Despite its shock defeat in the 2018 general election, UMNO may win next month’s national polls because with a fragmented opposition, the majority Malay community believes it is the only party that can safeguard its interests as a recession looms, experts say.
Pakatan Harapan, the opposition coalition which defeated the United Malays National Organization in the election four years ago, led a short-lived government and suffers from a trust deficit among the conservative Malay voters, according to analyst Oh Ei Sun.
“I think the popular sentiments toward Pakatan are a mixture of resentment and resignation, largely along communal lines,” Oh, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIAA), told BenarNews.
“The majority of Malay voters are largely resentful of the more multicultural outlook of Pakatan, such as appointments of more non-Malays to senior positions. Many of them thus revert to voting for UMNO which they see as more protective of their special positions and privileges,” he said, referring to the ethnic Malay majority, which is largely Muslim and comprises nearly 70 percent of the 30.2 million population.
For instance, under the Pakatan administration, Malaysia saw the appointment of Democratic Action Party (DAP) leader Lim Guan Eng as the country’s first non-Malay finance minister in 44 years. Lim’s appointment, from a party UMNO had labeled anti-Malay, did not sit well with many conservative Malays.
Besides, the collapse of the Pakatan government due to infighting only 22 months into after its historic win had led to a long period of political uncertainty. Malaysia for the first time saw three prime ministers during a single parliamentary term.
Based on that experience, the electorate might see the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional coalition as a safer choice during an economic downturn, said Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, a think-tank.
“On the surface, the fragmented opposition does lend Barisan an advantage,” he told BenarNews.
On Nov. 19, around 21 million eligible Malaysian voters will get a chance to elect a new government. For the first time, voters aged 18-20 – some 5 million of them – will be eligible to cast their ballots.
In 2018, Malaysians voted decisively to remove UMNO from power, but because the coalition they elected fell, it was succeeded by two unelected governments.
With the upcoming election, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob had said “the mandate will be returned to the people.”
This time around the opposition is not united, unlike four years ago when the 1MDB financial scandal brought together a diverse set of opposition leaders under the Pakatan umbrella. Pakatan in 2018 included the Bersatu party, led at the time by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
On Nov. 19, two registered opposition blocs and one unofficial opposition coalition will be vying against the main UMNO-led Barisan Nasional coalition in the country’s 15th general election.
The coalitions are Pakatan, led by Anwar Ibrahim; Perikatan Nasional, led by former PM and current Bersatu party leader Muhyiddin Yassin; and the unofficial coalition Gerakan Tanah Air, led by the indefatigable former PM Mahathir, now 97.
Oh, the political analyst, said the votes for the opposition would be split in a multi-cornered contest, like they were in the state election in Johor early this year that saw UMNO-Barisan return to power.
“If the opposition coalitions are contesting their respective candidates in the same constituencies, the votes for the opposition will inevitably be split. Thus, in closely contested seats, UMNO would hold the advantage,” he said.
Ibrahim of the Merdeka Center agreed, although he forecast Barisan’s vote share declining if some Malay voters opted for the Malay-centric Perikatan headed by Muhyiddin. His party has partnered with the conservative Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS.
“Should Perikatan make inroads among younger Malay voters, they could reduce Barisan’s vote share,” Ibrahim said.
After all, in the last general election, Bersatu, then led by Mahathir, had contributed some 25 percent of the Malay vote – which helped Pakatan defeat UMNO-Barisan.
For the same reason, Pakatan will be a disadvantage this time, Ibrahim said, because the Anwar-led coalition may have lost some Malay support after Bersatu quit the coalition.
Oh added that the minority non-Malays are basically resigned to there likely never again being a multicultural government in Malaysia after the Pakatan administration collapsed in 2020.
“Many of them are thus reluctant to even come out to vote,” he said, adding that a low voter turnout, like in Johor early this year, would also benefit UMNO, which has the grassroots machinery to ensure its supporters come out in force to vote.
Based on these factors, Oh said UMNO is likely to win the most number of seats out of the 222 contested, and thus be in a position to form the next government.
James Chin, a professor of Asian Studies with University of Tasmania, said he saw a Malay party winning the next election.
“I predict that there will be a dominant Malay party emerging from this election,” he told BenarNews.
“Mostly from rural Malay voters.”
‘Focusing on economic stability’
Furthermore, UMNO’s policy of providing short-term economic solutions, such as direct cash aid, instead of longer-term reform, is more attractive to voters in developing countries such as Malaysia in times of economic hardship, Oh said.
“In more developed countries, when there is an ongoing or impending recession, the electorate would typically opt for a new government in hope of having a new set of economic policies to revive the economy,” Oh said.
“In a developing country, however, the electorate is typically already experiencing serious socioeconomic hardship, and would actually be more prone to short-term solutions such as material handouts as offered by UMNO, as opposed to much-needed but more long-term reforms as offered by Pakatan which might incur short-term pains,” he added.
For the 2023 budget, which was presented days before the parliament was dissolved to make way for the election, the UMNO-led government had allocated 372.3 billion ringgit (U.S. $79 billion), including tax cuts and direct cash aid for lower income households. Unlike last year, the government expanded cash aid to cater to more income groups.
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri of UMNO is making sure to push this point to the electorate, saying he will make sure the budget is implemented if he is given a mandate to return as the country’s prime minister.
Awang Azman Awang Pawi, a political analyst with Universiti Malay, said UMNO will seize on this point in its campaigning as well.
“UMNO is very confident in its campaign to regain the people’s mandate by focusing on economic stability and prosperity, amidst the fear of economic recession next year,” he said.
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