The merits of political unity

IN the latest edition of the Economist Magazine, there is a dedicated article on the political resurgence of former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak. The author attributes this resurgence to the failure of the political forces that oppose Najib to come together and find a common purpose.

There is a consensus that Najib is a sublime political force because he knows the game. He has played very well to restore the political fortunes of Umno and Barisan Nasional.

However, part of his success also comes from Pakatan Harapan's policy failures, broken manifesto promises, the breakup of PKR and Bersatu's exit from Pakatan, followed by the

formation of Perikatan Nasional.

After the impressive win for Barisan in Johor, many now ask, can the forces that oppose Umno and Barisan come together again?

And if Pakatan and Perikatan and extras come together - will it mean that Barisan can be defeated?

On paper, the answer is yes. Perikatan and Pakatan's combined vote share in Melaka and Johor would have deprived Barisan of its wins.

However, allow me to digress a little first.

Towards the end of 2016, as the heat of the 1MDB scandal caught on, I was asked by a senior Gerakan leader if anti-Barisan forces would come together - can they beat Barisan?

To give this request some context, Bersatu was formed in September 2016, and Tun Dr Mahathir

Mohamed sought an alliance with Pakatan, comprising DAP, PKR, and Amanah to take on Barisan.

I asked my colleagues at the Sedar Institute to crunch the numbers. As we looked at the number, it all depended on the Malay vote.

The numbers showed that a 10% to 15% shift in Malay votes to Pakatan plus Bersatu would see Barisan lose the government because Pakatan was expected to get close to 85% of the non-Malay vote.

Naturally alarmed by this, I informed our election committee and our friends in Barisan. The natural response from Umno was the party had a lock on the Malay vote, and Gerakan should focus on the non-Malay votes.

The constant refrain was to save our own two seats in Parliament and worry less about Malay votes.

Further, more congenial Umno leaders informed us that PAS would be contesting against Umno in some seats, and anti-Umno Malay votes will go to PAS and not Pakatan.

During the 2018 election campaign, I again cautioned that there was a change in attitude amongst voters, especially Malay voters.

An old but tested method of assessing support in rural areas during an election is to give voters party paraphernalia like shirts, caps, badges, or umbrellas. If the voter accepted, they would likely vote for you. If the voter said “no, thank you” the voter is a fence-sitter.

If the voter refuses outright, that person will never vote for you. It was the third scenario in many places that I campaigned, which worried me.

Of course, Barisan underestimated Dr Mahathir's X-factor, which was evident on May 9, 2018. This resulted in Barisan losing to Pakatan.

PAS did more damage to Umno than it did to Pakatan. And the 15-20% Malay vote shift away from Umno cost Barisan the government.

Now, back to the present day, can Dr Mahathir's second attempt at opposition unity work?

Earlier, I said on paper, Perikatan and Pakatan's combined vote share will give Barisan a run for its money. However, this cooperation will only work if Pakatan and Perikatan retain every voter it has if they form an electoral pact, and I do not think they can.

Perikatan's stable vote base comes from the residual Malay support for PAS while Pakatan's stable vote base comes from overwhelming non-Malay support.

However, neither coalition, I argue, has an avowed following because PAS voters do not like DAP and non-Malay voters do not like PAS. So, using the formula of the late Tun Dr Lim

Cheong Eu on electoral pacts of “a+b=c” it means that if “a” and “b” come together there will be a loss of support in the form of “c”.

In 2018, the minus “c” regarding Pakatan and Bersatu's alliance was negligible. The general anger of the country's direction coupled with charming promises of free education, no tolls, abolition of the goods and services tax, and nostalgia for the good times of Dr Mahathir's premiership catapulted Pakatan to power.

However, will Perikatan and Pakatan's electoral pact, including Pejuang and Warisan, which I call Pakatan plus, work?

My answer is - unlikely.

For starters, there is too much distrust between Pakatan and Perikatan due to the Sheraton move. So, it is unlikely they can overcome the fissures.

Second, there is no common minimum programme between Pakatan plus besides hating Najib and Umno. Also, Pejuang was humiliated in the Johor state election as it lost its seat in every constituency.

Warisan's outreach to Peninsular Malaysia seems to have come to a grinding halt.

Third, voters do not want instability. Parties or coalitions win as a combined unit and then split up halfway because every leader wants to be prime minister. Voters want a government

that will finish its term under the stable leadership.

Fourth, there is no palpable anger against Umno and Barisan like in 2018. Over time, passions mellow, and people think more rationally.

Fifth, Perikatan has legitimacy issues with non-Malays, whilst Pakatan has legitimacy issues with the Malays. As a result, coming together could have more negatives than positives.

Lastly, Malaysians want a government that will deliver economically, and for now, that narrative seems to be with Barisan.

While I am not saying that Barisan's victory in the impending general election is given, I think anti-Barisan forces must seriously consider the merits of political unity and if it will have the desired effect.

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Ivanpal Singh Grewal

Ivanpal Singh Grewal

Ivanpal Singh Grewal is an Advocate & Solicitor. He was formerly Political Secretary to the Minister of Plantation Industries & Commodities.


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