by Bridget Welsh
|(l) Pejuang versus (r) UMNO in Slim|
Previous voting patterns show Umno’s political advantage far exceeds that of Mahathir’s Pejuang. So far, I have pointed to two groups that can shape the outcome – the return of outstation voters (disproportionately younger voters), and PAS supporters.
There are four other important groups – minorities, younger and reformasi generation voters, and women – that will shape the outcome. In looking at these groups, it is clear that what is at play is whether Mahathir, now as Pejuang, or Umno can hold onto their political base.
Mahathir needs non-Malay support. In GE14, the group that saved Umno were Orang Asli, (with 72 percent support), while Bersatu’s support came from Indians (78 percent) and Chinese (86 percent). Pejuang needs continued high Indian and Chinese support (comprising nearly a quarter, 23 percent, of the electorate) to win.
National support among these communities eroded in Harapan by-elections, as disappointment with Mahathir’s leadership set in. Slim will be a test to see whether PN’s exclusion of minorities in the government and emotive responses to the charging of a prominent now-opposition leader Lim Guan Eng will shift support back to Harapan-aligned Pejuang.
One-third of Bersatu’s GE14 Slim votes came from non-Malays. The party only captured 20 percent of the Malay vote in Slim. A good share of this came from younger Malay voters. This is the same group that predominantly lives outside the constituency. Pejuang does not match Umno’s machinery and resources to bring them back. Even if younger voters came back, it is not clear that they would vote for Mahathir’s party, as it is the young who first abandoned Bersatu electorally in Harapan-contested by-elections.
A second noteworthy age cohort is reformasi voters, those shaped by the events of the 1998-1999 period, now in their 50s. This age group has traditionally leaned opposition, specifically non-Mahathir opposition. Whether Mahathir’s Pejuang can retain their support in his new vehicle is not clear, but it will be very difficult for the party to reach GE14 levels.
Mahathir just does not have the pull. Unlike in other seats where Mahathir brought older voters above 60 to his side, this was not the case in Slim. Umno maintained the loyalty of this core.
They did so for another important group as well, women - especially Malay women. Slim is an example where Wanita Umno was effective. This time, Umno opted to exclude women in their Slim candidate list and was seen as dismissive of inputs from local women leaders. Pejuang was no better, there was not a woman in sight. So far, all of the parties have marginalised women leaders. Whoever ignores women in Slim will lose - ultimately no man is going to get into office without female support.
While voting trends and Pejuang’s "newbie-oldbie" status do not lean in their favour in Slim, it is the fluid and contentious national developments that are flowing through the constituency that make the contest more competitive. Coalition alliances are strained.
Umno is a weakened and seriously divided party and its relationship to its grassroots base is being tested in Slim. Its de facto leader Najib is a convicted man, and there is real opposition to his leadership within the party. His shadow still casts a dark cloud. Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi also faces resistance from the grassroots.
The internal problems Umno faced in deciding their Slim candidate reflects a growing lack of confidence in the party’s leadership among party members. Questions are being asked: Who gets to decide? The division? The members? The leaders? And should the candidate decision be accepted?
These issues continue to percolate, as there is open disgruntlement among Umno grassroots on how and who was chosen as candidate. How these differences and delegitimisation of Umno’s party leadership will affect the party machinery and the spillover to other voters will be crucial.
Umno also needs to work with MCA, who are still sore after losing the Tanjong Malim parliamentary seat in GE14. The fact is that without Najib, the party would have held onto its core Perak seat. They have very little at stake if Umno wins Slim. Umno is, after all, demanding Tanjong Malim for themselves. Given division among the Malays, Umno will need its BN allies and current PN ties for electoral support, including from non-Mahathir aligned Bersatu members. The reality is that there are strains on loyalties, which are being further frayed by Umno splits.