Malaysia by-election: a win for Barisan Nasional – and racial politics

Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional coalition has managed to win back a constituency it lost during its shock defeat in the general election last year, a development analysts say shows growing dissatisfaction with


On Saturday, after a 14-day campaign period, Barisan Nasional’s candidate – Zakaria Hanafi of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) – won the seat for Semenyih, a state constituency in Selangor, by 1,914 votes.

He beat the Pakatan Harapan candidate – Muhammad Aiman Zanali of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) – and two independents.

Mahathir’s ruling coalition loses seat in Malaysia by-election

His victory meant Semenyih, about 20km from Kuala Lumpur, became the first constituency to have been flipped by the Barisan Nasional since the Pakatan Harapan toppled it from power in May after more than six decades of uninterrupted rule.

“Pakatan Harapan is perceived to be less sensitive to the daily needs of the people,” said Dr Awang Azman Awang Pawi, a political analyst at University Malaya’s Institute of Malay Studies. “This is a response to Pakatan failing to live up to pre-election promises and its current low performance, with little consensus between [its component parties].”

He said the result also showed multi-ethnic Malaysia was not ready to let go of race-based communal politics, despite Pakatan Harapan’s calls for a Malaysia that is not divided along racial lines.

“The reality is that politics based on ethnicity and religion is the core of Malaysia’s political foundation.”

A supporter takes a selfie with former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak during a campaign event for the Semenyih by-election. Photo: EPA

Umno and its unofficial ally PAS (the Islamic Party of Malaysia) had regrouped since the election, concentrating their efforts on wooing Malays, the country’s majority ethnic group, and this was what had “made up the minds of voters in Semenyih”, he said.

Analyst Dr Wong Chin Huat, of state-linked think tank the Penang Institute, said the partnership of Umno and PAS was an existential threat to Pakatan Harapan, as if the competition became to be about which party was more pro-Malay, “by default, the multi-ethnic Pakatan will be caught in between”.

“In [the last elections], Barisan and PAS won a total of 46.43 per cent of votes, while Pakatan Harapan won with 50.76 per cent. In the by-election, Barisan backed by PAS won 50.44 per cent while Pakatan won only 45.56 per cent. Once we see Barisan and PAS as a camp, it is … a swing of five per cent,” he said.

In May, the Barisan Nasional lost the seat to Pakatan Harapan’s Bakhtiar Mohd Nor, who won with a majority of almost 9,000 votes. His death in…

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