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"Beyond Race: Historical Voting Patterns Indicate that Urban/Rural Differences Shape Political Preferences in the Upcoming Tanjung Piai By-election" by Kevin Zhang

2019/94, 14 November 2019

Numerous commentators have highlighted that racial identity is a crucial indicator of political preferences in the upcoming Tanjung Piai by-election. Tanjung Piai is a racially mixed constituency with 57% Malays, 42% Chinese and 1% Indian voters. Despite being classified as a rural constituency, the Tanjung Piai parliamentary seat includes the towns of Pontian and Pekan Nanas. Hence a sizeable share of the Tanjung Piai electorate resides in “urban” areas. Polling district data since 2008 indicates that, in addition to ethnicity, whether the particular voter resides in rural or urban areas also shapes his or her voting preferences.

There are 28 polling districts (Pusat Daerah Mengundi) within the Tanjung Piai parliamentary constituency. 13 of these are Malay super-majority districts – where the share of Malay voters exceeds 80 percent.

With regard to the Malay super-majority polling districts, 12 of the 13 are located in rural areas, with the exception of Parit Hj Ismail which is within Pontian town.  Average support for the Barisan Nasional was at 84 percent in both the 2008 and 2013 General Election amongst these Malay super-majority polling districts, with negligible variations across the two elections. However, in the urban Parit Hj Ismail district and one rural district, Tenggayoh, Barisan Nasional suffered close to a 10 percent decline. In 2018, support for the Barisan Nasional fell in all 13 polling districts by an average of 22 percent. However, the sharpest decline came from Parit Hj Ismail which fell by 34 percent. Indeed, in 2018, Parit Hj Ismail was the sole exception amongst the 13 Malay super-majority polling districts where Pakatan Harapan obtained a majority. In short, while rural Malays in Tanjung Piai began to abandon Barisan Nasional only in 2018, the trend started in 2013 amongst urban Malays and intensified in 2018.

Conversely, 5 polling districts within Tanjung Piai have a 75 percent or higher share of Chinese voters. All 5 are located in urban areas, with the exception of Pekan Nanas Selatan, which is rural. Barisan Nasional suffered about a 25 percent fall in vote share in each of the 5 Chinese dominant polling districts between 2008 and 2013. However, in the 2018 General Election, a clear divergence emerged between rural and urban Chinese-dominant polling districts. While the vote share for the Barisan Nasional continued to decline 3 to 9 percent in the 4 urban polling districts, BN had a 11 percent increase in vote share for Pekan Nanas Selatan polling district, garnering 40 percent of the overall votes.

For the remaining 10 polling districts, Chinese voters comprise between 20 to 70 percent of the overall electorate. Given that most of the 10 districts are rural, a significant portion of Chinese voters in Tanjung Piai reside in rural areas.  If Pekan Nanas Selatan 2018 polling district results represent the broader voting patterns amongst Tanjung Piai’s rural Chinese, the Barisan Nasional could expect to reap a sizeable share of rural Chinese votes in the upcoming by-election on November 16. Conversely, the bulk of urban Chinese have supported the Pakatan Harapan (or Pakatan Rakyat) since 2013. Given that support for Pakatan Harapan amongst Tanjung Piai urban Chinese predates the 2018 nationwide swing against BN, it is not at all clear that the former would choose to vote for BN in this by-election. If they change their voting preferences at all, it is likely that they would either vote for the Gerakan candidate, or simply not vote at all.

Thus, an analysis of district polling data since 2008 has shown that while Malays are more favourably disposed to Barisan Nasional in general than non-Malay voters, political inclinations within the Malay community nonetheless diverge between urban and rural residents. Relative to their rural Malay counterparts, a greater proportion of urban Malay voters is favourable to Pakatan Harapan. Conversely, a greater proportion of rural Chinese voters is supportive of Barisan Nasional compared to urban Chinese.

Mr Kevin Zhang is Research Associate with the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. The author would like to thank Dr Francis E Hutchinson for providing editorial assistance, and SPR Malaysia, Attorney General Chambers, PKR Malaysia and Tindak Malaysia for providing the polling district results.

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.