GEORGE TOWN/KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia’s former grand old party Umno is banking on support from its ally Pakatan Harapan (PH) and its voters to make a comeback at the state elections in Penang and Selangor, after putting in its worst performance at the general election in November 2022.
PH and Umno’s main rival, opposition coalition Perikatan Nasional (PN), is expected to put up a tough battle to wrest control of the country’s two most industrialised states from PH.
The Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition managed to secure only 30 of the 222 seats contested at the November general election. But analysts say BN’s new alliance with former foe PH could boost its chances come Saturday.
The PH coalition has governed both Selangor and Penang since 2008, and had taken on BN and PN in three-cornered fights at the hotly contested national election last November.
PH and BN are now allies in Malaysia’s so-called unity government led by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, which means straight fights await for most of the seats at the state polls.
“I don’t expect Umno to face a wipeout in these two states, as this time around it does not need to depend on votes from its supporters alone. It will also have PH supporters who will transfer their votes to the party’s candidates,” said Universiti Teknologi Malaysia geostrategy expert Azmi Hassan.
Umno is contesting six Malay-majority seats in Penang and 12 in Selangor under the BN banner. Its direct competitor is PN, which counts two Malay-Muslim-based parties – Parti Islam SeMalaysia and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia – as its key members.
Umno says it stands a good chance of winning the Bertam, Sungai Acheh and Teluk Bahang seats in Penang, as well as the three hot seats of Sungai Air Tawar, Dusun Tua and Gombak Setia in Selangor.
A hurdle that the PH-BN partnership has strived to overcome is discontent among their grassroots supporters, given the longstanding enmity between the two coalitions.
Umno and other Malay-based parties had previously accused the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a key component of the PH coalition, of seeking to undermine Malay and Islamic interests.
But Penang Umno deputy chairman Shaik Hussein Mydin said: “We explained to voters that there is no difference between us working with Gerakan and with DAP. In fact, DAP treated us better by giving us the Sungai Dua seat and helped us a lot in our campaign.”
Multiracial party Gerakan was formerly part of the BN coalition and in its heyday was a major party in Penang, with its presidents holding the chief minister’s post for a total of 39 years from 1969. It left BN in 2018, before joining PN three years later.
DAP campaigners have been seen accompanying Umno candidates on their walkabouts in Chinese-majority areas in Penang, helping to distribute campaign materials and disseminate information, and urging voters to support their allies.
“Wow, I never thought I’ll see the day DAP volunteers are helping an Umno candidate. This is good… this is what unity is all about,” said ride-hailing driver Ng Hong Qi, 30, giving a thumbs up at a coffee shop in Bertam in Penang.
PH support notwithstanding, Umno will face some tough battles.
“Even with some degree of voter transferability, it looks like a tough fight for Umno in the Penaga and Permatang Berangan seats”, said Dr Francis Hutchinson, coordinator for the Malaysia studies programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Permatang Berangan, Sungai Dua and Penaga are the three “50-50” wards that Umno is contesting in Penang, and the next few days are crucial to turning the tide in its favour, said Datuk Shaik Hussein.
These state seats are located in two parliamentary wards – Tasek Gelugor and Kepala Batas – which unexpectedly fell to PN at the 2022 General Election, due to the so-called Islamist green wave that propelled the opposition coalition to gain a third of the 222 parliamentary seats.
Analyst Azmil Tayeb of Universiti Sains Malaysia said: “With most seats seeing straight fights, there won’t be any split votes any more, so votes from both BN and PH can help Umno withstand the green wave.”
Cost of living concerns will also steer voting outcomes.
A voter in Selangor, who wanted to be known only as Mr Azizi, said PN did not have good strategies when it was governing the country amid the Covid-19 pandemic. He blames it for the losses suffered by his photocopy shop during the pandemic lockdown.
“I have five kids and we struggled to put food on the table. Best to see what Anwar can do for the economy of the country and the weakening ringgit,” he said.
However, hawker Mohd Yusoff Mohd Razak, 43, who used to vote for BN, said he will give his vote to PN this time.
“Ever since Anwar became PM, the prices of goods and services have increased. PN, meanwhile, not only promised to waive our licence fees, but also promised to give money to our school-going children,” said the Penang voter.
Umno candidates are also counting on legacy support built up in certain wards.
For example, tailor Susilawati Mohd Nor, 45, said she will vote for the BN candidate in Bertam, former minister Reezal Merican Naina Merican, who helped her son’s school get a synthetic-turf football field.
Over in Selangor, the two state seats of Gombak Setia and Dusun Tua are seats with strong PH support that were given to Umno to contest in.
Gombak Setia is being defended by Mr Hilman Idham, who won the seat in 2018 state elections under PH’s banner but defected to PN’s Bersatu in 2020.
Umno state chief Megat Zulkarnain Omardin, who is contesting in the ward, said the voter response has been positive.
“I have contested twice in Gombak but this time, voters are warmer towards me compared with the cold treatment we received at the last two elections. My only concern is low voter turnout,” he added.
Umno’s Dusun Tua candidate Johan Abd Aziz said PH’s machinery has been very helpful, and the two former rivals are working very well on the grassroots level.
“We are getting a big helping hand from PH. On paper, if we calculate, we can win the seat because we are also getting the PH voters to vote for us. I am also convincing my voters that we need to win the state seat so we can get the support from the unity government to address issues of the constituency,” he said.
A Gombak Setia voter, who wanted to be known only as Pak Long, said he will vote for BN to give Datuk Seri Anwar four years to prove himself.
“I don’t like the way PN is playing politics with religion. We should give Anwar a longer time to see what he can do for the country, as it has now been only seven months since the unity government came to power,” said the 65-year-old retiree.
Source : Straits Times