In the run-up to the Selangor state elections, Pakatan Harapan has to rally UMNO votes to its side. It must also overcome vulnerabilities caused by the latter’s 2018 gerrymandering of the state’s electoral map.
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.
Of the six Peninsular Malaysian state elections to be held on August 12, Selangor’s is expected to be the tightest. The Unity Government, effectively a partnership of the multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition with the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), holds incumbency in 45 out of the total 56 legislative seats in Selangor. This commanding majority will dwindle — and may even crumble.
Pakatan’s fortress since 2008 proved too hard to breach at the 2013, 2018 and 2022 elections. UMNO, then in opposition, launched half-hearted campaigns. Pakatan prevailed in the 2013 and 2018 two-horse races against the UMNO-dominated coalition Barisan Nasional (BN), by overwhelmingly winning Chinese and Indian votes and taking a substantial share of Malay votes.
At the fifteenth general election (GE-15) eight months ago, which in Selangor was only for parliament not the state government, Pakatan survived multi-coalition skirmishes, aided by the split in Malay votes. PH fetched 16 out of 22 Selangor parliament seats, but GE-15 also proclaimed the arrival of a new serious contender. Perikatan Nasional, the Malay-Islamist alliance of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), retained its lone seat and wrested three from PH and two from UMNO.
With the prestigious prize of the country’s richest and most industrialised state at stake, the Selangor state elections are effectively a head-to-head between PN and PH-UMNO. UMNO is desperate to stem its decline, PH is resolved to defend its turf, and PN is galvanised to take power by winning Malay-majority seats.
It goes without saying that the grand old Malay party must ignite its machinery and base. But it may have engineered the current troubles back in 2018 when it gerrymandered Selangor’s legislative borders.
Among the colourful narratives painted on Selangor’s political canvas — referendum on Anwar Ibrahim’s government, infusion of new candidates, the influence of the old guard including Tun Mahathir’s fulsome endorsement of PN — the credibility of the PH-UMNO pact is arguably the most decisive. The still uneasy partnership must provide mutual support and convince their bases to support the other’s candidates. This is challenging, given the historical and deep-seated rancour between PH’s Democratic Action Party and UMNO.
Another feature of the landscape is an unnoticed potential difference maker. On top of rallying voters of former foe UMNO, PH must also overcome vulnerabilities caused by the 2018 gerrymandering of Selangor.
Ethnicity remains the firmest predictor of polling outcomes, although it is not the only decisive factor in Malaysia’s elections. PH has enjoyed higher Malay support in Selangor than the dismal levels in other Peninsular states, but Malay voters’ unease with PH, now being leveraged by PN, was also the driving factor in the redelineation of Selangor’s electoral map just before the May 2018 general election.
In nine constituencies, the UMNO-beholden Election Commission rampantly carved in Malay-populated neighbourhoods and carved out mixed districts to create supermajorities. This led to seats where the share of Malays among registered voters was raised to above 60 per cent, or in some cases inflated beyond 70 per cent.
It was a scheme that sidestepped democracy, and possibly contravened the constitutional principle that constituency boundaries should preserve “local ties”. In three constituencies, Malay voters catapulted from minority to supermajority: Sungai Kandis (39 to 72 per cent), Sementa (47 to 74 per cent), and Seri Serdang (46 to 60 per cent). The Malay proportion of voters was inflated, from 51-55 per cent to 62-79 per cent, in four constituencies: Pelabuhan Klang, Paya Jaras, Dusun Tua, and Taman Templer. In Morib and Sungai Ramal, the Malay share went from 64-69 per cent to 75-79 per cent.
In the coming state elections, PH as the incumbent will be running in eight of these seats, while ceding Dusun Tua to UMNO. Put differently, the PH-UMNO coalition will have its work cut out in the nine seats, which due to UMNO’s mapping machinations prior to the May 2018 elections had skewed the ethnic complexion of the seats in its favour (and stacked the odds against its erstwhile foe PH).
GE-15 parliamentary results, transposed onto the state assembly seats, provide useful reference points. The November votes reflect each party’s base — and indicate a greater exposure of the grossly gerrymandered seats to PN’s capture. PH-UMNO secured a comfortable >50 per cent majority of the vote in just one out of the nine, as shown in the map. In the other 47 seats, PH-UMNO won 21 with a majority. PH or UMNO received a plurality of votes — less than 50 per cent but more than the second-placed candidate — in 20 seats.
Figure 1. High Noon in Selangor
Electoral outcomes based on 2022 general election results
The combined votes for PH plus BN would lift the partnership to winning positions, but this hinges on the transfer of support from the latter to the former. In particular, the extent to which UMNO’s base will vote for PH is questionable, and vigorously debated.
PH will be contesting 44 seats and UMNO 12. A hypothetical best case of PH fully retaining its November votes and UMNO transferring 70-80 per cent of its votes to PH, conceivably delivers up to 40 seats to PH. The corresponding scenario for UMNO could yield six wins. In this simulation, PH would still be winning five of those eight while scooping 35 of the other 36.
A grimmer scenario, in which PH loses 15 per cent of support and gains only 50 per cent of BN’s votes, could see PH’s tally of seats drop to a range of 28-30, depending on the votes obtained by candidates besides PH-UMNO and PN. Again, the grossly gerrymandered seats are pivotal, with PH winning just one out of these eight contests while hanging on to 27-29 of the other 36 seats.
It is plausible to concurrently assume that UMNO loses significant support to PN. Should UMNO drop 50 per cent of its November votes, all of its candidates could lose, even if they receive 70 per cent of PH’s base of support. PH+UMNO, needing 29 to form government, would thus hold a cliffhanging 28-30 seats.
The critical threshold of UMNO-to-PH voter transfers is difficult to estimate, and in any case does not affect the strategy. It goes without saying that the grand old Malay party must ignite its machinery and base. But it may have engineered the current troubles back in 2018 when it gerrymandered Selangor’s legislative borders.
The sobering lesson is for all of Malaysia; other states have also been gerrymandered. The country has done well to enfranchise voters, but parts of its electoral map constitute a travesty to democracy.
Lee Hwok-Aun is Senior Fellow of the Regional Economic Studies Programme, and Co-coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.