Sunday, March 28 2004

The Big Picture: Lessons from a stunning victory

By Munir Majid

NOBODY had anticipated the overwhelming extent of the victory for Barisan Nasional that was the outcome of the 2004 general election.
After the event, many reasons are being put forward for the stunning result.
Even before it, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's appeal with the electorate had been offered as an ace in the campaign, but none truly appreciated the strength and depth of that appeal: the appeal of character and the appeal of promised policy.
The Prime Minister had asked for a strong mandate to fulfil the policies he had outlined after less than five months in office. The electorate has responded by showing they believed in him and in the policies he wants to carry out.
He obtained 64 per cent of the popular vote, giving his party 90 per cent of parliamentary seats.
With the people behind him and his administration in place (now that his Cabinet and other appointments have been finalised), it is, in the jargon of the young, payback time.
The 2004 election was an important battle for the vote of first-timers. BN won. This was critical, especially in Terengganu, Perlis and Kedah where, even Pas conceded, first-time voters supported BN.
The language of change and the future which Abdullah has emphasised, including symbols, idioms and advisers of youth, had a resonance with the young who responded positively to the Prime Minister's fresh approach.
This the opposition did not have. The DAP had hardly any new faces. Pas, even if they had some, was harping on issues in the same old manner, vitriolic and personal in their attacks, ending in a reverberating crescendo of Allahuakbar, as if human incantation invoking God's name can absolve all slander.
Keadilan was frozen in time, a oneperson-one-issue outfit, which did not have the trauma of 1999 to carry it along.
People, even in Pas strongholds, were looking for relevance and content. This included the certainly not irrelevant oldies who, along with the young, could see what was happening in the outside and Malaysian world, and wanted a freshness of approach in a challenging environment.
Certainly the kind of abrasiveness that drove the BN leadership before would not have been well received had it been offered.
Abdullah is the man of the hour. He offered the style, demeanour and content that were overwhelmingly approved by Malaysians.
Having said that, it is worth examining more closely the outcome of the election whose representative numbers, 198 parliamentary seats out of 219 and 451 out of 505 state seats (Sungei Lembing in Pahang is still outstanding), can become too flattering and breed complacency if the messages and trends are not quickly absorbed not just for the next election but also to address the concerns of the people right away.
While the defining feature of the 2004 election is the turning back of Pas' radical theocracy in favour of Umno's progressive Islam, with a human face and heart, the victory is not complete and the battle is far from over.
Almost everybody I spoke to expected a tough time for Umno in the Malay heartland, the so-called Islamic crescent some, no doubt, in self-serving hope.
Kelantan? No way! Terengganu? Maybe a better showing, but Pas will win again. And serious Pas in-roads in Kedah and Perlis, to the extent that could even threaten Abdullah's position in Umno.
This was what the pundits said, those doing the rounds with their ears to the ground, even surveys and mini-polls. They were proved less than accurate.
Pas citadels fell in Kelantan and, at one point, it was thought BN would form the State Government. In the event, after recounts, Pas won by a whisker, 24 seats against BN's 21, two held by rather ill Pas assemblymen and one with a wafer-thin twovote majority.
And taking eight of the 14 parliamentary seats, when previously BN had only one, was more than a moral victory.
The performance in Terengganu was most satisfying. What a turnaround to take all eight parliamentary seats and 28 of 32 state seats, in the process removing Pas leader Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang from parliament and as Menteri Besar.
And, the barbarians did not storm the gates in Kedah and Perlis, where Pas was rolled back from its 1999 positions.
A famous Umno and BN victory, no doubt. But Pas is not licked. In the Malay heartland, Pas' hold of the Malay vote came down with a thump from 56 per cent in 1999, but they still pulled 44 per cent. While Umno's hold shot up to 55 per cent this time around from 45 per cent in 1999, in the nation as a whole it is worth noting that Pas' overall popular vote held, in fact, it slightly increased from 15 per cent to 15.8 per cent.
Even if Pas is now almost locked out, a lot has to be continuously done to keep that dangerous political party at bay.
Datuk Idris Jusoh did a wonderful job in Terengganu, right down to meticulous planning with consultant support.
The Prime Minister has been impressed with him and, even if he did not say so in public, Abdullah was quietly confident about BN doing well in Terengganu.
Now Idris has his work cut out for him.
Datuk Mustapa Mohamed did sterling work in Kelantan. The feat he has achieved is of Tengku Razaleigh-in-his-heyday proportions.
He has worked extremely hard to achieve this. Indeed, within his parliamentary constituency of Jeli, all three state seats were also grabbed by BN, indicating many years of grassroots hard graft.
(It was good to see the victory in Kota Baru and Bachok as well, although it's a pity that Pasir Mas was not won by BN because of the spoiler role played by that turncoat Datuk Ibrahim Ali who surely must now be left, and kept, in the cold.)
Mustapha attributes the turnaround in Kelantan to three factors. First, the Prime Minister's personal appeal. Second, after 14 years of no development, the people can take no more; mereka sudah serik. Third, the young are back to supporting BN.
These factors encapsulate what the people want. The future, not in the future, but beginning now.
There would be no point going back to the people four or five years from now making more promises. They would not buy it. The next election will be based on the fulfilment of promises, on the record of the most immediate performance, without luxuriating in 50 years of fine BN rule alone.
