The Pakatan Harapan faces long odds if it wants to return to govern the state of Melaka again. A deep dive into three key seats illustrates the challenges that the coalition faces in polls due tomorrow.
The Malaysian state of Melaka, despite its relatively small size, has witnessed numerous power transitions. It has experienced waves of colonising powers through history. It also occupies an important place in the nation’s history as Tunku Abdul Rahman, upon successfully securing British consent in 1956 for Malaya’s independence, landed in Melaka airport on his return flight from London. Thereafter, the state enjoyed relative stability for more than 60 years, with the Alliance and then its successor, Barisan Nasional (BN), ruling the state uninterruptedly.
However, in 2018, the winds of political change once again fermented in the state, as it fell to the political opposition for the first time. The Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition defeated BN by a whisker, securing 15 out of Melaka’s 28 state seats. BN, including the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), won the remaining 13 and missed out on another handful by the narrowest of margins.
Riding on a national wave of frustration over the 1MDB scandal, rising cost of living and the perceived excesses of BN’s six decades of rule, PH expanded its holdings in Melaka from the seven urban seats Pakatan Rakyat (the predecessor of PH) secured in 2013 to almost all urban seats and a number of rural, Malay-majority constituencies (Figure 1). In some cases, PH emerged from behind to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. This was due to the Malay electorate being split between BN and the third competitor, the Parti Se-Islam Malaysia (PAS). This dynamic played out in former BN strongholds such as Gadek, Durian Tunggal, and Telok Mas, where PH inched ahead with only a simple majority and BN hot on its heels.
The Melaka state assembly was dissolved in October 2021, after four lawmakers pulled their support for the chief minister, who hails from UMNO. Prior to the dissolution, the state was governed by a Perikatan Nasional (PN) state government comprising BN and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu). The state will head to the polls tomorrow. Whatever the outcome, the polls in Melaka provide a useful barometer of the country’s shifting and overlapping coalitions, which have become more fluid.
If PH can retain its seats in and around the Melaka city area, and if it can successfully defend these three seats mentioned above, the coalition stands a decent chance of securing a majority in the state assembly. However, this time around, Melaka residents seem to have less appetite for a political change compared to 2018. In addition, the political winds have changed since. PH has less momentum than it did in 2018, and its usual campaign style of mass political rallies has been crimped due to Covid-19 related restrictions. Furthermore, voters are now familiar with all three coalitions and are emotionally and financially stretched following months of Movement Control Orders since March 2020.
If PH can retain its seats in and around the Melaka city area, and if it can successfully defend these three seats … the coalition stands a decent chance of securing a majority in the state assembly.
Conversely, BN needs to retain the 13 seats it won in 2018 and recapture at least two of these three seats to form the next state government.
A deep dive into these three seats shows it is likely to be an uphill battle for PH. In terms of seat allocations, PH and BN have retained the formula used in GE2018, with the same component parties running again. (Table 1)
Gadek, a rural Malay-majority seat in the northern part of the state, is arguably the toughest for PH to retain in this election. In 2018, the coalition secured it with a mere 300 votes and had the smallest winning margins among all the seats PH won in Melaka. The incumbent, G. Saminathan from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), is standing for re-election. He was detained in October 2019 for supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Sri Lankan group which the Malaysian government deems to be a terrorist organisation. Even though the charges were eventually dropped, this issue may cost him crucial votes. Gadek has the highest share of ethnic Indians among all the state seats, and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) from BN is expected to put up a fierce fight. Under BN’s seat sharing arrangement, the MIC is contesting only one seat in Melaka.
Durian Tunggal is the seat which PH won with the second narrowest majority in GE2018. Ethnic Chinese and Indians, who comprise 30 per cent of voters in the seat, are likely to vote for Amanah (a political party under PH). However, the remaining 70 per cent of voters will have to choose from among three Malay-based parties. In 2018, 13 per cent of the seat’s voters opted for PAS. PH could secure a victory if the 2018 voting patterns remain unchanged, but would face a defeat should some of PAS’ voters switch and support BN.
Compared to Gadek and Durian Tunggal, PH won Telok Mas with a higher margin of victory (1,288 votes) in 2018. Despite its urban location, the seat is almost three-quarters Malay. PH won the seat with a Bersatu candidate. The former assembly member, Noor Effandi Ahmad, is controversial, as he was one of the four assembly members who crossed the floor in March 2020, leading to PH’s downfall. He subsequently withdrew support for the PN state administration last month, leading to the state assembly’s dissolution. Given his (and Bersatu’s) tortuous political trajectory, it is unclear how voters in this seat would attribute responsibility for this largely unwanted election.
Pakatan Harapan faces an uphill battle in Melaka. While its seats in most urban areas are secure, the seats it conquered in 2018 was with only the narrowest of margins. A look at these three seats illustrates the difficulty the coalition faces due to demographics and UMNO’s long-standing presence in these seats. That said, the potential of some Malay votes going to PN provides the coalition with the possibility of some narrow wins. However, low voter turnout and weaker grassroots presence compared to BN could also cost PH a crucial number of votes in seats it can ill-afford to lose.
Kevin Zhang is a Senior Research Officer, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Francis E. Hutchinson is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.