Can Dr M's fledgling Pejuang really be GE15 ‘kingmaker’? Pundits say Muhyiddin's move, numbers will be the answer

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad arrives for the unveiling of Pejuang's candidate for the Slim by-election in Tanjung Malim on August 12, 2020. — Picture by Hari Anggara
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad arrives for the unveiling of Pejuang's candidate for the Slim by-election in Tanjung Malim on August 12, 2020. — Picture by Hari Anggara

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 24 — Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s three-month old political party Parti Pejuang Tanah Air could stand a chance to be the kingmaker in the 15th general election (GE15) even if it has a small number of MPs, but the conditions have to be right, political observers have said.

Some political analysts said it would depend on whether Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin could keep his allies together and whether votes will be heavily split in multicorner fights, but others said Pejuang would not even fare well enough to be a kingmaker in GE15 which must be held by 2023, but can be called earlier.

Oh said Pejuang would benefit if Umno and PAS sent candidates against each other just like in GE14. ― Picture courtesy of Oh Ei Sun
Oh said Pejuang would benefit if Umno and PAS sent candidates against each other just like in GE14. ― Picture courtesy of Oh Ei Sun

The Umno-PAS factor in GE15

Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, indicated that it would be “certainly possible” for Pejuang to be the kingmaker in GE15, as the backing of every MP counts nowadays when it comes to achieving parliamentary majority to form the ruling government.

“Well nowadays we have a very fragmented political landscape and it would appear that not one single political party or coalition or faction would be able to command even a simple majority.

“So that's why even Dr Mahathir with his handful of supporters or MPs in his Pejuang party, if it's a very close call — like no one single coalition would have a majority — indeed they can be the kingmaker,” he told Malay Mail when contacted, highlighting that Pejuang MPs’ support is crucial for either side on the political divide even right now.

When it comes to the actual figure of parliament seats that Pejuang needs to win to be kingmaker in GE15, Oh said it would depend on how close the results are and the parliamentary distribution of seats among various factions.

As for how Dr Mahathir and his three other party founders who are also MPs would fare in GE15, Oh indicated that they could tap on his appeal and would have a better chance if Umno and PAS split up just like in the 14th general election (GE14).

“Mahathir would still have some core Malay support, so as I said, his handful of MPs, I think they may well be re-elected, especially if Umno and PAS differ in their dissociation from and support for the current administration,” he said.

Currently, Pejuang has four MPs through its founding chairman Dr Mahathir (Langkawi), founding president Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir (Jerlun), Datuk Shahruddin Md Salleh (Sri Gading), and Datuk Amiruddin Hamzah (Kubang Pasu). They had won their seats as members of their former party Bersatu.

In GE14, the three-corner fights caused by the rivalry between Umno and PAS who had yet to become allies then had benefited Shahruddin and Amiruddin who won both the seats they were contesting. The combined votes that went to Umno and PAS would have exceeded both men’s vote-counts.

For GE15, Oh said Pejuang would benefit if Umno and PAS sent candidates against each other just like in GE14, noting that this was “not likely until recently as they came together under Muafakat Nasional and won a string of by-elections by fielding most Umno candidates and not both in each constituency.”

But recently there seems to be a new rift between Umno and PAS as they differ in their levels of support for Muhyiddin’s government.

“If not, except for perhaps Dr Mahathir and son, they could well lose,” he said of the four from Pejuang, explaining that Dr Mahathir and Mukhriz’s possible survival of the GE15 polls — even without Umno and PAS splitting up — is due to the duo having “somewhat entrenched, almost feudal supports in their home constituencies”.

Oh said it would be unlikely that Dr Mahathir would lead the country again, stating: “I think many politicians and politics in general has perhaps moved beyond Dr Mahathir, nobody perhaps will seriously consider him to be able to become PM again but his support is very crucial for anybody who would like to become PM.”

With Dr Mahathir still being intent on toppling Muhyiddin and stopping Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim at the same time from becoming prime minister, Oh said Dr Mahathir’s “refusal to unconditionally support Anwar presents a significant obstacle” for the latter to clinch the premiership likely in both the current situation and after GE15.

