“BN’s FELDA Vote Bank Running on Borrowed Time” by Geoffrey K. Pakiam

2018/64, 15 May 2018

Malaysia’s 2018 general elections saw unprecedented numbers of FELDA-occupied parliamentary constituencies rejecting politicians from Barisan Nasional (BN). In doing so, they have obliterated any lingering presumptions that most Peninsular rural voters – particularly in agricultural areas established by Malaysia’s Federal Land Development Authority – would invariably vote in BN’s favour.

Of the estimated 53 FELDA-occupied Peninsular wards that marched to 9th May’s polls, 27 seats rejected the ruling establishment, 16 doing so for the first time since at least 2004.

Of the 27 seats, 21 were secured by all four parties under the Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance, many of them first-time victories. The remaining went to Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), which retained two FELDA wards in Terengganu, added two new FELDA seats to its Terengganu haul, and recaptured two more in Kedah.

Notwithstanding these extraordinary incursions, both PH and PAS missed opportunities to seize many more FELDA-occupied seats. Despite an avalanche of anti-establishment votes in 18 additional FELDA-occupied constituencies, Barisan candidates prevailed. In these wards, ballots were heavily split between PAS and PH (in these cases mostly Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, or PPBM). BN clinched seven Pahang-based FELDA constituencies in this manner. Similar cases occurred elsewhere across the Peninsula, in Kelantan, Perlis, Terengganu, Perak, Kedah, Negeri Sembilan and Melaka.

PAS lost the most from these contests. In five wards where PAS featured prominently in previous electoral contests as part of an earlier opposition alliance, such as in Pahang’s Bera and Lipis wards, PAS successfully spoilt the PH vote. PPBM and its allies, however, prevented PAS from gaining a far greater number of seats elsewhere, reducing its vote tally in 11 wards. These included three parliamentary seats in Pahang, which, despite PAS’s contestations in three previous general elections, continued voting for BN in 2018.

Only in eight FELDA-occupied wards – Rompin, Pekan, Pengerang, Kota Tinggi, Mersing, Tenggara, Sembrong, and Lenggong – did Barisan politicians win without requiring the aid of third-party spoilers. Confined to Peninsular Malaysia’s southeast rump, encompassing just over a fifth of FELDA’s 300-plus settler schemes, this eastern Johor-Pahang cluster is all that is left of BN’s once-formidable FELDA vote bank.

Few observers had anticipated the extent to which BN would haemorrhage support from FELDA-occupied seats in the 2018 election. In hindsight, these losses probably owed much to Mahathir’s recent energizing leadership of the PH alliance, as well as former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s own increasingly egregious political behaviour.

At the same time, it is now obvious that the decline of BN’s FELDA vote bank was at least a decade in the making. Almost three-quarters of all FELDA parliamentary wards had seen BN’s vote share plummet since 2004, including rural seats harbouring very large numbers of FELDA schemes. This broad-based slump suggests long-standing dissatisfaction with everyday economic concerns, and perhaps widespread unhappiness with what seem to be corrupt and distant political elites; even in rural FELDA areas.

Indeed, BN’s current electoral disaster would have been even greater were it not for serious spats in FELDA locales, mostly between PAS and PPBM. Thanks partly to PAS’ extensive experience contesting numerous wards outside northern Malaysia in collaboration with the Reformasi coalition – which in turn had helped catalyse losses of pro-BN FELDA constituency votes after 2004 – the Islamist party in 2018 was able to spoil ballots that would have otherwise gone to PH. No doubt we will see other ironies being added to what is already a rapidly accumulating pile of historical twists in the wake of GE-14.
Dr Geoffrey K. Pakiam is Research Officer at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.