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"The Sungai Kandis By-election: A Test for the New Pakatan Harapan Administration" by Dr Norshahril Saat

2018/81, 6 August 2018

In the recent Sungai Kandis by-election held on 4 August, Pakatan Harapan (PH) candidate Zawawi Ahmad Mughni managed to retain the seat for the ruling coalition. The by-election was held following the passing of PKR assemblyman Mat Suhaimi on 2 July.

Zawawi won the seat in a three-cornered contest against BN’s Datuk Lokman Noor Adam and independent candidate K Murthy. Zawawi obtained 15, 427 votes while Lokman garnered 9, 585 votes and Murthy, 97 votes. While Zawawi retained the seat comfortably for PH, the coalition won with a reduced majority: from 12 480 votes in the May elections down to 5842 votes. In GE 14 held on 9 May, PH’s Mat Suhaimi obtained 23 998 votes in a four-cornered fight with Barisan Nasional, PAS, and Parti Rakyat Malaysia. However, PH's total share of the vote increased to 61.4 percent from 55.6 percent.

This by-election serves as a bellwether of how urban Malay voters have received the PH government’s policies (both federal and state) so far. 72 percent of the voters in Sungai Kandis are Malays, with Chinese and Indian voters making significant minorities of 12 percent and 16 percent. Although PKR’s Zawawi was able to retain the seat for the party, several factors contributed to PH’s lower number of votes.

The first is voter fatigue, as only 49 percent of those registered voted. The by-election—was held less than 100 days after the GE. Second was PAS’ decision not to contest this time, which could have also contributed to lower turnout as well as to BN’s improved performance (BN obtained 38 percent compared to the 27 percent in GE 14). In GE 14, the PAS candidate obtained 7 573 votes (or 17 percent). Of significance is that after PAS decided  not to contest, BN saw an increase in 11 percent of the vote share compared to PH, whose share increased by only six percent.

Third, Malay voters might have contributed to the swing in votes favouring BN. During campaigning, issues concerning Malay/Muslim rights were raised, which the opposition BN has sought to capitalise on. For example, appointment of non-Malays in key government positions: Tommy Thomas as the Attorney General, Lim Guan Eng as Finance Minister, and Richard Malanjum as Chief Justice.

This by-election did not have any significant impact on the Selangor state government, since Pakatan Harapan has a crushing majority in the State Assembly. Conversely, the fact that PH won Sungai Kandis this time can be considered as an achievement, because the so-called “by-election” effect did not happen. In some instances, voters strategically voted for the opposition knowing that it would not lead to a change of government. The result can also be seen as a mark against former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who led the campaign instead of Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the current UMNO Party President.

It is too early to gauge what this election results mean for the future of UMNO and PAS cooperation, or voters’ perception of the PH government. The upcoming Seri Setia by-elections, which BN will not be contesting, will be another test. In GE14, BN garnered 22 percent of the vote share for Seri Setia, and whether it is PH or PAS which will benefit from voters’ rejection of BN will need to be seen.

Dr Norshahril Saat is Fellow and Co-coordinator of Indonesian Studies Programme at 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.