Party flags are seen during the Sabah state election campaign in Luyang, Sabah September 14, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Party flags are seen during the Sabah state election campaign in Luyang, Sabah September 14, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

Can Muhyiddin’s camp stay united?

James Chin, a professor and director of governance studies at Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia, highlighted that the prospects of Pejuang being able to be a kingmaker or otherwise will depend a lot on what sort of coalition Bersatu president Muhyiddin would be able to put together.

Currently the federal government under Muhyiddin features the two coalitions of Perikatan Nasional — of which Umno is not officially a member of despite having Cabinet positions — and the Muafakat Nasional — a partnership between the ruling parties Umno and PAS.

“So depends on the deals Muhyiddin makes in the government, if he can come up with a united front, then it will be very, very difficult for Pejuang to win a large number of seats. For the very simple reason that most of the Malays will be with Muhyiddin since there is no more split between Umno and PAS and Bersatu,” he told Malay Mail when contacted.

Asked for a ballpark figure of how many seats would be needed to be the deciding factor for who forms government, Chin said: “To be a kingmaker you have to work on the assumption that both sides — I’m talking about the government side, Opposition side holding between 90 and 100 seats each, therefore to be in the middle and to play the kingmaker role, you need something around 12 to 20 seats, otherwise there’s no point.”

Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin attends a Perikatan Nasional event at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur September 1, 2020. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin attends a Perikatan Nasional event at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur September 1, 2020. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

Chin said he thinks Pejuang’s strategy would be to go after all the parliamentary seats that Bersatu had contested in GE14 as well as a few additional seats, further noting that the party would be able to represent a clearer alternative in GE15 against the government coalition, as compared to GE14 where Malay voters had more choices in the form of Umno, PAS or Bersatu.

Chin said the four Pejuang MPs would likely defend their parliamentary seats, especially Dr Mahathir — even as he indicated that he does not plan to contest in GE15 — as there is nobody else with his branding and name recognition.

“So it's very difficult for them not to put him into the party, because without him, the Malay voters may not come out. The older Malay votes may not come out, so although he says he doesn't want to stand, I suspect he will have to stand because there's nobody else,” he said.

Chin said it would be too early to predict the chances of the Pejuang MPs successfully defending their seats apart from Dr Mahathir, as it depends on factors such as the number of candidates contesting for a seat, with a straight fight typically making it easier to unseat incumbents while a very small vote-majority would be sufficient to win a multicorner fight if there is a high number of candidates and depending on the quality of the candidates.

“My take is that Mahathir will not have problems with winning Langkawi no matter who the Opposition is, but the other three will definitely have problems, especially if Muhyiddin can put a united front against them,” he said.

Chin said the success of the other Pejuang candidates in GE15 will hinge on Dr Mahathir’s role in GE15 due to his status as an “icon”, noting: “If he were to lead the party, they would have a better chance, if he doesn't lead the party, sort of stay back from behind, then they would have less chance.”

Ultimately, Chin said that it is premature to talk about GE15, as he believes it is unlikely that Muhyiddin would call for the general elections anytime soon, as he already has too many problems to resolve first.

“For example, he has got to solve the internal dynamics, and not only that he has got to reshuffle the cabinet, on top of that, whatever budget he passes, he's got to at least implement some of the things in the budget first. I mean you can't go and call for general elections when you haven't fulfilled any of the promises you made in the budget, so at the very least you have to try to implement some of the stuff first,” he said.

Jayum said Pejuang may not be widely accepted among conservative Malays who will see it as a party that further splits the already divided Malay vote in Peninsular Malaysia. — Picture by Miera Zulyana
Jayum said Pejuang may not be widely accepted among conservative Malays who will see it as a party that further splits the already divided Malay vote in Peninsular Malaysia. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

Can the newcomer trump the established ones?

Two other analysts had a less optimistic view of the influence that Pejuang would have as a young offshoot party.

