“Malaysia’s Opposition Needs a Miracle—and Fast”, by Ooi Kee Beng

Commentary 2016/23, 20 June 2016 

The Barisan Nasional (BN) led by UMNO beat the opposition parties in the Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar parliamentary by-elections held on 18 June by huge margins. This was in itself not unexpected.

While comparisons between by-elections results and general election results can often misleading, no one doubts that the BN’s core supporters stayed loyal despite the scandals and splits that plagued the coalition over the past two years. This is disheartening for the opposition parties and their newly styled coalition Pakatan Harapan. They should not be surprised though, given how they have been rocked by splits and accusations of wrongdoings in recent months.


Furthermore, the optimism felt by many voters, especially young ones, in the general elections of May 2013 was understandable missing in these by-elections. Most of these did not bother to return home to vote unconvinced that it would make any real difference in the larger context.

The contests being three-way fights practically assured the BN of victory. The question was the margin of victory.  As it turned out, the federally ruling coalition won by 9,191 votes in Sungai Besar and 6,969 votes in Kuala Kangsar. These margins become slightly less impressive one considers that the popular vote won was a 53.7% (up from 50.4% in 2013) in Sungai Besar and 54.5% (up from 49.6% in 2013) in Kuala Kangsar.

UMNO was challenged in both constituences by Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and its splinter party, Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah). These two divided opposition votes down the middle in both cases, with Amanah beating PAS with 7,609 to 6,902 votes in Sungai Besar but losing by 4,883 to 5,684 votes in Kuala Kangsar. This bodes well for the newly established Amanah but can only hearten the BN, who will now expect the enfeebled PAS to be a more willing collaborative partner.

For the opposition as a whole, the hope of toppling the BN from power in the next general elections, due by mid-2018, is all but dead. They will need a miracle to turn things around and excite voters to support them the way they did in 2008 and 2013.

Miracles do happen of course. If a change in PAS’ top leadership for example opens the way for the party’s return to the fold of the Pakatan, then the game changes. But even then, it will take some doing to make voters forget PAS’ obsession with hudud. And a lot of luck will be needed for a Malay leader to appear from within the rank of the opposition parties to take on the sleek machinery and the patronage power of the BN—and triumph.

Now that BN supporters – as represented by those in Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar – have shown that scandals and misuse of power in BN do not affect their sense of loyalty, Prime Minister Najib Razak will do his best to make sure that no miracle takes place.

With Sarawak and now by-electoral victories in Selangor and Perak under its belt, and the opposition parties pathetically beset by internal distrust and intrigues, it will be hard for the otherwise cautious Najib to resist the temptation to call for snap elections.


Dr Ooi Kee Beng is Deputy Director, 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.