There is, of course, the wave theory of Malaysian electoral behaviour: a 1990 fractured performance after the 1987 split in Umno, a 1995 BN sweep with the economic "feel good" factor, a 1999 bloody nose because the Malays did not approve the manner in which the Anwar affair was handled and now, in 2004, the enormous appeal and promise of the good and true Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
There is no gainsaying those single powerful factors were at work in the various elections. What is pertinent is to make sure that no single powerful factor works against BN the next time around, instead of for it.
The process of renewal in Umno and BN must continue, and particular attention must be paid to Kedah and Perlis where, it is said, there is insufficiently enlightened leadership.
Indeed, there are so many reforms in party and administration that have to take place, which Abdullah is committed to, but must be carried forward against probable resistance and subterfuge.
Apart from the challenge that Pas poses, which raises particular Malay/Muslim expectations, there are the more general expectations of a rising middle class of whatever age more discerning and sophisticated, and less forgiving.
They are not bought off by the argument of the need for strong government; they have certain general concerns which they will not readily concede, and they have particular localised issues which they address with a passion.
They do believe there should be healthy debate, a freer Press, more educational opportunities and greater emphasis on merit, all this apart from the more efficient and less corrupt administration which Abdullah promises; and powerful local issues, such as evidently exist in Penang, will add to their independent voting behaviour.
The comeback of Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh, in a sense, attests to this free-wheeling, largely non-Malay, middle-class voting behaviour.
In 1999, Lim and Karpal were given the thumbs down for that unholy alliance with Pas which raised the spectre of an extremist religious government.
Now that they have learnt the lesson of what kind of political opportunism would not be tolerated, these voters have forgiven them so that they can once again carry the torch of opposition to keep government on its toes.
While Kota Melaka was a famous BN victory, and signalled an historic fall of an opposition bastion, it only shows the agnosticism of middle-class voting; in Malacca, it has been said, the Chief Minister is extremely popular for his even-handed development policies.
But in Penang, Kuala Lumpur and the Kinta Valley, the Opposition gets not inconsiderable backing. Even if the increase in DAP representation in Parliament from 10 to 12 isn't exactly earth-shattering, it is not something to be complacent about.
Looked at another way, the DAP got five of 13 parliamentary seats in Penang and four of 11 in Kuala Lumpur. This is not insignificant.
BN has to continually look at ways and means of ensuring urban, middle-class, largely non-Malay support, through party structure, effective representation and individual attention.
The Election Commission's faux pas in the conduct of the just-concluded general election exposes the type of blunders that will not be tolerated in a fast developing and modern Malaysia and, indeed, emphasises the timeliness of the kind of public sector reform the Prime Minister espouses.
The inefficiencies and inadequacies highlighted, such as inability to hold up to the rolling registration process, have to be addressed quickly.
While some have called for the head of the chairman of the commission, more in party political angst than anything else, the deeper issues are the need for greater professionalism and independence of the staff of the commission, including the dissociation with traditional civil service pay and mentality.
All this, however, should not be used as an excuse to run away from the outcome of the general election, as members of the Opposition and some maverick journalists on their cobwebby websites are trying to do.
There is no question of anyone or any party coming in which should not have, like George W. Bush was elected President in Florida almost four years ago, to bring what he has to America and the world.
While there is every right to criticise the shortcomings of the Election Commission, Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Ismail should not forget that she was declared winner in Permatang Pauh, by 590 votes after a recount, when it would have been enticing, had the commission been biased, to consign her and Keadilan to a little bit of local political history.
Pas, which apparently is challenging the commission's announcement of the outcome of the general election, is so double-faced as to quickly, at the same time, form the State Government in Kelantan, after recounts by the commission gave the party six seats which allowed it to retain power.
So, as the Australians would say, Don't come the raw prawn with me, mate.
Having said that, there is little doubt there should be reform of the Election Commission.
Indeed, what has become evident, again and again, as Malaysia has developed, is that the public sector has stood still, even gone backward, as the rest of society, the economy and the private sector have moved forward. This cannot be sustained.
A large part of Abdullah's brief after the election, which he himself had identified, is reform of the administrative machinery and the public sector, which must include the archaic judicial service, not to mention the many other accusations hurled at it.
The other part, an even larger and more challenging part, which has again been identified by the Prime Minister, is the changing of the mindset that sees the appurtenances of wealth and income in a growing economy but does not measure the approach to it through excellence, but through the shortest routes: through corrupt practices and abuse of authority; through seeing privilege as protection against indolence and inefficiency; and through using political patronage as a proxy for power.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"