election despite the latter's lower turnout.

“PAS-Umno cooperation actually turns away more voters proportionately as compared to GE14,” he said. “I think urban and suburban Umno voters are not necessarily supportive of PAS.”

“I think the results reaffirmed PH’s continued popularity among urban and suburban electorate four months into their rule... Voters still place trust in PH. They are apparently satisfied with PH’s 10 years rule in Selangor and four months federally,” he said of the twin by-elections' results.

Other analysts that Malay Mail spoke to indicate that the PAS-Umno partnership appears to have worked to a certain extent.

Merdeka Center's Ibrahim said a preliminary assessment suggested that PAS appeared to have garnered a majority of the Malay votes, although not all Malay supporters of BN came out in support of PAS as mirrored in PAS supporters' response in the recent Sungai Kandis by-election.

“Despite this, the PAS-Umno cooperation has the potential to change outcomes in more Malay-majority seats, particularly those with more than 70 per cent Malay voters,” he said.

The message seems to be that PH cannot rest easy when it comes to Malay votes, with Ibrahim saying that the ruling coalition cannot delay too long on delivering its promised reforms and that PH's inexperienced Cabinet members have to quickly master the situation despite the steep learning curve.

“With the advent of the Sales and Service Tax (SST) and slowing economic growth, it could face a pushback from the B40 voters, which is predominantly Malay,” he said.

Syed Arabi observed that PAS and Umno leaders’ championing of Malay issues such as race, religion and cost of living enabled them to get more Malays to vote against Pakatan, but said PH could garner more Malay votes if it championed the same issue. He said PH’s alleged neglect of the living conditions of the low-income groups in Seri Setia may also have caused PH to lose some Malay votes.

“At this point in time, it’s a good sign to PAS and Umno, if they cooperate, then they will get more votes,” he said of PAS’s own increased tally of votes.

Ilham Centre's acting CEO Azlan Zainal said the Umno-PAS cooperation and strategy of a straight fight in Seri Setia against PH had resulted in their increased share of the Malay votes, but said it was insufficient to defeat PH.

He also noted the irony where Seri Setia's Umno voters showed readiness to vote for a PAS candidate, while PAS voters allegedly did not show the same level of support to the Umno candidate in the Sungai Kandis by-election.

Predicting that the 15th general election will revolve around the contest for Malay votes, Azlan said: “The Umno-PAS partnership in the by-election this time successfully showed a shift in votes of eight per cent to PAS. This proves that Malay votes for PH had suffered and it is 'fragile' in nature.”

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