Despite the bombastic rhetoric by Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi — who is facing corruption charges in court — and his party cohorts — who are also facing corruption charges in court — that the Malays will only vote for Umno, that opposition parties can’t handle a general election during the monsoon period and that they are doomed to lose, they don’t seem entirely convinced.
If they were, they would go into the 15th General Elections (GE15) alone with its small Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in a do-or-die fight. For a long time, Zahid declared that Umno/BN would go into GE15 alone without its former coalition partners Bersatu and PAS. But, yesterday, Zahid gave orders to its cyber troopers to stop attacks on PAS, which can only mean, at the barest minimum, that Umno is now open to working with PAS again and especially as a partner in an expanded BN coalition.
Either Zahid wants to go along with PAS’ notion of a united ummah (Muslim community) or he knows but does not want to publicly admit it for fear of losing Malay votes that he is not confident of en bloc Malay support for Umno/BN in the Umno heartland and need partners to form a government.
The battleground in GE15 will be the Umno heartland where its Malay majority voters will become the kingmakers of GE15. It would do well for all political parties to factor this fact into their election campaign strategies.
The Malay rural heartland is synonymous with the Umno heartland because this is where most of the Malay constituencies are found and which traditionally gave Umno its unassailable majority. Though the number of Malay voters is a minority as the majority have left their rural homes to the urban areas where they are now a majority, the number of parliamentary constituencies there remains the same and advantageous for Umno to defend and hold.
But in GE14 that Umno stronghold broke when former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was able to swing about 10% of the rural Malay vote to Pakatan Harapan (PH) which he led to form the next government. PH lost much of that vote back to Umno in byelections and due to other factors, the PH government fell.
The point, however, is that a 10% swing in rural Malay vote was possible then. Is a 10% or more swing possible in GE15? It is possible on one factor alone — former prime minister Najib Razak’s conviction and incarceration.
In Malaysia, there has been no precedent of a former prime minister being sent to jail. Now, one has and GE15 will show if there will be a fallout that results in a change in the voting patterns of Malay voters who once supported him.
GE15 will prove whether Malay voters in Umno’s traditional stronghold have been convinced of Umno’s culpability and buckle the traditional trend of blindly voting for Umno, or not.
Right up to Umno’s successes in recent elections Najib was still a free man and he could present an image of himself as being still innocent until proven guilty. But, he is now in jail and his fellow cohorts in Umno will find it difficult to sell his innocence to their Malay voter base.
Najib’s jailing and the appeal of Zahid’s recent corruption case will cast doubts on Umno’s narrative that the corruption cases are “politically-motivated”. So, Umno will suffer some loss of votes but the extent of it is what GE15 will show and will be of concern to political parties.
Where will Umno’s loss of votes go to? There are only two other parties that can offer any challenge to Umno in its stronghold, namely Bersatu and the new NGO, Gerakan Tanah Air (GTA), led by Mahathir’s new party Pejuang. Both will pick up some votes. Whatever votes GTA gets will show the level of support it has in the Malay heartland. Against Mahathir, Bersatu is unlikely to win enough votes to gain an advantage over other parties.
Bersatu and PAS, due to their association with Umno and their poor performance in government should also expect a loss of votes, which would turn out to be to GTA’s advantage.
Treating GTA as unproven and irrelevant would be a grave mistake. As events have turned out up to now, GTA is the only untainted organization that can offer Umno a good fight. Umno would want its voter base to believe Bersatu is its threat but it isn’t because against it, Umno is likely to win because it is more experienced. Against GTA, it is harder to predict now.
However, GTA is alone in the fight to defeat Umno. Even if it wins a number of seats it may not be able to form the next government unless opposition parties choose to ally with it. Opposition parties stand to gain much more if they allied with GTA than stand against it.
In the urban areas where opposition parties have solid support, diehard supporters will continue to vote for them. It is the fence-sitters who failed to support them in the recent state elections who need to be wooed. Among them are those who are dead set against any alliance with Mahathir and those who are not.
By allying with GTA, opposition parties stand to lose the support of the anti-Mahathirists but may gain the support of the rest because an alliance with GTA could mean a return to government which opposition supporters may want. The latter strategy holds greater sway over the former because a government with GTA and its allies would mean that Umno will be unable to form the next government.
The strategy for GE15 should be to ensure that Umno does not return to government. An Umno government will hold the nation to ransom to compromise national institutions so that Umno leaders get what they want for themselves as evidenced in the past.
As long as opposition parties keep a distance from GTA, they are communicating to the fence-sitters that they are leaving open the possibility of a tie-up with Umno/BN. They would then lose the support of the non-anti-Mahathirists. Whether the latter is a bigger majority than the anti-Mahathirists is left to be seen but it is a risk that should not be taken because any union with Umno/BN is detrimental to the nation and should be ruled out completely.
A loose tie-up with GTA as an ally, on the other hand, will send a clear signal to voters nationwide that opposition parties are keen to form the next government without the Umno/BN baggage and will present a united front to achieve that objective. That message may appeal to the majority again, including urban and rural voters.
It will certainly give rural Malay voters who wish to abandon Umno the hope that their votes won’t go to waste. That would definitely break Umno’s stronghold in the Malay heartland.
For that to happen, PH must be prepared to give up PKR president Anwar Ibrahim as the next prime minister. Whether with Umno or GTA, Anwar will not be prime minister, that is certain.
In a government with GTA, in the absence of experienced candidates for the prime ministership, Mahathir may be needed, preferably, in an advisory capacity with a prime minister-designate he can work with. Opposition parties need to work that out among themselves.
The conclusion is simply this: Working with GTA will give rural Malay voters a boost to consider a practical and real alternative and give hope to the rest that a non-Umno government can be formed which can only mean more votes for opposition parties. Working against GTA will leave the status quo unchanged, which means woe upon Malaysia!