The June by-elections and the politics of losing

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The by-election results for Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar are in. Umno held onto their seats, and increased its majorities.

Given the tragedy surrounding the polls stemming from the helicopter accident in Sarawak last month, the fact that by-elections disproportionately favour those with access to resources, and the reality that these contests were three-cornered fights with a divided opposition, these results are not unexpected.

The important implications of these by-elections lies less in the winning, but in the losing - as the shifts in campaigning, voting and political alignments reveal that old dreams are gone. Malaysian electoral politics is shifting, and all indications are that the direction is not toward a stronger, more vibrant polity that offers meaningful choices to the electorate.

Declining engagement

At this marker before the next general election, it is important to identity key trends. Importantly, voters are not engaging as in the past. This is evident in the decline in voter turnout. Malaysians are tired of the politicking and turning away from elections.

The drop in voter turnout from 2013 was a whopping 14 percent in Sungai Besar and 13 percent in Kuala Kangsar respectively. Importantly voter turnout levels were also a drop from 2008. What is even more revealing is the decline in voter registration more broadly, especially among younger Malaysians.

Voters are disappointed with the options provided and tired of a political contest that appears to be about the fight for power rather than the fight for representation. Voter disengagement advantages incumbents, as shown in the by-elections results, and this unhealthy trend reinforces the sense of disempowerment that has deepened with the governance scandals over the last year.

Both campaigns were devoid of any meaningful new messages. They were not about any real reform or policies that help Malaysians. Neither side had anything substantive or new to offer the electorate. Instead the campaign was about fighting enemies, be they Mahathir Mohamad, Najib Abdul Razak or Abdul Hadi Awang.

Battles over personalities dominated over the concerns of ordinary people as the past featured more than the future. If there was any issue that stood out, it was hudud, which was carefully placed by Umno to serve as a distraction to reinforce opposition splits, fears and insecurities - emotions that favour the incumbent.

Umno’s use of race and religion for campaigning is not new. This issue however became less about hudud than about the person who introduced the hudud bill, namely Hadi, as here too the election became about old strategies rather than new ones. The overall shallowness of the campaign speaks to the fatigue in the political system and the widening deficit of new ideas and leadership for moving the country forward.

To fill the vacuum, both sides turned to relying on resources and patronage in campaigning. Buying votes has now become the norm for the BN, especially in by-elections. Yet, the crass exchange of funds for votes was so blatant that it set a new low standard of vote-buying. The Electoral Commission seemed to endorse this practice.

While the BN may relish in their victory, this practice will be difficult to replicate on a national scale, especially given the rising debt and fiscal constraints tied to the economic mismanagement of the Najib administration. This mode is not viable to win GE14.

The opposition on its part has joined the goodie game. In an ‘if you can’t beat, then join them’ dynamic, Pakatan Harapan parties handed out rice and other sundries. The use of state funds (or rather people’s funds) were similarly used to woo electoral support, feeding the practice that elections are about what you get materially in the short term rather than in the long term.

The opposition has adopted a campaign tactic it will always lose, not only for the fact that they do not have the funds to be competitive, but more for the reality that it undercuts the opposition from any advantage they have to fall back on principles. For every bag of rice they distribute, they undercut all criticisms of an unfair electoral process. They are becoming what they said they were fighting against...

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