October 4, 2022

Swing time in the northern state

5 min read

THE conventional wisdom in Kedah before GE14 was that Umno would win the northern state comfortably.

The belief was that the ruling coalition (especially Umno) would win big in Kedah because of the three-cornered fight between Barisan, Pakatan Harapan and PAS. The perception was that PAS would split the opposition votes, benefitting Barisan.

In GE14, Barisan fell in Kedah. It failed to retain the state government. Umno won three state seats out of 36. Pakatan Harapan won 18 seats (PKR eight, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia five, Amanah three and DAP two) and PAS 15 seats.

The result triggered a hung assembly as no party possessed the minimum of 19 seats to form a minority government. Subsequently, Pakatan formed the state government with Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir as Mentri Besar.

Out of the 15 parliamentary seats, BN won two, Pakatan 10 (PKR six, Bersatu three and Amanah one) and PAS three.

It was its worst performance in Kedah’s electoral history.

I’ve visited Kedah at least four times before GE14 to get an understanding of politics in a state which is Malay-dominated. The 2.15 million population consists of Malays 79.31%, Chinese 13.26% and the rest Indians, Siamese and other ethnic groups.

Out of all the contacts I met to get a sense of Kedah politics, the one that I found hard to believe was Kedah PAS leader. He told me that based on his party’s survey, PAS could win the back the state that it governed after GE12.

What he said was unbelievable as Kedah PAS was weakened with internal infighting and the formation of a splinter group, Amanah.

With PAS winning 15 out of the 38 state seats, he got it right.

It was interesting to read the Kedah chapter in Malaysia’ 14th General Election and Umno’s Fall by Edmund Terence Gomez and Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman. Universiti Utara Malaysia political lecturer Prof Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani wrote on parties versus personalities in Kedah politics.

Mohd Azizuddin’s writing gives an insight into the factors that led to the fall of Barisan in Kedah.

He wrote that Barisan’s strategy to win through three-cornered fights was wrong.

“The perception was that in a three-cornered fight, PAS would split the opposition votes, which will benefit BN. However, this strategy was, in fact, beneficial to PAS rather than BN and the party won seats in both rural and semi-urban areas by stressing the issues of Islam and hudud, ” he wrote.

State PAS commissioner Ahmad Fakhruddin noted that PAS was stronger than it was in previous election and this, he said, meant that the party was not worried with (Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s) constant visits to the state to garner support.

The success of PAS, and even Pakatan, according to Mohd Azizuddin, was not only because of their own strength but also because of protest votes against Barisan.

“Besides, BN’s failure to address many national issues, including scandals involving government enterprises such as 1MDB and Felda, lost it much Malay support, ” he wrote.

The political lecturer also argued that that Barisan poorly performed because of Umno internal party infighting especially on selection of candidates and its members were silently supported Bersatu and Pakatan.

“Many Umno members were quietly supporting PH, partly because of disappointment with BN’s character assassination of Mahathir and the removal of Mukhriz as Mentri Besar in 2016. The huge support for Mahathir in Langkawi and the success of Mukhriz in Jerlun (parliamentary seat) and Jitra (state seat) were clear examples that Umno members decided to vote for PH, ” he wrote.

Barisan nominated 18 new faces and retained 33 incumbents in Kedah. It thought that this would help it to maintain stability within Umno.

“Unfortunately, this backfired on BN. Many BN leaders, such as Umno division heads of Sungai Petani, Pokok Sena and Pendang, were disappointed that they were not nominated as candidates. These warlords sabotaged the fielded Umno candidates to ensure that the latter would lose and not pose a threat to their own position in Umno, ” wrote Mohd Azizuddin.

In my Kedah trips, I’ve met some of these Umno warlords. They had an inkling that they would be dropped as a candidate and without mincing their words, they threatened that Umno would lose the seat if they were not fielded.

Some saw themselves as the then Umno president Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s men and they were eyeing to bring down the then Kedah Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Ahmad Bashah Md Hanipah after GE14. It was clear the self-interest triumphed over party interest in their political struggle.

Mohd Azizuddin observed that internal sabotage caused Barisan to lost parliamentary seats such as Jerai, Pendang, Merbok, Sik, Kuala Kedah and Kulim-Bandar Baharu.

I asked him on the impact of Muafakat Nasional (PAS and Umno uniting) in GE15. He said that the political convention was that in a straight fight between Muafakat Nasional and Pakatan, the PAS/Umno combination could win if they collaborate solidly.

“But the problem is with the notion is they might be making the same mistake – BN thinking that PAS will split opposition votes in a three-cornered fight. But there is no guarantee that Muafakat Nasional can win against Pakatan, ” he said.

Pakatan, the political lecturer noted, was a shaky government as if there was a by-election it could fall. But if nothing happens until GE15, he believed that Pakatan would be solid as it was the incumbent government.

“They know which seats they are weak, for example, in rural areas. In GE14, it did not have the machinery to penetrate these areas. Now they are slowly entering the rural areas and fighting for issues concerning rubber planters and smallholders, ” he said.

Mohd Azizuddin also said the issue of candidacy would also affect Muafakat Nasional.

“If there is infighting between PAS and Umno over the candidate, those who are not happy might protest and vote for PH.”

He also said there was a rivalry with between Bersatu and PKR in Kedah Pakatan.

“If (Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim) becomes PM, there will be a strong call for PKR to lead the state as it has the most assemblymen, ” he said.

The current political convention on Kedah, according to the political lecturer, is it is a swing state. Kedahans, he noted were adept in using the ballot box to decide on the political coalition that best serves their interest.