The results of the April 7 by-elections are not unexpected. While the status quo was expected to remain, what was surprising was the increased margins of the winning sides, especially in the battles of the 2 Bukits.
BN leaders have been telling the people and their grassroots that Malay votes have begun to return to Umno, what with the charges of “derhaka” against the ousted mentri besar of Perak Datuk Seri Mohd Nizar Jamaluddin being floated around and working up the feelings of the people on the ground.
Even though I do not have the breakdown of the voting streams yet and hence would not be able to tell how much of Malay votes have returned, common sense dictates that with the increased margin won by PAS and PKR respectively in Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau, it is unlikely that significant Malay votes have returned to BN.
This is despite the awesome BN by-election machinery, the catchy rhetoric of the new prime minister, and the return of a former prime minister to the fold of Umno, who also campaigned on behalf of BN candidates in the 2 Bukits.
Why is it so?
Whereas during the time of the 12th General Election 13 months ago, people in West Malaysia simply wanted to teach BN a lesson for being arrogant and corrupt, this time around, they sent a message that they want to see changes which has not been forthcoming. The people are getting smarter, and unless they see real changes, they would not be so easily bought by the rhetoric which to them is more hype than anything else.
It is also significant that despite the huge amount of money promised to the Chinese schools and temples, non-Malays still voted the other way. This is because of the perception of the people that anything cannot be worse than the present.
Before, non-Malays treated PAS as poison, now they have no qualms at all voting for this party — an unthinkable act just 2 years ago.
This shift in mindsets will be a big factor in the next general election, especially with a million young voters expected to join the voting fraternity.
Umno, as the dominant component of BN, has to initiate real reform and must be seen as being sincere in reforming.
The million dollar question is always whether the top leader has the will, and can be strong enough to initiate a total overhaul of the whole party. Given the entrenched politics of patronage, it is indeed a tall order for any leader to change the party.
As for the components, the writing is very clear on the wall. In this by-election of Bukit Gantang, Gerakan had worked very hard , especially its wanita chief who had practically camped in the constituency even long before the nomination period. Its members from Perak had campaigned hard.
It is noteworthy that one of the state constituencies under Bukit Gantang, Kuala Sepetang, was a former stronghold of Gerakan, and used to be won by Gerakan candidates before the 308 Tsunami.
This time around, despite the efforts, the party had failed to convince its former supporters to come back to support BN.
The same is the case for MIC in Bukit Selambau.
The result of Bukit Gantang is a clarion call to Gerakan that the voters in Gerakan’s former strongholds, as represented by Kuala Sepetang, will not vote for Gerakan in the next GE if Gerakan remains as part of the BN coalition, unless UMNO adopts real reform.
This means that Gerakan’s fate is no longer its own to decide, and that the longer it takes the big brother to change, the worse would be for Gerakan to survive as a viable political entity.
The party needs to re-evaluate its position within BN and re-strategise, failing which it may face annihilation in the next General Election and go the way of the PPP.
The silver lining for BN is perhaps the win in Batang Ai, which shows that the strong wind that is blowing in Peninsular Malaysia has not reached East Malaysia. Nevertheless, this would not guarantee that come next election, the thinking of the people there may remain the same, especially if there is no reform from BN in general and UMNO in particular.
Perhaps as a first step of reform, BN should heed the voices of the people and seriously consider dissolving the Perak State Assembly so that a new state-wide election can be called; let the people decide once and for all who should helm the government of Perak State.
Hsu Dar Ren is a central committee member of Parti Gerakan.