Crossing the lines - BN's early strategic mistakesCOMMENT In assessing any electoral campaign, it is essential to review the assumptions and implications of different strategic moves.
Three decisions on the part of BN in the last two weeks are leading to tectonic shifts within the electorate, and thus strengthen the opposition’s position nationally.
1. The use of sex videos against PAS and possibly other opposition politicians.
2. The fielding of Perkasa leader Zulkifli Noordin in Shah Alam.
3. The action by the Registrar of Societies (ROS) in not recognising DAP’s central executive committee (CEC).
The combined effect of these moves have strengthened the opposition coalition and negatively impact the BN’s position with the electorate in the lead up to the May 5 general election.
Let’s take each of these in turn:
1. Smut videos
Since 1999, the use of sex has become the mode of attack by BN. The list includes PKR de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim, MCA president Chua Soi Lek, PKR deputy president Azmin Ali, and more recently, PAS secretary-general Mustafa Ali, among others.
Sex videos have also played a role in the Umno polls, including against caretaker Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak (left) himself. The aim is to use character assassination to tarnish reputations, and to do so through personal attacks.
Somehow, the incumbent government has in its mind, that by using sex, they can sway voters. This tactic raises some interesting questions: Why has the use of smut become the tool of attack by BN? Why does BN think this can work? And why do they continue to use this tactic when it is clearly not working?
The use of smut by BN reflects more on the party itself than the opposition. It fundamentally shows a lack of respect for the rules of decency, especially given than many of these videos are clearly constructed through technology rather than truth.
It also reveals what their own priorities are. Somehow, there is an assumption that the Malaysian electorate will be swayed by smut. This shows how BN conceives the priorities of the general public.
The evidence shows that the original Anwar sodomy attack backfired politically in 1999. Further questions have been raised through the media barrage and a second trial. Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Malaysians see the second trial and subsequent videos for what they are - shallow political ploys.
The conservative Malays they are targeting are offended by the use of smut. Many in the public do not think that these videos are credible. The now sub-contracted production of such sex tapes has led to diminishing returns that are clearly backfiring.
Nowhere was this clearer when the video allegedly portraying Mustafa Ali was released last week. Apparently, Najib’s Umno decided to go after one of the most powerful and respected senior leaders in PAS.
However, the impact has ironically led to a strengthening of resolve among the opposition to work together to form a new government. When a party is attacked, people naturally rally together. This has been the pattern for the opposition coalition since the Perak crisis.
BN’s use of smut has ultimately hurt itself as it highlights the use of unchecked personal attacks to hold onto power. Given that one of the BN’s party presidents has his own sex video that he has acknowledged as real, BN appears to be nothing but hypocritical.
Furthermore, they have misread the public by assuming that they can be swayed by base innuendo. Indeed, in terms of the electorate, smut is not a determinant of voting behaviour.
2. Fielding Zulkifli Noordin
Decisions matter, especially those that provoke incredulity. The announcement of lawyer Zulkifli Noordin as a candidate for Umno overshadows all the other candidates, including Najib himself.
While there are some talented names in the Umno list, they are being tainted by the appointment of a person who is perceived to be an ultra chauvinist, and who has openly attacked Hinduism and Christianity in a manner that had provoked public outrage.
The video evidence of Zulkifli disparaging the Hindu religion was already viral and has reached record circulations, especially among the Indian community which will be decisive in this election. The electorate is understandably asking whether the views of Zulkifli are those of Najib’s. He, after all, is the person who appointed the candidate who has openly shown disrespect towards many fellow Malaysians.
This tactic also raises questions: Does Najib endorse the views that are being advocated by Zulkifli (right)? Why is there so little respect for multicultural tolerance among the candidates in the BN list?
The views of the caretaker prime minister on the racial statements of Zulkifli have not been made clear. These are among the questions that Najib will now be pressured to answer as the video footage goes into outlying areas.
Politically, the use of race has long been a feature of Malaysian politics, but the content and tone of the Zulkifli remarks reflect a defensive (and offensive) anger and reactionary position on ethnic relations.
This election will be shaped by the ability of the winner to reach out across different communities. We have seen tactically the use of racial polarisation since Najib took office in 2009 in the different by-elections, but never has any premier, who is supposed to represent the entire country, opted for endorsing these views through the candidate selection.
This is backfiring, not only among non-Malays, but also among younger and more exposed Malays who do not need the crutch of racial fear and insecurity to be confident and proud of their achievements.
3. ROS' harassment
The ROS letter to DAP yesterday brought out into the open the persistent use of government departments to threaten political parties, and it showcased underhanded tactics.
This practice has been common for years, especially in Sabah and Sarawak. Despite the ROS’ approval of Pakatan’s registration, it has been held up in the ministries for years. The ROS is being used for political aims, thus undermining its reputation and further undermining the credibility of the country’s institutions.
This tactic is perhaps the most blatant. Do they assume that people do not respect fair play? Do they think that Malaysians are willing to accept a process that is unfair?
The decision to deny the CEC of the DAP highlights BN’s tactical decision to use state power at the last minute to create disarray and sow confusion.
The decision foreshadows a possible deregistration and potential use of these legal administrative procedures to hold onto power. By going after DAP in such a manner, the BN underestimates the wishes of ordinary Malaysians for fair play and decency.
The impact has ironically brought in even more cooperation among the opposition, and the possibility of DAP now contesting under the banners of PAS and PKR has the potential to showcase a shared commitment. The opposition coalition emerged stronger from this move as it reflects confidence and trust in each other.
There is plenty of time for the political parties to communicate the decision to the electorate. Ironically, after bruising inter-party seat negotiations, the ROS action has moved the parties further together.
Losing the PR battle
Tactics are crucial in any campaign. Those that cross the line only undermine those who use them. BN’s moves of late illustrate that the choices they are making do not take into account of how they will be perceived on the ground.
Studies on dirty tactics vary. In this case, however, BN’s tactics are likely to go beyond what is acceptable. They seem to underestimate the sense of fair play among Malaysians. On many fronts, they appear to insult the intelligence of the electorate in the assumptions of how they will vote and why.
Malaysian politics have shown that sentiment is a powerful force, potentially more powerful than money or machinery. This has been crucial in close elections. It is the decisive force that pushes voters toward one side or another. In the battle for sentiment to date, the BN coalition has indeed miscalculated.
DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University. She is travelling around Malaysia to provide her GE13 analyses exclusively to Malaysiakini. Bridget can be reached at email@example.com.