Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim met with supporters at the Madani Unity Tour programme in Air Itam, Penang on August 5, 2023. (Photo: Anwar Ibrahim / Facebook)

The Unity Government: Preventing a Partial Victory in the Polls

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The Pakatan Harapan-Barisan Nasional tag-team will likely win by a big margin in the Penang state elections. The key question here is whether the Unity Government would represent Malays in the state adequately.

Author’s note: The author would like to extend a word of thanks to Rebecca Neo, a Research Officer in the Indonesia Studies Programme, for her extensive help in the cartography used in this commentary.

As with Kelantan and Terengganu, there is little mystery about the approaching polls in Penang – the incumbent coalition is exceedingly likely to prevail. The state’s demographical make-up as well as current trends in voter behaviour strongly suggest that, come 12 August, Pakatan Harapan (PH) and its former foe Barisan Nasional (BN) will comfortably retain the state assembly. The key question, is not whether, but how: the PH-BN partnership would likely yield a government which does not represent Malays in the state adequately.

Penang’s ethnic composition is more diverse than most states in Peninsular Malaysia. Malays constitute the biggest chunk with 45.2 per cent of the population, followed by the Chinese with 44.5 per cent, and Indians with 9.7 per cent. Out of the state’s 40 state seats, 25 are non-Malay majority. They are concentrated in the northeastern part of the island, and on the mainland in a swathe extending from Bagan towards the border with Perak, as well as the Bukit Mertajam constituency. Conversely, Penang’s 15 Malay-majority seats are concentrated in the western flank of the island, the northern half of the mainland, and the state’s southern border in the Nibong Tebal constituency. Most of those in the north are Malay super-majority seats where more than two-thirds of voters are Malay.

Map 1: Penang’s Racial Makeup

State Seats in Penang by Ethnic Category (2018)

Source: https://www.undi.info/

Since 2008, non-Malay voters in Penang have swung to PH, and this has only accentuated in recent years, with estimates of Chinese and Indian support at GE-15 in 2022 at 96 per cent and 87 per cent, respectively. These trends, with a modicum of Malay support, should enable PH to approach a two-thirds majority of seats in the assembly on 12 August.

… a victory of this nature (for PH and UMNO) would be but partial, as a victory secured solely on the basis of non-Malay majority seats would be problematic. Beyond the result itself, how the majority in the assembly is attained and who is represented in the ruling coalition are equally important.”

Mapping the results from the fifteenth general election (GE15) onto the state seats for the 2023 state election (and completely ignoring any vote transferability between PH and BN) yields an impressive 29 seats for Pakatan Harapan, one seat for BN, and 10 seats for the opposition coalition, Perikatan Nasional (PN). Of the Unity Government’s 30 seats, 25 were won with an outright majority (more than 50 per cent of the vote), and five with a plurality (less than 50 per cent but more than the second-placed candidate). This would be below the 37 seats PH won (with Bersatu, who was in PH then and had two seats) when it ran against Barisan Nasional and the Islamic party Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) in 2018. Yet, were the PH and BN tag-team to get numbers like this in seats like these come 12 August, this would ostensibly constitute a success.

Map 2: Penang’s Battle Lines in GE15

GE15 Results by State Seat (2022)

The Pakatan Harapan-Barisan Nasional tag-team will likely win by a big margin in the Penang state elections. The key question here is whether the Unity Government would represent Malays in the state adequately.
Source: Election Commission (including early and postal votes)

Yet a victory of this nature would be but partial, as a victory secured solely on the basis of non-Malay majority seats would be problematic. Beyond the result itself, how the majority in the assembly is attained and who is represented in the ruling coalition are equally important.

Perikatan Nasional’s ten seats from the mapping exercise were all in Malay-majority seats, and particularly the Malay super-majority areas in the state’s north. Unlike Pakatan Harapan and Barisan Nasional, who are counting on voter transferability to boost their chances, the GE15 results are a good gauge for PN’s potential performance given its unchanged electoral formula. Should they achieve a similar result on 12 August, PN will question the representativity of the Unity Government.

Of PH’s component parties, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) is the most secure. Voting patterns from GE15 indicate solid support for PH in the 19 seats where it is running now. Indeed, one could argue that the party’s problem at this juncture is complacency. DAP leaders have been citing mysterious polls that indicate a 20 per cent drop in Chinese support to instil a sense of urgency. 

While the DAP’s 19 solid seats are almost enough to secure a majority by themselves, overly relying on these numbers would pose uncomfortable questions for Anwar Ibrahim’s multi-racial, but Malay-led Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and even more for BN’s anchor party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). The challenge for these two larger Malay-led parties is to go beyond these results.

PKR is running in 13 seats, and looks to do well in non-Malay majority seats such as Kebun Bunga, Batu Uban, and Bukit Tengah. However, GE15 voting patterns show that PKR faces headwinds in Malay-majority seats such as Penanti, Telok Ayer Tawar, and Pinang Tunggal. Should its support be limited to mixed seats, PKR would survive electorally but be weakened politically.

Given PKR’s difficulties, the task of winning Malay-majority seats is the most crucial for UMNO. Traditionally, the party has been very strong in the northern part of the mainland in parliamentary seats such as Kepala Batas and Tasek Gelugor. However, these areas have been gradually hollowed out, with UMNO retaining just two state seats within Tasek Gelugor in 2018. The party needs to win most of its six seats to justify the partnership with PH to its own base. To this end, UMNO is fielding big names such as Supreme Council members Reezal Merican and Shaik Hussein Mydin for state seats.

The good news for the Unity Government is that some of the majorities in the state seats that PN secured in the mapping exercise were with narrow margins. Thus, seats such as Pinang Tunggal and Seberang Jaya in the north, as well as Sungai Bakap and Sungai Acheh in the south of the mainland were tight. If a degree of vote transferability between PH and BN voters occurs, then the Unity Government can secure these seats. In mind-boggling fashion, PH and UMNO leaders are now egging their supporters to vote for their former foe.

There is one additional kicker. DAP’s Chow Kon Yeow is slated to remain as the Chief Minister of Penang, but tradition has it that there are two Deputy Chief Ministers – one Malay and one Indian. The Malay DCM, Ahmad Zakiyuddin from PKR has retired, leaving the position open. Should UMNO secure even one state seat, it may fall to PKR to make sacrifices for the sake of unity.

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Francis E. Hutchinson is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.