“Green Tsunami in East Coast of Peninsula Malaysia” by Norshahril Saat

2018/55, 10 May 2018

Malaysians have decided, and Pakatan Harapan (PH) will form the new government. This is the BN’s and UMNO’s first defeat since the country’s independence. Many would attribute PH’s victory to a Malay “tsunami”—the Malay voters’, particularly from those from the rural areas, change of allegiance from BN to PH. But this does not explain the PAS victories in Kelantan and Terengganu, both Malay dominant and rural states. In Kelantan, PAS increased its state legislative assembly seats (SLA), and completely wiped out PH. It took 37 out of the 45 state seats, with BN winning only 8. At the parliament level, PAS won 9 of the 14 seats.

In Terengganu, PAS toppled BN, increasing its state seats by eight to 22 out of 32 seats. The last time PAS controlled the state was from 1999 to 2004. At the parliament level, it won six out the eight seats, with BN winning the remaining two.

PAS’ significant performance in the two states defied all predictions before the elections: that BN will control Kelantan, retain Terengganu, and that PAS will lose big in the other states. In Kelantan, BN heavyweights managed to retain their seats in the two states. For example, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah winning Gua Musang parliament seat, and Mustapa Mohamed retaining Jeli parliament seat and the state seat of Air Lanas. In Terengganu, BN retained the Besut and Hulu Terengganu parliament seats, but Cabinet Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek lost the Kemaman seat to PAS. Ahmad Razif Abdul Rahman, BN Chief Minister for the state, retained his seat Seberang Takir. Interestingly, Amanah (National Trust Party), failed to secure a single seat in both states for PH. Does this signify the rural Malays rejection of Amanah’s “progressive” Islam, and acceptance of PAS’ conservative brand?

There are many factors at play as to why PAS performed well in Kelantan and Terengganu. For Kelantan, voters loyalty to the Islamic party remains strong especially in the urban areas (the rural areas are divided between PAS and BN). Clearly, the battle was between PAS and UMNO, with the exception of some seats. For example, PH’s Husam Musa came in close behind PAS secretary general, Takiyuddin Hassan, for the seat of Kota Bharu Kelantan’s Capital. Husam also lost his state seat of Salor to PAS. Clearly, Amanah was unable to match PAS grassroots and ground party machinery. In fact, PAS’ focus on door to door visits in the state rather than organising big talks proved effective. It also attempted to alleviate the masses concerns of rising cost of living. Kelantan also represents the battle of the late Tok Guru Nik Aziz’s legacy. Nik Aziz was the former PAS spiritual leader and Kelantan Chief Minister. His son, Nik Omar, which crossed over to join PH, failed to ride on his father’s name to win in Chempaka, his late father’s seat.

However, it is less clear why PAS was able to perform well in Terengganu, given that it had lost the state for the last three consecutive elections (2004, 2008 and 2013). One factor could be that Terengganu voters are attracted to PAS’ Islamic agenda. Over the last couple of years, PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang have been championing for a revision to ACT 355 to increase the maximum sentences for shariah courts. The PAS leader was working closely with UMNO leaders, including Prime Minister Najib Razak. But this does not explain the swing to PAS this time, because Abdul Hadi has been consistent in his stance of Islamic laws and shariah. Many believed that the move to PAS resulted from the anger with BN rather than on Islamic issues. Moreover, similar to the situation in Kelantan, Amanah was unable to penetrate Terengganu. Another plausible explanation is that the voters in Kelantan and Terengganu are strategic; in order to demonstrate their protest to the BN government, their votes should go the PAS rather than PH. Historically, the two states have been governed by the Islamic party. Voters there also sense that protest votes in other states will likely go to PH.

PAS’ history in Kelantan and Terengganu means that within the next five years, PAS will definitely revive the Islamic agenda in these two states, as it did when it was in control of the two states concurrently in 1999. This time around, PAS will be in a better position to negotiate with the PH federal government, given that it is the “kingmaker” in other states such as Perak and Kedah.

Dr Norshahril Saat is Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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