GE13 SPECIAL Well, the dates have finally been set and Malaysia heads towards the most competitive electoral contest in the nation's history. It is important to step back and look at how and why GE13 is competitive.
The broad reason is clear: this election offers the possibility of an electoral transition of power. More power is in the hands of ordinary Malaysians than ever before. The underlying dynamics that might make this change happen however, are more obscure.
This article - as part of a special series of pieces on the polls - maps the contest nationally and draws attention to fundamental shifts that are making the May polls historic, whatever the outcome.
The grey seats
The fierceness of the contest is evident in the numbers of seats that are "grey" - seats that can go either way.
Looking at a combination of factors in individual seats, the patterns of margin of victory and history of vote swing, the changing number and composition of voters, the candidate choices and infighting as well as macro national and state shifts in voting behaviour drawn from my fieldwork, I currently estimate that 42 percent of the parliamentary seats nationally are ‘grey'.
The BN can securely hold onto 32 percent of the total of 222 seats, while the opposition has the other 26 percent in the bag. We are looking at a contest where the results cannot be predicted with certainty and where multiple factors will affect the results in the remaining 23 days before polling. The situation is indeed fluid, and either side can win power.
There are two important observations to make about these grey seats. The first is that many of the seats for the opposition are not secure, especially in places such as Perak, Kedah and to a lesser extent, Selangor.
The reasons have to do with the fact that many of the opposition victories were with slim margins in 2008, such as Sibu and Sungai Siput . The other decisive factor is that opposition seats disproportionately have a large number of new and postal voters, some of these in questionable proportions.
The classic example is Lembah Pantai , a parliamentary constituency in Kuala Lumpur of 72,000 voters - it has a whopping 18,000 new voters.
The second and perhaps most important observation is that over the past few years the overwhelming majority of grey seats have come from the BN base, including that of Umno.
As Najib Razak waited (and waited) to call the polls, he has unwittingly increased the electoral competitiveness and given the opposition more chances to gain seats. Indeed, he is facing a case of diminishing returns.
Had Najib opted to hold the election in November 2011, he would have walked into a more favourable environment. Now, he and the BN coalition face serious fights everywhere.
New frontiers, old stomping grounds
Make no bones about it, the BN holds a structural advantage in these polls. This advantage is shaped by incumbency, the unevenness of the electoral field, legitimate concerns about electoral irregularities and dominance of state resources, especially money.
How much of an advantage these are will be determined in the days ahead. What distinguishes GE13 from earlier polls however, is the broadening of the national contest, outside of the traditional competitive areas.
The distribution of these ‘grey' seats varies across the country, as shown in the table below. More than a third of the competitive seats are in the ‘fixed deposit' states - Sarawak, Johor and Sabah. The latter has mistakenly been categorised as secure for the BN, but has a history of risk-taking and voting for alternatives.
What makes this campaign interesting in Sabah, among the many factors at play, is that at question is whether Sabahans will continue to accept the means the incumbent government has chosen to keep Sabah in their political orbit, the dominance of Umno and weakening of the voices of non-Malay bumiputera voters and the use of illegal immigrants, money and vote-buying to shore up their position. These issues are very much being tested.
In neighbouring Sarawak, concerns over corruption may be centre stage with the video from Global Witness, but behind the scenes there are increasing concerns with the rights of the Dayaks over land, governance and representation which make the election more open.
Beyond the dynamics in East Malaysia, the increased competitiveness nationally comes in the very seats the BN delineated as its secure seats - seats which are ethnicly mixed. The more mixed they are, the more likely they offer an option for change. The various ethnic groups in Malaysia will now collectively determine the nation's path ahead.
A second observation is that the grey seats are all over the country, including in Najib's home state of Pahang where problems in his own party, differences in the BN coalition over seats and a blossoming environmental movement have redefined loyalties. GE13 is truly about issues, with developments in each state affecting the outcome.
While there are indeed new political frontiers, what happens throughout Malaysia - including East Malaysia - will determine the results on May 5. Keep in mind we are talking about 35 seats changing hands for a new government. In other words, this involves a change of around 15 percent of Parliament and an average change in support of less than 10 percent nationally.
These gains are difficult given the constraints in the electoral process and sharp battle lines, but not completely outside the realm of the possible.
Redefined state-federal relations
The battleground is not just at the federal level. Of the 12 states going to the polls, seven of these could go either way. They are Kedah, Perlis, Negri Sembilan, Sabah, Selangor, Terengganu and Perak.
While the majority of these tilt toward BN, such as Terengganu, dynamics at the state level are fluid and changing. The BN has a chance of winning two states back - Kedah and Selangor - but at the same time, it is facing a possible loss of nine state governments. The balance of power in state governments has the potential to shift.
Whatever the result, there is a reality of increasing decentralisation of power. Since 2008, there has been more power in the hands of state governments. In Penang and Selangor, leaders have adopted new policy frameworks and individual states have been working to promote investment and growth through state government-led initiatives.
This election is a test of whether this trend will continue. Given the promises of greater resources to be placed in the power of individual states, in the promise of oil revenue for example, this election will set the course for further greater decision-making at the state level.
For ordinary voters, this means that the votes they cast for state assemblies are potentially as transformative as those at the national level.
The prospects of change underscore these polls. The words ‘transformation' and ‘change' are also framing this election.
Najib has systematically worked to cast his non-mandated government as one that offers the greater possibility of a different Malaysia. The irony in this messaging is stark, as a person who has been in the system for nearly 40 years keeps casting himself as an agent of change.
He has placed a high premium on voters to judge his mixed record of four years in office as ‘reform' and at the same time accepting the idea that change can come from within the system.
The reason Najib has opted for this route is that he knows that the underlying driver in the last three elections has been the call for reform and a desire for a better Malaysia. This is high risk political messaging in that is assumes that voters can distinguish Najib from the system he has been an integral part of.
The opposition for its part has the ‘change' momentum, but faces the challenge of clarifying what the reforms they will bring and whether they can work together to get them done.
Their biggest obstacle, however, is winning over those who are cautious about change and convincing voters to invest in a new path for the nation. As the election campaigning proceeds, the battle over ‘change' will only intensify, and the numbers in the table above will shift.
Malaysians will ultimately decide the chances for change, but the political landscape shows that change is already shaping the campaign.
DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University. She is travelling around Malaysia to provide her GE13 analyses exclusively to Malaysiakini . Bridget can be reached at [email protected] .