SEMENYIH, March 3 — Barisan Nasional (BN) unexpectedly wrested Semenyih from Pakatan Harapan (PH), even though PH is now in federal government and has been administering Selangor for over a decade.
The Semenyih by-election was Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia’s (PPBM) first test after the 14th general election; an indication of how much Malay support the party could get for PH as PPBM was formed as a Malay-only vehicle specifically for that purpose.
But BN’s Zakaria Hanafi defeated PH candidate Muhammad Aiman Zainali with a majority of 1,914 votes in a race that PAS made way for BN. Semenyih had a healthy voter turnout at about 73 per cent, the highest of all by-elections since the May 9 general election.
In the 14th general election, PPBM had won the Selangor state seat with a majority of almost 9,000 votes in a contest featuring both PAS and BN. Combining both PAS and BN’s vote share then would still come up to about 2,000 votes short of PPBM’s count.
So what happened? These are three reasons why political analysts believe PH lost the race, its second by-election defeat since the 14th general election.
Umno-PAS’ Malay-Muslim card
The combination of Umno and PAS in pushing for Malay-Muslim interests, which gained traction in the previous Cameron Highlands by-election, has been subsequently affirmed in the Malay-majority Semenyih state constituency that comprises 68 per cent Malay voters.
"Affirmed is a good term, as it is simply a re-manifestation of the 75 per cent of Malay voters who voted for either Umno or PAS in GE14, now that the two parties are in 'bed' together," said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
With PAS now lending its support to Umno, it seems very likely the preservation of religion and race will become the narrative in the months to come.
Independent pollster Merdeka Centre executive director Ibrahim Suffian said the BN win will further cement the identity politics of both parties.
“All the attacks by some PH leaders on PAS regarding the allegations of receiving Umno money will likely anger and embolden PAS supporters, rather than repel them.
“PH should take note that all the decades BN have attacked PAS, the support for its leaders have never diminished but instead made them stronger,” he said.
With PAS already announcing its decision to skip the upcoming Rantau by-election, whose incumbent is Umno acting president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan, Ibrahim said it was very likely an Umno-PAS pact will take place again.
“This will make the fight for the Malay hearts and minds the central theme of politics in our country even more prominent going forward,” he said.
Pakatan’s unfulfilled promises
To Ibrahim, BN's victory was a clear sign that the public has gotten tired of PH’s difficulty in delivering their GE14 election manifesto.
“They (voters) do not want the blame game on Datuk Seri Najib Razak and BN to continue, but rather concrete plans and action on how to address these issues such as cost of living,” he said.
The PH campaign had repeatedly attacked the former prime minister as he stumped for BN in Semenyih, the second outing for his working class “Bossku” persona.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia associate professor Kartini Aboo Talib Khalid echoed Ibrahim, saying BN's victory was more because of PH’s failure to deliver their promises.
“The voters are getting tired of the PH new government who [has] yet to deliver the promises and a few compelling comments from Tun M himself that the current government is a bit off and ineffective,” she said referring to Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Weak Pakatan candidate
Kartini pointed out that BN's victory in Semenyih was attributed to Zakaria’s credibility.
“First and foremost, Zakaria is an activist and well known among the voters in Semenyih,” she said.
Even though PH’s 30-year-old Muhammad Aiman is also a local, he was widely seen as “awkward” and lacked the eloquence of a representative.
Muhammad Aiman's shortcomings were even acknowledged by PPBM president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who said the young man’s presentation should not be an indication of his performance.
Early in the campaign trail, Muhammad Aiman found it difficult to approach voters as he was not seen much in public prior to the announcement of his candidacy.
Zakaria, who is former Umno Kampung Sesapan Kelubi branch permanent chairman, was seen as a party strongman.
Being a former party branch chief, Zakaria possessed the required grassroots support to back him up and found it easy to campaign among those already familiar with him.
Zakaria's ability to communicate effectively was also seen as a necessary trait for a person who is required to convey the concerns of the people.
“Both BN and PH carried the flag of consociation that connects all major races and minorities.
“However in Semenyih, it is all about candidate, acceptance, and contemporary realities,” Kartini said.