The first major electoral test for Pakatan Harapan (PH) is to win the Cameron Highlands by-election despite the many challenges

Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming on the 12th of January 2019 on the Cameron Highlands By-Election

The Cameron Highlands by-election campaign, which kicks off on the 12th of January 2019, will be the first major electoral test for Pakatan Harapan (PH) since the 14th General Election. This is the first by-election in a seat which was won by the Barisan Nasional (BN) in the 14th GE, albeit by a small margin of 597 votes.

Even though PH now holds power at the federal level, we cannot assume that this power will translate into more support on the 26th of January, the polling day for this by-election, as with new powers and responsibilities comes new expectations and challenges.

Trends from past 4 by-elections

Prior to Cameron Highlands, there have been 4 by-elections since GE14, three at the state level in Selangor and one at the parliamentary level in Negeri Sembilan. As expected, turnout in all 4 by-elections dropped significantly, by an average of 37%, as compared to GE14. With the decrease in dropout, the margin of victory (the majority) of the winning candidate (all PH candidates) also dropped.

Despite the drop in turnout, the support for PH increased in each of the by-elections – N49 Sungai Kandis (+5.8%), N27 Balakong (+7.5%), P132 Port Dickson (+12.2%) – with the exception of N32 Seri Setia where support for PH fell by 7.6% (Refer to Table 1 below).

Profile of the Cameron Highlands parliament seat

In GE14, the number of voters in this parliament seat was 32048 with 362 postal voters and 219 early voters. Cameron Highlands is probably the most ethnically diverse parliament seat in Malaysia where no one community represents more than 40% of voters – 33.7% Malay, 29.5% Chinese, 14.9% Indian and 21.9% Orang Asli and others.

According to the most recent electoral roll, the number of voters for the by-elections has dropped slightly to 32,008.

There are a total of 29 polling districts (“tempat mengundi”) in Cameron Highlands. 17 polling districts (PDs) are in the state seat of Tanah Rata (which is held by DAP) while 12 are in the state seat of Jelai (which is held by the UMNO Menteri Besar of Pahang).

7 of these PDs are Malay majority (all of which are in DUN Jelai) with an average of 93% Malay voters and a total of 8570 voters. 5 of these PDs are Chinese majority (all of which are in DUN Tanah Rata) with an average of 79.9% Chinese voters and a total of 8295 voters. 5 of these PDs are Indian majority (all of which are in DUN Tanah Rata) with an average of 59.9% Indian voters and a total of 2613 voters. 9 PDs are Orang Asli majority (4 in DUN Tanah Rata and 5 in DUN Jelai) with an average of 91% OA voters and a total of 5642 voters. Finally, there are 3 mixed PDs (all in Tanah Rata) where no one community comprises more than 50% of voters and the total number of voters is 6888. (Refer to Table 2 below)

Given the diversity of the voter profile in Cameron Highlands, the campaign which will be employed by the respective parties will also require a diversity of approaches.

Voting in GE14

In GE14, BN won 41% of the vote (10307 votes) with PH close behind at 38.6% (9710 votes). PAS managed to win 14.3% of votes (3587 votes) while PSM (680 votes with 2.7% support) and BERJASA (0.3% votes) hardly made a dent. BN’s majority was very small at 597 votes or 2.4% of total votes. (Figure 1 below)

When we examine the breakdown of support for PH by category of polling stations, the results are not that surprising.

In the 7 Malay majority PDs, PH only managed to win 9% of the total votes. What is interesting to note is that PAS was neck and neck with BN in these PDs with 41.9% of the vote compared to 46.9% for BN. In the Bukit Kota, Kampung Keledek and FELDA Sungai Koyan Satu PDs, PAS actually had MORE support than the BN (Figure 2 below). Given the close cooperation between PAS and the BN, it may not be so easy for PH to win over a significant proportion of these Malay voters.

PH’s performance in the 9 Orang Asli PDs was not much better. PH only managed to win 10.1% of the votes in these seats. BN won 74% of total votes in these 9 OA majority PDs. PAS won even less than PH (2.7%) and PSM (4.1%) in these PDs. Increasing support among the OAs will be key in increasing the chances for PH to win this seat.

Not surprisingly, PH’s support was the highest in the 5 Chinese majority PDs. PH won 76.9% of total votes in these PDs compared to 18.1% for BN. Both PSM and PAS won less than 2% of total votes in these PDs. (See Figure 4 below)

In the 5 Indian majority PDs, PH managed to win 61.4% of total votes compared to 26.8% for the BN. PSM performed their best in these PDs, winning 7.2% of total votes which is more than the 2.1% won by PAS (Figure 5 below).

