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BN-PAS pact steamrolls PH in Cameron Highlands

It was not really surprising that the Barisan Nasional (BN) won in the Cameron Highlands by-election held last Saturday. What was surprising was how B

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It was not really surprising that the Barisan Nasional (BN) won in the Cameron Highlands by-election held last Saturday. What was surprising was how BN and Pakatan Harapan (PH) in their post by-election reactions, continue to heat up the political climate with different interpretations of the outcome.

The parliamentary seat was won handsomely by Datuk Ramli Mohd Nor, a former senior police officer who created history by becoming the first Orang Asli to become a member of parliament.

Cameron Highlands is a traditional BN stronghold, but its margins of victories in the last two general elections were slim. Datuk G Palanivel and Datuk C Sivarraajh, both from MIC, won with slim majorities of 462 and 597, respectively.

The seat fell vacant when Sivarraajh’s victory in the 14th general election was nullified by the Election Court because of vote-buying during the campaign.

Even though the result of the by-election won’t shift the balance of power in the Dewan Rakyat, the stakes were high for both PH and BN.

In a statement, DAP secretary general Lim Guan Eng, said winning Cameron Highlands would lead to the capture of Pahang by PH in the next general election.

Almost all PH big guns were involved during the campaign period. Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir himself visited a Felda scheme in Jelai state constituency on Friday 25 to woo the crucial Malay voters ahead of polling.

For BN, this was the first by-election in one of its strongholds and in a state it rules. In four previous by-elections held after May 9, 2018 PH won all of them.

Why was BN able to get the level of support it needs in Cameron Highlands?

The breakdown of voters in the highlands is as follows: Malays – 31 percent, Chinese – 25.6 percent, and Indians – 14 percent. The Orang Asli at 24.6 percent or 7,886 voters were definitely the “king makers”. And don’t forget, the candidate factor was very significant.   

BN’s strategy of fielding an Orang Asli paid off. It garnered 12,038 votes, winning by a comfortable 3,238 vote majority.

PH candidate, M Manogaran, received 8,800 votes while Independents Sallehudin Ab Talib and Wong Seng Yee received 314 and 276 votes respectively. There were 591 spoilt votes and voter turnout was 68.79 percent.

Ramli managed to attract the largest voting block in the constituency, i.e. the Malays and Orang Asli. These communities are traditional BN supporters and the coalition’s promotion of Ramli as “the first Orang Asli lawmaker” was well-received by the locals.

Cooperation between Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and United Malays National Organisation (Umno) was another significant factor in attracting the Malay voters to the BN.

In the 14th general election, BN won 10,307 votes while PAS candidate won more than 3,400. Then on January 26, BN won 12,038 votes. The additional 1,371 votes were believed to have come from PAS supporters especially in Jelai polling centres such as Kuala Medang, Bukit Kota, Felda Sungai Koyan Satu and Felda Sungai Koyan Dua & Tiga.

Compared to the last four by-elections, PAS members in Cameron Highlands have accepted their leaders’ relationship with the BN forged after the last general election as a fait accompli. For nearly half a century, PAS supporters were brainwashed to hate Umno and BN. Thus the latest pattern of voting in the highlands has become a new milestone in the complex relationships between PAS and Umno supporters.

On the PH side, party insiders have been saying that they could have won if they had a sound strategy, fielded a more suitable candidate, and had tighter cooperation between their component parties.

PH was able to maintain their vote-bank in Tanah Rata but was not able to penetrate the Malay voters in Jelai. DAP was relying on the same candidate who had lost three consecutive times. It seemed that DAP learned nothing from the previous defeats.

Youthfulness that once characterised PH candidates in the electoral battle has gone missing. No injection of youth means no real change, which contradicts the “new Malaysian” slogan propagated by DAP leaders after the May 9 general election.

The Malay voters, especially in rural constituencies such in Jelai, are very much against DAP and non-Malay candidates.

This is perhaps one of PH’s greatest challenges at the moment. They have found it hard to project themselves as parties of change and also parties that are honestly rejuvenating themselves.

There’s a saying that goes: “You can’t make omelets without breaking eggs.” How true, but what about the eggshells? Well, it was just bad luck that the eggshells in the just-concluded by-election would be MIC. In BN’s future consideration, change and swapping of traditional constituencies among its component parties look inevitable.

Perhaps MIC and MCA would be given the task of winning back urban seats from DAP and PKR in the 15th general election. Umno’s top priority, as always in rural areas, is not to jeopardise its new relationship with PAS.

The lesson from the Cameron Highlands by-election for Umno and PAS is clear: To move to the top, they need to cooperate with each other.

PH leaders claimed that the outcome of the by-election was not totally unexpected. The status quo stays, that’s all. After all, the voters in the highlands have always been loyal to the BN.

As for the BN, especially former prime minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who joined in the campaign from day one, the outcome of the by-election clearly boosted his popularity.

It appeared that the BN-PAS cooperation in the by-election was powerful enough to create a thunder rolling in the highlands. What BN should do is to keep the momentum going until the next general election.

• Muhammad Asri Mohd Ali is with the Faculty of Economics and Administration, Universiti Malaya.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.