KUALA LUMPUR, June 21 -— When the fledgling Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) contested the 14th general election with Pakatan Harapan, it was given an unlikely 52 seats to contest despite being the smallest and youngest party in the coalition.

The rationale then was for it to put up a direct challenge against Umno in the contest for the crucial Malay vote, which it ultimately did not deliver when it won just 13 of the federal constituencies it contested.

Amid rumours that Bersatu president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was planning to call an early general election to secure his own mandate, it was believed that his party intends to again contest for nearly the same number of seats as in 2018.

This time, however, it will not be the sole Malay party in its coalition but just one of many. What has not changed, however, is that it will again be the youngest and smallest of those in the Perikatan Nasional (PN) that include Umno and PAS. 

According to Professor Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid from Universiti Sains Malaysia, PN was also formed hastily to replace PH in the government and before any concrete arrangements were set in place.

“So, come the general election, what can guarantee Bersatu as many as 50 seats in Malay-majority constituencies that Umno and PAS will be similarly vying for?” asked Ahmad Fauzi.

“Bersatu will be denied the upper hand in inter-party negotiations by virtue of its marginal position in Malay-Muslim politics vis-a-vis Umno and PAS. Bersatu’s fate will ipso facto be in the hands of Umno and to a lesser extent PAS.”

Complicating matters for Bersatu’s purported ambition is the fact that most of the seats it contested in 2018 were against Umno that is now nominally an ally, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia geostrategist Professor Azmi Hassan explained.

Azmi also pointed out that ties among the other PN members were far more significant than what Bersatu has with any of them.

Aside from Besatu, the informal PN included the Barisan Nasional (BN), Muafakat Nasional (MN), and Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) coalitions; Parti Bersatu Sabah, and Parti Solidariti Tanah Airku (STAR).

BN — the former 13-member ruling alliance now whittled down to just Umno, MCA, and MIC — has existed since the formation of the country while GPS was in fact the Sarawak arm of the coalition that broke off after the general election.

The PN coalition that comprised portions of BN with PAS has also been formalised through a charter. These independent ties meant that among the leading parties of PN, Bersatu effectively stood alone. 

Azmi then said Bersatu likely profited from the support of PKR and DAP votes in the previous general election, meaning it would most likely have to depend on Malay votes that would put it on a collision path with its new PN partners.

“The 13 that Bersatu won are mostly votes that come from DAP and PKR supporters and therefore Bersatu will be looking at predominantly Malay voters which overlaps with Umno-PAS strongholds. 

“Looking at the current political scenario, where Bersatu is not that strong in terms of grassroots support, the number 50 is very aloof indeed,” said Azmi.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Professor Kartini Aboo Talib @ Khalid expressed similar views and added that Bersatu was not in a position to dictate the allocation of seats as this required consensus among partner parties.

Such negotiations reduced the likelihood that Bersatu could claim 50 seats — nearly a quarter of the country’s 222 federal constituencies — if PN was to head into the 15th general election as a coalition.

“The division of seats is determined by the party’s coalition and this consolidation formula will not jeopardize any party within the alliance. 

“That’s why they have to stay cohesive to win the election,” she said.

Old allies trump new bedfellows

While coalition politics meant being able to lean on partners’ strengths to supplement a member party’s shortcomings, the analysts also said Bersatu should not expect to be able to bank on this in the general election.

Instead, they said the strength of old alliances meant Umno was more likely to carry long-time partners MCA and MIC through the polls by yielding some of its seats to its BN allies over Bersatu.

They also said the arrangement of Umno courting the Malay vote with MCA and MIC drumming up non-Malay support was a time-tested and effective formula, leaving little room to accommodate Bersatu in the equation.

“Umno will be more interested in placating MCA and MIC to safeguard whatever non-Malay votes left it can secure to form a seemingly multi-racial government, if only marginally,” Ahmad Fauzi explained.

As crowded as the peninsula was with Malay parties, Bersatu will also not be able to look towards Sabah and Sarawak to provide some of the 50 seats. 

Having kept Umno out of Sarawak all these decades, GPS was unlikely to be favourable to Bersatu contesting there in any significant manner while the party itself has yet to fully develop its Sabah presence.

According to Azmi, Bersatu’s circumstances now meant it was beholden to Umno and PAS for pure survival in the general election.

“So, it’s not for Bersatu to ask for 50 seats since Umno-PAS has all the luxury and benefits to determine the realistic number of seats that should be allocated to Bersatu,” he added.