ONE of the best ways to understand the Hulu Selangor by-election is to look at the split-voting phenomenon. That happens when the same voter casts votes for different parties in simultaneous parliamentary and state elections.
In 2008, due to the personality and ethnicity of the Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate, MIC’s Datuk G Palanivel, BN suffered badly due to split voting. While it enjoyed a total margin of 6,374 votes when all the three state seats within Hulu Selangor were combined, this lead evaporated into a negative margin of 198 at the parliamentary level. There were also 195 more spoiled votes at the parliamentary level than at the state level.
|Changes in Voting Pattern in Hulu Selangor 2008-2010|
|Elections||BN parties’ votes |
|PR parties’ votes |
|Spoiled votes |
|BN lead/ majority |
|Total Votes Cast |
|Parliamentary contest 2008 (A)||22,979||23,177||1,466||-198||47,622|
|State contest total 2008 (B)||26,264||20,088||1,271||6,176||47,623|
|Parliamentary contest 2010 (C)||24,997||23,272||731||1,725||49,000|
|Apparent change, 2008-2010 (C-A)||2,018||95||- 735||1,923||1,378|
|Actual change, 2008-2010 (C-B)||-1,267||3,184||- 540||- 4,451||1,377|
All in all, BN could have lost the support of between 6,374 votes (split votes) and 6,569 votes (including spoiled votes) because it fielded the wrong candidate in the 2008 general election.
The challenge for the BN in the 25 April 2010 Hulu Selangor by-election was whether it could reverse this trend by putting up the “right” candidate.
There were two strong reasons to speculate that reversing the trend for the BN from the 2008 elections would not happen. First, if BN had lost the seat again, the Hulu Selangor Umno division would be in a strong position to demand for the seat in the next elections. Second, some MIC voters could have been angered in this round by Umno’s high-handed manner of forcing a candidate change on the party. Hence, this would have partly offset whatever gains were made through the reduced split votes from Malay Malaysians.
MuhyiddinThese were among the main reasons for political scientist Ong Kian Ming to boldly predict a 1,000 to 1,500 winning margin in favour of Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’s candidate Datuk Zaid Ibrahim.
What would it have meant if Umno had succeeded in reversing the split-voting? Even without additional votes, it would have resulted in the BN winning the by-election with a comfortable 6,000-odd margin. Indeed, this was what Umno deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin boldly predicted before polling day.
In 2008, ignoring the split-voting phenomenon and assessing the BN’s strength from its state level performance alone, Hulu Selangor was one of two things. It was either the coalition’s 42nd stronghold (in terms of the 6,176-vote winning margin) or the coalition’s 57th stranglehold (in terms of popular votes at 56.66%).
In this sense, BN’s 1,725 winning margin in the April 2010 by-election is too small for the RM100 million, or RM65,000 per voter, allegedly delivered or promised by the coalition to win.
Diagram showing depletion of votes for BN
Worse, even with an Umno-approved candidate, this self-labelled referendum of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has turned out to be a minor disaster. A former stronghold is now a marginal seat since the 6,176 margin won in the 2008 state elections has been depleted three quarters, or by 4,451 votes, to 1,725 votes.
More specifically, the PR did not only, in nett terms, take all the 1,377 newly- registered voters, it also grabbed away 1,267 votes which favoured the BN in 2008.
Who are these voters?
Who are these people who have now turned to the PR? Some are Orang Asli. A tiny minority are Malay Malaysians from Felda villages. And the bulk, inevitably, are Chinese Malaysians.
Elderly voters queue up to vote at a polling centre in Hulu Selangor
According to Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) supreme council member Low Chee Chong in a communication with me, Chinese Malaysian support for the federal opposition of PR has risen from 67% in 2008’s parliamentary contest to 79% in the 2010 by-election. Some voting streams for elderly Chinese Malaysian voters, who are traditionally more pro-establishment, also showed about 80% support for Zaid.
That basically means the BN might even have lost the support of three-quarters of MCA’s 8,000 members in the constituency.
This is in sharp contrast with the voting patterns of other ethnic groups. According to Loh, the Malay Malaysian support for PR/PKR has dropped from 47% (benefiting from anti-MIC/Palanivel split voters) to 35%. Indian Malaysian support plummeted from 51% to 41%.
Beyond Hulu Selangor
So, did Najib’s “1Malaysia” slogan and RM100 million development pledges win him the national referendum?
Najib (right), celebrating Kamalanathan’s win in Hulu SelangorYes and no. He has surely won the constituency but has been soundly rejected by Chinese Malaysian voters.
And what can we read of this by-election beyond Hulu Selangor?
The good news for Malay ethno-nationalists is this. If, in constituencies where Chinese Malaysians constitute at least a quarter of all voters, Umno/BN can keep the non-Chinese Malaysian support for the PR below 40%, then even when 80% of Chinese Malaysians support the PR, Chinese Malaysians will not determine the election outcome. This is exactly what happened in Hulu Selangor in the April 2010 by-election.
The bad new for ethno-nationalists, however, is that there are simply too many constituencies where Chinese Malaysian voters make up more than a quarter of all voters. According to the 2008 ethnic composition data, which is admittedly outdated due to new registration, there are 90 such parliamentary seats in West Malaysia and 13 more in East Malaysia.
As long as the PR can ensure a minimum of 40% support from non-Chinese Malaysian voters in these 103 seats, 80% support from Chinese Malaysian voters would be sufficient to deny BN its two-third majority. This would then strengthen the two-party political competition emerging in Malaysia.
Now, here’s the question: is ethnic voting that results in obvious bloc voting according to communal lines acceptable?
At one level, like class voting, gender voting, or any other form of cleavage-informed divisions, ethnic voting is normal in a democracy. Voters of different interests will naturally support different parties that are more aligned to their interests. For example, the working class will more likely support a socialist party just as the middle-class will more likely support a capitalist party.
In this sense, attacking ethnic-based voting reflects an authoritarian mentality — that the majority in society must reach consensus. By this logic, Nazi Germany or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where the ruling party enjoyed nearly full citizen support, would be role model nations.
At a higher level, one may ask: is ethnic voting a good thing? For me, the main consideration is competitiveness.
Competitiveness does decrease if one’s choice is largely predetermined by one’s ethnicity, faith, language, culture or class rather than if one were open to persuasion and debates. Immediately after 8 March 2008, I warned that the non-Malay Malaysians’ political unity behind the opposition bloc would merely replace BN’s one-party predominance with another dominant bloc. This would be no good for democracy.
But given today’s circumstances, if 80% of Chinese Malaysian voters supporting PR can ensure the denial of BN’s two-third majority in the Parliament, then I say, long live ethnic voting.