Commentary: The Chini by-election is the first test for Malaysia’s new coalition government
Despite the absence of Pakatan Harapan, the contest will be a window into the intra-coalition dynamics within Perikatan Nasional, says Kevin Zhang.
SINGAPORE: On Saturday (Jul 4), the ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition government in Malaysia will face its first by-election, in the east coast state of Pahang.
Chini is a rural state constituency in Pahang and a by-election was called with the passing away of the late state assemblyman Abu Bakar Harun.
Mohd Sharim Md Zain will be defending the seat for Barisan Nasional (BN), and will compete against two independent candidates - Tengku Zainul Hisham Tengku Hussin and Mohd Shukri Mohd Ramli. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak is expected to campaign actively for BN since Chini is one of the four state constituencies which falls under his Pekan parliamentary seat.
Ethnic Malays constitute 90 per cent of the electorate in Chini, while the indigenous people (Orang Asli) form the remaining 10 per cent.
COVID-19 LOOMS OVER THE ELECTIONS
The Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition has chosen to stay out of this by-election ostensibly due to the health risks posed by COVID-19.
Malaysia remains under the Recovery Movement Control Order until Aug 31 and the Election Commission has issued a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the SOP requires party activists to practise social distancing which has curtailed large-scale rallies, candidates are expected to conduct door-to-door campaigns with social media to complement their outreach.
The Chini by-election will serve as a benchmark should Malaysia decide to conduct a general election during the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing as that there is no clear end in sight to the pandemic yet and providing that no COVID-19 cluster develops in the constituency during the campaign period.
IS ALL WELL IN THE PN HOUSE?
Despite the absence of PH, the contest at Chini still deserves attention since it serves as a valuable window into the intra-coalition dynamics within Perikatan Nasional.
The PN is a coalition between Malaysia’s three Malay-based parties – the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM) - together with three Members of Parliament from BN’s non-Malay component parties – the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress - and a few East Malaysian parties.
The PPBM and UMNO fought bitterly in the 2018 General Election (GE2018) but have recently joined hands, and the upcoming by-election will serve as a litmus test for the PPBM-UMNO collaboration.
Mohd Sharim from UMNO’s Pekan division will contest under the BN banner, while PPBM has chosen to stay out of this contest. Hamzah Zainudin, the PPBM secretary-general, commented on Jun 17 that the PPBM’s machinery will instead campaign and offer “full support” for Mohd Sharim.
Despite his assurances, PPBM’s online campaigns for Mohd Sharim remained relatively sparse during the week leading up to the by-election as evident through the party’s social media accounts.
In addition, the entry of Tengku Zainul Hisham as an independent candidate has confirmed suspicions among PN partners that internal schisms within PPBM are a liability for the coalition even in a minor electoral contest such as a by-election.
Tengku Zainul Hisham was the PPBM’s Pekan deputy division chief before he was sacked for contesting as an independent candidate. Dr Mahathir Mohamad, presently in a feud with Muhyiddin Yassin for the PPBM chairmanship, has endorsed Tengku Zainul Hisham and urged Chini residents to support the independent candidate.
Given the real possibility of snap polls to resolve the PH-PN impasse in the federal parliament, the upcoming by-election serves as an opportune bellwether to determine if PAS supporters will shift their allegiance to a UMNO-BN candidate with the formation of Muafakat Nasional.
Under the Muafakat Nasional alliance in the aftermath of GE2018, the electoral pact between PAS and UMNO consists of both parties supporting a single and mutually agreed upon candidate per constituency. PAS and UMNO have been arch-rivals for decades, and it remains uncertain if PAS supporters will set aside their differing political and, to a certain degree, religious inclinations to support a UMNO-BN candidate in their constituency.
All of the 10 by-elections since GE2018 occurred in constituencies where PAS supporters constituted a minor share of the overall electorate. This was illustrated in the GE2018 results where PAS candidates in these constituencies garnered between six to 15 per cent of the overall votes.
Therefore, it was unclear if the five by-election victories which BN achieved since January 2019 were due to support from PAS voters or other factors.
PAS however commands substantial support in Chini – similar to other constituencies in the Peninsula’s East Coast – attaining 33 per cent of vote share in the GE2018.
PH, in contrast, received a paltry 6 per cent, with the remaining 61 per cent going to BN.
Should voting preferences in Chini remain the same as they were in GE2018, coupled with a shift in allegiance among PAS supporters, BN candidate Mohd Sharim should reap a handsome overall vote share – with 90 per cent not an impossible target.
However, if the two independent candidates collectively reap more than 30 per cent of the overall vote share, the results may serve as an indicator that the collaboration between PAS and UMNO is not well received among PAS grassroots and supporters.
CHINI RESIDENTS CONCERNED OVER BASIC NEEDS
As for the Chini electorate, job opportunities and public infrastructure remain their top concerns.
Palm oil prices have not recovered from their 2012 peak. With the majority of Chini’s population residing in Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) settlements and dependent on oil palm earnings for their livelihood, job opportunities outside of the plantation sector are relatively limited.
Malaysian Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced on Jun 28 that the Defence Ministry will construct an arms excellence centre costing RM60 million (US$14 million) in Chini.
It is expected that Chini residents will have greater job opportunities when the military complex begins operations.
Public infrastructure, in particular water supply, is a long-standing problem in Chini. The majority of Chini residents are dependent on the Chini Lake for piped water.
However, the catchment area surrounding the lake has shrunk in the past decade due to logging, with Chini residents facing water shortages during droughts.
The Pahang Chief Minister Wan Rosdy Wan Ismail announced on Jun 13 that a river storage reservoir costing RM18 million will be constructed at Chini to resolve water woes.
The Chini by-election will not alter the power balance in the Pahang state assembly, where 32 out of 42 seats are held by PN.
Nonetheless, this Saturday’s contest will reveal much about intra-coalition dynamics within the ruling PN government.
Kevin Zhang is Research Associate at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Malaysia Studies Programme.