Jayum Jawan, professor of politics and government at Universiti Putra Malaysia, said Pejuang can be the kingmaker “provided it can win not less than 25 parliament seats”, as the role of kingmaker is now currently played by Gabungan Parti Sarawak or the former Barisan Nasional Sarawak chapter.

“But interestingly, why does Pejuang aim for so low a goal when it is being led by heavyweights such as Tun Mahathir — twice the PM of Malaysia — and his son the former MB of Kedah, and a few more big names?

“Is the low aim a realisation that it may not have high acceptance among the Peninsular Malays that command 125 parliamentary seats in the Peninsular?” he said when contacted by Malay Mail.

Jayum said Pejuang may not be widely accepted among conservative Malays who will see it as a party that further splts the already divided Malay vote in Peninsular Malaysia.

“My opinion is that Pejuang is a splinter of Bersatu and thus may not really pose major challenges to established Umno and Pas and PKR,” he said.

Hisommudin predicted that even Dr Mahathir would find it hard to hold on to his Langkawi seat. — Picture courtesy of Hisommudin Bakar
Hisommudin predicted that even Dr Mahathir would find it hard to hold on to his Langkawi seat. — Picture courtesy of Hisommudin Bakar

Dr M’s popularity, party logo, membership drive, Umno’s regained strength

Think-tank Ilham Centre executive director Hisommudin Bakar said Pejuang would find it difficult to position itself as the kingmaker in GE15, due to several reasons such as Dr Mahathir’s influence being on the wane, much like his dropping popularity among voters.

With Pejuang yet to be registered by the Registrar of Societies (RoS) as a political party, Hisommudin said it may be highly likely that it would have to contest using the Independent logo if GE15 is held in the near future.

“If this happens, it will be difficult for Pejuang to provide competition against parties that use party logos or party coalitions that are more established,” he said, pointing out Pejuang would also be unable to register new members or expand the new party more aggressively as a result of its registration yet to be approved by the RoS.

Last month, Pejuang said its bid to have the political party registered had been snubbed seven times in two months by RoS since August, and it is still waiting for registration, when other parties had speedy registration approvals such as Parti Makkal Sakti Malaysia within two weeks and Perikatan Nasional that was approved immediately.

Further pointing out that Pejuang is a splinter from Bersatu, Hisommudin said this new party led by Dr Mahathir targets Bersatu members for its membership, describing this as akin to picking low-hanging fruits instead of taking on the more challenging task of finding new members.

“Taking into account all these factors and scenarios, it will be difficult for Pejuang to provide competition to Malay parties such as Umno and PAS in GE15. Becoming kingmaker is an overly ambitious dream for the current political situation,” he said.

While Pejuang could possibly target 30 to 60 parliament seats to contest in GE15, he said that this new party would have a very slim chance of winning especially in Malay-majority areas, due to the reasons mentioned.

As for Pejuang’s current four MPs specifically, Hisommudin predicted that even Dr Mahathir would find it hard to hold on to his Langkawi seat.

“Based on the scenario of changes now, actually Tun Dr Mahathir, Mukhriz, Amiruddin and Shahruddin face a difficult task in defending their respective parliament seats. This is because the voting pattern is no longer the same as in GE14,” he said.

He noted the change in political landscape, with Umno appearing to have regained voter support after the Sheraton Move where the Dr Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan government collapsed and after several by-elections.

He said the issue of kleptocrats, thieves and robbers — which previously featured heavily in Pakatan Harapan’s election campaign in GE14 which the coalition won — no longer resonated (bergema) as loudly as before, while the presence of former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak was well-received by voters in several past by-elections after GE14. Najib’s Barisan Nasional administration had lost heavily in GE14 following accusations of kleptocracy or stealing of public funds.

He said this has led to Umno regaining its confidence that it could win back Parliament seats in Malay areas.

He said the highest possibility for GE15 is that almost all parliament seats would not be seeing straight fights but would instead face multi-corner contests, saying that this was a new scenario and that it would be difficult to use past election data as the main basis to predict how voting would turn out in GE15.

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