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The mystery of the Malay vote in GE15

In this electoral race, it seems that no candidate is emerging as the clear winner.

Sophie Lemière
6 minute read
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Sophie Lemière

Sophie is a political anthropologist and a former fellow at international institutions including Harvard and Stanford University. Founder of KL-based political consulting firm SoCo and editor of book series and blog "Malaysian Politics and People", she holds a master's and PhD in comparative politics and a master's in geopolitics.

For over six decades, Umno has claimed to be the righteous defender of Malay interests. Umno, and Islamist party PAS, are the country's oldest political entities, having been around since Malaysia's independence.

For those reasons, to this day, the two parties have the strongest base in rural Malaysia; in every little kampung we can see the party flag of one or the other raised at the top of the house that serves as their local branch. 

For the same reason, these two parties have some of the strongest party machineries. PAS is also known for its fierce and well-organised security unit, Amal PAS, that proved extremely useful in supporting the rallies of Bersih, the movement for free and fair elections, and other anti-government rallies, until PAS joined forces with Umno in 2019. 

In 2018, for the second time in their history, PAS and Umno joined hands in a pact called Muafakat Nasional against Pakatan Harapan (PH) that took, and shook, power that same year. However, only two years later, PAS came to another agreement, and made another pact, to form the government together with Bersatu in 2020. 

Nonetheless, the same move that saw Bersatu under the leadership of Muyhiddin Yassin accessing the highest post also forced the creation of a new Malay party, Pejuang. 

Pejuang was formed by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the former Umno icon who resigned from the party in 2015 to form Bersatu in 2016, taking power as part of PH in 2018. He finally resigned from his prime minister position in 2020. 

Today, the bipolarity of the Malay political scene is long gone. No fewer than five possible Malay prime minister candidates – Anwar Ibrahim, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, Mahathir, Muyhiddin, and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi – three Malay-led coalitions – Barisan Nasional (BN), Gerakan Tanah Air (GTA), and Perikatan Nasional (PN) – and four major Malay parties – Bersatu, PAS, Pejuang, and Umno – are fighting it out in this general election.

Confused? Well, you are not the only one. On the eve of the 15th general election, political confidence and solid forecasts have vanished, crushed by the fragmentation of Malay parties. How will this fragmentation translate in terms of votes? 

For perhaps the first time in Malaysia's political history, observers and candidates are playing in a foggy field. The Malay vote appears to have returned to silence; no one seems to know where the voice of the majority will go. 

The wave of new voters is often misinterpreted. Of some six million new voters, 60% are Malays. While those aged 18 to 21 might want to see change and look for candidates whose messages echo the concerns of their generation, most young voters in their mid-20s to mid-30s remain quite conservative – this is true across ethnic lines. 

The RM2.6 billion question of the moment is predicting Malay political behaviour, specifically where the younger Malay votes will go, if only these voters turn out to vote. The Malays are no longer a block that can easily be divided between rural and urban folks; the fragmentation of the political offer has added many layers of complexity.

The young Malay voters have no memories of the old Mahathir days and only associate him with the instability that followed his resignation. Pejuang has not been able to build on the momentum of 2018 in a context where forces are divided. The very contrasted narrative of 2018 – good versus bad, democracy versus corruption, PH versus Umno, Mahathir versus Najib – has faded. 

While corruption remains a concern for many people, the link between corruption and poor governance in general, and economic hardship is often overlooked or misunderstood. As such, the argument loses its impact. 

Mahathir is leading one of the most conservative coalitions of this election, and while the strategy is to attract Umno and PAS' traditional and conservative crowds, GTA might even be a little too conservative. However, Mahathir's game is somewhere else: while the 2018 phenomena will not occur again, Pejuang numbers could come together with another coalition to form the government. 

If Pejuang failed at rising as the direct Malay rival of Umno, Bersatu certainly is. The party had very mixed results during the by-elections, but it survived, and its number one leader proved extreme agility in navigating political intricacies to ensure his political resilience. 

The messages of PN candidates congratulating themselves on the handling of the pandemic come a little late and are rather lightly crafted. The reminiscence of the Covid-19 crisis is a double-edged sword, and perceptions of the PN government's management of the pandemic are mixed. Better and earlier communication and pedagogy on the complexities of the pandemic management would certainly have served the party better. 

While the conservative outlook of the PN leadership might not be very attractive to young voters, it has successfully recruited high-spirited young candidates like Nurul Fadzilah Kamaluddin in Setiawangsa and Sasha Lyna in the super hot seat of Ampang. PN leaders are expecting to attract first-time Malay voters (of all generations) who may be more permeable to PN's anti-corruption yet conservative discourse, and a swing from Umno voters deceived by their party leadership.

Umno divisions are a surprise in this election, and this is negatively impacting the party's chances in tough seats. Umno's factionalism is as old as the party itself and has led to radical turns of history, in 1988 notably. However, in the past, Umno factions always successfully came together during every election. 

This time, the divisions between Zahid and Ismail's factions (unless this one has become the Khairy Jamaluddin faction) are widening by the day. The purge led by Zahid to sideline Ismail's supporters and former members of the PN-Umno government was perceived as an attempt by Zahid to ensure the possibility of him becoming the prime minister instead of Ismail. 

While Ismail keeps trying to persuade his base, and himself, that he remains the poster boy, Khairy’s recent declaration has added chili to the fire. By renewing his support for Ismail, just a few days after announcing that he wishes to become the prime minister one day (not a surprise), Khairy is attempting to show Umno supporters that he is the shadow of Ismail (unless it is the other way around). 

Also, Khairy is running in the very hot seat of Sungai Buloh, a PKR stronghold where his biggest challenge is to attract PH voters. The only way for Khairy to do this is to appeal to the "Reformasi spirit" by promising to reform Umno together with Ismail. Khairy, the Anwar Ibrahim of Sungai Buloh – who would have thought?

Meanwhile, the one and only Anwar, icon of the Reformasi movement, still bears the stigma of a tainted reputation among Malay voters. In addition, the second wave of purge of his oldest comrades whom he accused of remaining part of the former Mohamed Azmin Ali faction, the sidelining of PSM candidates, and his lukewarm acceptance of Muda, have nurtured the impression that the democratic reformer has drifted further away from his principles. 

The tension between Anwar and his number 2, Rafizi Ramli, and the unveiled intention of the latter to push Anwar into retirement, have added to the pressure. However, in all fairness, Anwar, the forever prime minister-in-waiting, is the only one who does not have to defend his past decisions as prime minister – for the very simple reason that "the wait" never materialised into something more. 

For once, this might play in his favour despite the many strategic mistakes the leader has made over the past few years. Younger voters might be seduced by the leader’s political charms, and others might want to give him a chance to pick up the power where PH abruptly left it. 

In this electoral race, it seems that no candidate is emerging as the clear winner. In the eyes of the Malays, looking for stability and alleviation of economic hardships but also a better future for the generations to come in a context of high social anxiety could lead the electorate to either hold on to their old habits (or their parents’ habits) and keep their allegiances – or swing away. 

As always, to ensure a fair game, we should remain hopeful that most voters will voice their opinions on Saturday. 

All scenarios remain on the table, and Saturday will surely be a very long night of hardcore political negotiations.