KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 23 — The Melaka state election will be the acid test for relations between Umno and PAS but a crucial battleground that could make or break Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia ahead of the 15th general election, according to political pundits and its opponents.
Bersatu, particularly, will be wary of going into the polls. The Umno splinter party won two of the state’s 28 legislative assembly seats at the 14th general election, but only because it rode on the popular anti-Barisan Nasional wave as part of Pakatan Harapan (PH).
After defecting to depose the PH administration last year, the influence of the Malay-domited party has increasingly waned. Despite its alliance with PAS under the Perikatan Nasional (PN) banner, the five-year-old Bersatu is seen as a party without much support, reliant either on Umno now and PH before.
Come November 20, Bersatu will have to face not only its former PH allies but also a more powerful rival in Umno as debutants with little grassroots support.
Yesterday, PN chairman and Bersatu president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said the coalition intended to contest all 28 seats in the Melaka election but did not disclose how many his party planned to claim.
However, political watchers said it is likely that the party would have little choice but to aim for Malay-majority constituencies traditionally helmed by Umno.
“The Melaka elections will be a struggle between two parties — Umno and Bersatu. Who is more dominant among the Malay voters,” said Azmi Hassan, a political analyst attached with Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.
“It would be a precursor to GE15 but only restricted to the battle between Bersatu and Umno. It would not reflect Umno’s strength as a whole nor would it reflect Pakatan’s influence because the Melaka politics is quite different from the peninsular or the national level.”
Even without the two state lawmakers it sacked — after their withdrawal of support for then chief minister Datuk Seri Sulaiman Md Ali forced the elections to be called — Umno will go into the polls confident that it could at least retain all 13 seats that it won in the 2018 national polls, Azmi suggested.
Melaka and other southern states are traditionally known to be Umno strongholds. Even when Melaka and Johor fell to PH in 2018, its opponent’s majority was never convincing so much that it made it easier for the party to force a power change through defections.
Umno recaptured Melaka after DAP’s Pengkalan Batu assemblyman Norhizam Hassan Bakte defected to become a pro-PN independent alongside the two Bersatu assemblymen (Paya Rumput and Telok Mas).
The defections gave BN 16 seats, a two-seat majority.
PAS, on the other hand, has little influence there, winning no seats in the 2018 general election.
But Azmi believes any decision the Islamist party makes in the coming weeks will still have a bearing at the national level. Tied to a pact with both Umno (Muafakat Nasional) and Bersatu, who it chooses to align with, will ultimately shape the course of future relations with its warring allies.
“Talking about PAS, it has minimal influence in Melaka but who it attaches itself with, either Bersatu or Umno, will give an indication where PAS is heading towards in GE15,” the UTM professor said.
“It’s true that it is now with Bersatu via PN but if it might reorganise its thinking (for strategic reasons)... I think it’s best for PAS to stay out of the polls and try and play the ‘goodfella’ bringing Umno and Bersatu together, even if this is highly unlikely,” he added.
This view is shared by many in the Opposition, such as DAP’s Liew Chin Tong, who felt Bersatu could stand to lose it all should PAS decide to realign with Umno.
“If PAS is firm with Bersatu (allegedly a view held by PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang), Perikatan Nasional which is Bersatu’s vehicle may still have some leverage to negotiate with Umno,” he wrote.
“If PAS works with Umno independent of Bersatu, the Umno breakaway party may not have much leverage. An unhappy Bersatu may not cause the fall of the Federal Government as the party has even more to lose if an early national poll is called.”
Bersatu leaders that Malay Mail contacted did not respond to requests for comment.
This dizzying political scheming has been a consistent feature since the fall of the PH administration, with the changing voter demographic and the growing distrust of political parties adding to the complexity, as no single party now enjoys the kind of dominance once monopolised by Umno and Barisan Nasional.
Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, associate director at Vriens & Partners, a public policy, government affairs and political risk consultancy, said negotiations and changing alignments between Umno, PAS and Bersatu, or even among PH, will likely be the new normal until the upcoming election.
“The polls will serve as a prelude into how the ‘new normal’ of political instability will look like — shifting alliances among different actors in different coalitions,” he said.
“And how down the line, political opponents may need to sit down to carve out some form of political agreement similar to the one done on a federal level.”
Analysts and political strategists believe this “new normal” is also likely to envelop PH, themselves coping with dissension.
There are talks that its rank and file have become increasingly agitated by the top leadership’s tendency to make unilateral calls, as in the case of Melaka where some PKR leaders alleged the crisis had been sanctioned by some national leaders.
Then, there are the ongoing rumours of tension between the DAP, PKR and Amanah, said to have stemmed from growing doubt that its leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has what it takes to the help PH repeat its 2018 feat at 15th general election, more so after he failed to convince the Sabah and Sarawak factions to rally back his bid for the prime minister post.
“What the Melaka polls also show is simmering tensions within PH,” Shazwan contended.
“The decision by the coalition to kickstart a state political crisis and the backing of four Umno and ex-PH [assemblymen] shows that such an opportunistic move was decided by the coalition’s top leadership without consultation with stakeholders on the state level.”
Still, at the moment PH appears bullish about its chances to capture Melaka, likely bolstered by the defections in Umno. The four defectors, including former chief minister Datuk Idris Haron, had expressed interest in joining PH and should they retain their seats, the bloc would have the 15 seats needed to form a government.
But for the best case scenario to happen, PH will still have to rely on Umno, PAS and Bersatu staying split, said analyst Oh Ei Sun.
“PH appears bullish on wresting Melaka back from Umno but I think the confidence is somewhat misplaced,” he said.
“There are fewer than a handful of non-Malay seats where PH would have a guaranteed upper hand. All other Malay-majority or Malay-significant seats are up for toss. Note that Umno lost a number of seats in 2018 because PAS split more Umno than it did PH votes,” he added.
Nomination is set for November 8 and early polling will be held on November 16.
The Melaka State Legislative Assembly has 28 seats. The electoral roll contains 495,196 voters, and EC is targeting a 70 per cent voter turnout for the state polls.
The Melaka state assembly was dissolved on October 4 after four representatives withdrew their support for the leadership of then chief minister Datuk Seri Sulaiman Md Ali.
The four former assemblymen were Datuk Seri Idris Haron (BN-Sungai Udang), Datuk Nor Azman Hassan (BN-Pantai Kundor), Datuk Norhizam Hassan Baktee (Independent-Pengkalan Batu) and Datuk Noor Effandi Ahmad (Bersatu-Telok Mas).
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