In the 3 ethnically “mixed” PDs, PH won 50.9% of total votes compared to 33.9% won by BN, 8.3% won by PAS and 4.8% won by PSM. (Figure 6 below)

Finally, for the early and postal voting, PH only won 7.8% of the total votes compared to 72.3% for BN and 11.3% for PAS (Figure 7 below).

Turnout in GE14

Turnout in the Orang Asli areas in GE14 was the highest among all the polling station types at 84.1% followed by the turnout in the Chinese majority PDs (80.7%), the Malay majority PDs (79.9%), and the mixed PDs (67.9%). (See Table 3 below)

While turnout will DEFINITELY decrease in the upcoming by-election, the degree of to which turnout decreases among the different categories of PDs will be different. The Orang Asli turnout will likely decrease by the smallest amount since the percentage of OA voters who live in their respective PDs is the highest among all the communities. The Chinese turnout will likely fall by a greater degree since more of these voters are outstation voters and hence less likely to come back to vote for a by-election.

Challenges for PH in the by-election

The challenges for PH in the upcoming campaign are numerous.

Firstly, we have to minimize the drop in the turnout rate especially among our core supporters. I am reminded of the 2014 Teluk Intan by-election where turnout dropped from 80.4% in GE 2013 to 67.4%. As a result, a majority of 7313 for the DAP in GE 2013 turned into a loss of 258 votes in the 2014 by-election. The drop in turnout rate is also linked to the related challenge of maintaining support among the core PH supporters.

The second challenge faced by PH is to retain as much support among our core supporters which, in GE14, were the Chinese and Indian voters. Given that PH has not been able to immediately meet the high expectations of these communities post GE14 for PH to fulfil some of our manifesto promises, we expect the support for PH among the Chinese voters to decrease. The floor for Chinese support cannot not fall below 70%. There may be more room to increase the PH support among the Indian voters to as much as 70% as a result of a weakened MIC and the decision by MIC to concede this seat.

The third challenge for PH is to increase support among the OA and Malay voters from a dismal base of approximately 10%. With fewer restrictions in campaigning in OA and Malay majority areas, PH should be able to increase its support among these communities. But how much of an increase which can be achieved is still anyone’s guess. Some OAs may still think that the BN is still the federal government. Some OAs may choose to abstain from voting because they don’t want to get in the crossfire between the PH federal and the BN state governments. The choice of a Muslim Orang Asli former high ranking police officer as a candidate may also put a limit to how much support PH can increase among the Malay and OA voters. Even getting PAS supporters to switch to PH may be challenging especially since PAS has said that they will work to support the BN candidate. The by-election in Sungai Kandis in August 2018 showed that UMNO was able to gain a significant proportion of PAS support thereby limiting the increase in the level of PH support among the Malay voters.

The fourth challenge for PH is to fulfil the demands of the key voting blocks via government policy. These include the demand for more foreign workers among the vegetable farmers, cleaning up the environment among local residents and having more inclusive development policies for the Orang Asli, just to name a few examples. Whereas PH could blame the BN government in the past for the lack of political will to carry out some of these much needed policies, the ball is now in PH’s court in terms of delivery.

The fifth and final challenge for PH is to campaign in such a manner as to not be seen as abusing government resources in the same way that BN used to do when it held power at the federal level. This will be tricky since the presence of the PH federal government must be felt in this by-election, especially in the Malay and OA majority areas, but at the same time, there will be a much higher level of public scrutiny, including from the press, the Election Commission and the NGOs to monitor the activities of PH leaders, probably more so compared to BN leaders. Not only must PH attempt to live up to the standards that the public demands, it must also face the pressures of competing against a BN state government that has less compunction to abuse state government resources. It won’t be easy to resist the temptation to invite the PH candidate to appear in federal government events especially during the heat of the campaign when many programs will inevitably be organized in different areas in Cameron Highlands.

Targets for the By Election

Winning this by-election is difficult but not impossible. If PH can hit the following by-election targets, chances are there for PH to eke out a victory. These targets include:

  • Not letting turnout drop below 55%, especially among key PH supporters
  • Achieving at least 70% of Chinese and Indian support
  • Increasing Malay and OA support from approximately 10% to at least 30%
  • Increasing early and postal voter support from approximately 10% to 40%

If PH wins this crucial by-election, this would be a serious setback for the BN, one which perhaps it cannot recover from. The hard work has already begun. The official campaign will begin tomorrow in the most closely watched by-election since GE14.

Dr. Ong is the Member of Parliament for Bangi and Assistant National Director for Political Education for the Democratic Action Party (DAP)