Perikatan Nasional’s campaign in the Negeri Sembilan state election is hampered by the absence of a credible leader, in contrast to its opponents. PN needs to cultivate future leaders, as it has done in other states like Kedah.
It is preferable to go into an election with a popular leader. Take Sanusi Md Nor, incumbent Chief Minister of Kedah, who is constantly in the national spotlight. Whether his fame springs from charisma or controversy, Sanusi is considered an asset for Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) as he is extremely well-liked among Kedah residents. Thousands of Sanusi’s supporters gave him a hero’s welcome at Alor Setar airport days after he was arrested in Kuala Lumpur under the Sedition Act for allegedly insulting the Sultan of Selangor.
Kedah has been a swing state, with three coalitions — Barisan Nasional (BN), Pakatan Harapan (PH), and Perikatan Nasional (PN) — ruling at best for one term since the 2008 General Election. Apart from PAS, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) is the other core member of PN. Bucking that historic trend, Sanusi as Chief Minister has cemented PAS’ grip in Kedah with PN widely expected to retain Kedah with a sizeable majority at the polls involving six Peninsular Malaysian states on 12 August.
Up until the 2018 General Election (GE2018), state elections were held concurrently with the federal parliamentary election where voters are typically swayed by national sentiments and the Prime Minister candidate put forth by various coalitions. However, when state elections are held separately from federal elections, the presence of a well-liked or credible state leader could be crucial to determining the outcome. The widespread popularity of Hasni Mohammad — then Johor Chief Minister and BN state chief — in the 2022 Johor state election propelled BN to score a resounding defeat against PH, reversing inroads which PH achieved in GE2018.
PN’s Negeri Sembilan campaign, which lacks a state leader who possesses poster boy qualities or the “wow factor”, stands in marked contrast to the PN coalition in Kedah today, and BN in Johor last year. Historical circumstances are partly responsible for the present predicament. In GE2018, Bersatu, then allied with PH, failed to capture even one state seat in Negeri Sembilan. Negeri Sembilan was the only state on Peninsula’s west coast, besides minuscule Perlis, without a Bersatu state assemblyperson.
The absence of state assemblypersons in Negeri Sembilan denied the nascent party a role in the state government cabinet, in contrast to Bersatu assemblypersons in other states who went on to serve as Chief Minister, namely, Johor, Perak and Kedah. An illustrative point would be Ahmad Faizal Azumu who, despite being the sole Bersatu state assemblyperson in Perak, was chosen as Perak Chief Minister from 2018 to 2020 and presently has state and national level prominence. Ironically, the PN manifesto for Negeri Sembilan was launched by Bersatu Deputy President Ahmad Faizal despite his outsider status, revealing the lack of prominent leaders in PN Negeri Sembilan.
When state elections are held separately from federal elections, the presence of a well-liked or credible state leader could be crucial to determining the outcome.
Short of home-grown talent, Bersatu also benefitted from the exodus of senior UMNO leaders into its party ranks with the likes of Muhyiddin Yassin and Mas Ermieyati Samsudin. Muhyiddin was formerly UMNO Deputy President (and Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister) while Mas Ermieyati previously headed UMNO Puteri, the party’s women’s youth wing. Both are presently political heavyweights in Johor and Melaka, respectively.
However, so far, no prominent UMNO leaders from Negeri Sembilan have defected to PN. Khairy Jamaluddin, former UMNO Youth Chief and Member of Parliament from Negeri Sembilan, has come tantalisingly close to PN while decidedly keeping distance. Despite Muhyiddin personally offering an invitation to Khairy with promises of Bersatu party positions, Khairy has remained coy on joining Bersatu or PN. Incidentally, Khairy was seen publicly campaigning for a PN candidate in Selangor and even a BN candidate in Penang, but not so in Negeri Sembilan. PAS similarly lacks a credible presence in Negeri Sembilan, given the state’s diverse ethnic composition which is less receptive towards PAS’ monoethnic racial and religious pandering.
The absence of a poster boy for PN is amplified by the presence of numerous charismatic or high-profile leaders from both BN and PH in Negeri Sembilan. Mohamad Hasan, UMNO Deputy President and Minister of Defence, is contesting for the Rantau state seat and is widely perceived as a technocratic leader within UMNO. In his former tenure as Chief Minister of Negeri Sembilan, Mohamad Hasan steered away from controversy or corruption scandals and is widely accepted among both Malays and non-Malays. Anthony Loke, the first in command in DAP, is considered more moderate than his predecessor and has cordial ties even with Malays in Negeri Sembilan. His impeccable command of Malay language has won much praise. Anthony would be contesting for a third term in the Chennah state seat, which has a sizeable share of Malay voters. The incumbent Chief Minister of Negeri Sembilan, Aminuddin Harun from the People’s Justice Party (PKR), is seen as a safe pair of hands and has been nominated to lead the state for a second term should PH-BN win on 12 August.
PN needs a credible leader in Negeri Sembilan, to match up to the slate of leadership offered by BN and PH. Of course, leadership cannot be developed within one day, but PN must start real soon on cultivating a credible leader, like what it has done in Johor, Perak, and even Melaka. Otherwise, the political fortunes for PN would not look great even at the next state election.
Kevin Zhang is a Senior Research Officer, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.