Victory in defeat? Sort of ...

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on September 12, 2018.
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Pakatan Harapan’s win in the Seri Setia and Balakong by-elections last Saturday is no surprise. Let’s be honest. Even those most optimistic in the MCA did not place much hope on their candidate beating the Pakatan representative in Balakong.

Let’s be honest too about Seri Setia. PAS knew the odds were heavily stacked against its candidate winning the constituency. Umno knew this as well, despite the PAS-Umno electoral pact and their bravado.

The low voter turnout is also noteworthy. The lowest ever in a by-election it may have been but that too was unsurprising. What’s more, when considering factors such as voter fatigue, the wet weather and the long weekend break, the lack of participation in the voting was to be expected.

What’s new then? Well, for one, the campaigning leading to both by-elections was not business as usual. In fact, the “type” of campaigning seen also took place during the run-up to the Sungai Kandis by-election, held on Aug 4. At least that’s how a former journalist sees it.

Yusof Taib, who had covered the political scene from as far back as the 1980s, made the following observations.

The Pakatan government, Yusof noted, did not use (or misuse) government machinery and premises to campaign.

Civil servants, said Yusof, were not “haunted” with instructions to campaign for the ruling party candidates. Nor were they told to fill up premises where ceramahs were held at the time they were supposed to be in their offices.

Also, as he saw it, Pakatan leaders — regardless of whether they are the prime minister, deputy prime minister, cabinet ministers, menteris besar or state exco members — did not go campaigning during office hours.

They did not dangle a carrot or throw a bait with promises of multimillion dollar projects and what not, Yusof posted on his Facebook page a few days before the by-elections on Saturday.

All that, said the former journalist, “is a far cry from the Barisan Nasional’s [BN] campaigning methods when it was ruling the country.” Point taken and I will not repeat what Yusof had said further (although there was a lot more he had said). I thank my old friend for his observations.

As for me, the two by-elections presented an interesting situation ie that the losers (if that sounds crude, let’s change it to “the people who lost”) claimed a victory of sorts. Victory in defeat, if you like.

MCA deputy president Datuk Seri Wee Ka Siong sees Chinese support for his party increasing compared with that during the 14th general election (GE14) four months ago and seems delighted that the party’s candidate in Balakong, Tan Chee Teong, did not lose his deposit as he obtained 12.5% of the votes.

Never mind that Tan’s votes amounted to only 3,975 compared with the 22,508 votes garnered by Pakatan candidate Wong Siew Ki from the DAP.

In Seri Setia, PAS also claimed a victory of sorts, saying its pact with Umno had borne fruit. The party pointed to its share of votes which increased to some 31% with BN/Umno support, compared with votes it obtained for the seat in GE14.

Never mind that its candidate Dr Halimah Ali obtained 9,698, while Pakatan’s Halimey Abu Bakar from PKR bagged 13,725 votes.

Encouraged by this performance, PAS and Umno now want to take their pact further, claiming a growing Malay support for such a cooperation. (More on this in another article coming soon.)

However, DAP adviser Lim Kit Siang said PAS and Umno leaders are using dissimilar yardsticks in making a comparison between the by-election and GE14.

“What must be compared are the votes secured by the PAS candidate in the by-election with the total votes polled by Umno’s and PAS’ candidates in GE14 as both parties had cooperated as one platform in the Seri Setia by-election,” according to Kit Siang.

In short, you cannot compare apples to oranges. I must say, the veteran politician has a point. Further, while the Seri Setia by-election was a straight fight between Pakatan and PAS, the GE14 saw a four-cornered fight involving Pakatan, BN, PAS and an independent candidate.

Nevertheless, in Seri Setia, the PAS–Umno pact had materialised no matter how one looks at it. I must also admit I was wrong in saying in a previous article a tit-for-tat situation was to be expected in Seri Setia, with Umno members acting in retaliation for the lack of cooperation given to the Umno candidate in the Sungai Kandis by-election a month ago.

As readers may recall, PAS leaders had instructed party members to support the Umno candidate in Sungai Kandis but that went unheeded, prompting some Umno operatives to call upon Umno to “return the favour” in Seri Setia.

The tit-for-tat game did not happen although, according to political analyst Dr Sivamurugan Pandian, there were protest votes by members of both parties unhappy with the Umno–PAS collaboration.

Sivamurugan also said in Balakong there were protest votes by PAS members unhappy to see PAS supporting MCA, a party which claims to be anti-hudud — something that PAS wants implemented in the country.

In the Balakong and Seri Setia by-elections, Pakatan used its own logo for the first time, replacing the PKR symbol used in GE14. Obviously this did not pose any problem to Pakatan — there was no question of people getting confused or being unfamiliar with the new logo and so on.

The MCA too used its own logo for the Balakong contest, for the first time, instead of the BN dacing — a move seen by party veteran Datuk Yap Pian Hon as a mistake. He felt it was sending out the wrong signal.

“This is wrong. MCA is still in BN, so how can the party opt to use its own logo? It would have been different if MCA were out of BN, then it is okay to use our own logo. But we are still in the coalition. What are we saying to Umno, MIC? We are also sending the wrong signal to the rakyat,” said Yap, the member of parliament for Serdang for three terms from 1995 to 2008. Balakong was in Serdang before the Election Commission’s latest redelineation exercise which saw the Balakong state seat being created.

Incidentally, Umno had also wanted to use its own logo for the Sungai Kandis by-election. Somehow that was aborted and the usual BN logo was used in the by-election which they lost.

Anyway, Yap could be right as far as the MCA logo goes. However, that is not MCA’s only mistake as Yap himself agrees. Not only for the Balakong by-election but also for the general elections since 2008. Now that’s a topic for another day.

Mohsin Abdullah is a contributing editor at The Edge. He has covered politics for more than four decades.