Race politics gave BN the edge, say academiciansBN will be able to rule Malaysia for a long time through a deeply intense communal strategy that has re-emerged after the 13th general election.
This also marks a move away from democracy in Malaysia, compared with the 2008 general election, academicians said after dissecting the GE13 results at a forum.
"Whenever Umno makes Malays feel threatened, it benefits," said William Case (right), an American political scientist with the City University of Hong Kong.
"Malaysian society is growing more differentiated and more complex, but ethnicity is still king. The crown is slipping but it has not fallen off yet."
Calling the GE13 a setback for democracy, the speakers at the forum said the opposition did everything right but would still fail to topple the BN in future elections, unless the coming constitutency redelineation exercise diffuses racial voting lines in Malaysia.
Case, who has observed Malaysian politics for more than 35 years, was one of 12 academicians who presented talks on the GE13 at the one-day forum on democracy held at Universiti Malaya.
He labelled the GE13 as a "strange" one.
"The opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat did win more seats and the popular vote but only DAP did well. BN lost but Umno had one of its best elections ever, gaining more votes from the Malays and has just one short of Pakatan's 88 seats," Case said.
Case recalled that Umno was in a disarray after the "stunning" loss of the BN's two-thirds majority in Parliament in 2008, which then looked like it would usher in a two-party system in Malaysia.
Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak (right) who took over the reins from Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in 2009, had promised to unleash liberal reforms, abolish the Internal Security Act and provide more press freedom under his 1Malaysia campaign.
Five years on, in the post-GE13 period, the picture is very different.
Even though BN failed to wrest back its two-thirds majority in Parliament and its major component parties MCA and MIC suffered setbacks, Umno was "galvanised".
"Umno is now arrogant and defiant, quite a change between 2008 and 2013... it looks like Malaysia has gone backwards," Case said.
He said that Umno's success in GE13 was due to its return to its root strategy - to garner support primarily from lower income Malays in the smaller rural districts.
"All in, Umno, except Najib, recognised that Chinese voters were lost, so Umno decided to go it alone and targeted PAS and DAP," he said. "The more DAP aroused the Chinese crowd, the more in need of Umno's protection that the 'little' Malays felt."
Umno has shown a more hardline trend after GE13. Najib himself was wounded by the lack of Chinese support and labelled it "a Chinese tsunami," just after the election results were announced.
Case cited the use of new coercive laws such as Peaceful Assembly Act, Sedition Act and new controls on the social media as examples of what appeared to be a reverse of Najib's previous democratic reforms.
"Malaysia will settle back to its state as an 'electoral authoritarian' regime. Next year, it will be the 40th anniversary of that regime (first created in 1974, just after the May 13, 1969, racial riots) and in the world, only Singapore has done it longer," Case added.
He concluded his 45-minute presentation on a pessimistic note that younger democracies, such as Myanmar and Indonesia, were now far ahead of Malaysia in 'procedural' democracy terms, where the people get to choose the government they want in free and fair elections.
GE13 saw the highest voter turnout ratio since 1964, with almost 10.5 million votes cast. Pakatan, in its most united showing ever, raked in 53 percent of the popular votes compared with BN's 47 percent, but this did not translate into parliamentary seats.
BN took 133 seats in Parliament, against Pakatan's 88 seats.
"Why did BN win the election?" Universiti Malaya Centre for Democracy and Elections (Umcedel) director Prof Mohd Redzuan Othman (left) asked rhetorically.
Drawing on election results data, Redzuan said ‘gerrymandering' played a key role.
He said with a few exceptions to the rule, Pakatan won in the bigger constituencies while BN won in smaller constituencies. He said BN also won when a constituency had a majority of Malay voters.
"It is very clear that for BN to win, it needed to have at least 66 percent Malay votes, unless it has a substantial number of Indian votes," Redzuan said.
Redzuan also said Umcedel's survey of historical data unveiled that Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak had the smallest mandate and poorest election showing compared with the first national election that each of the past five Malaysian leaders faced.
Previous prime ministers had as much as 60 to 90 percent of the popular vote.
As a sidenote, Redzuan said the Umdecel survey showed that posters and banners did not influence voters, citing Lembah Pantai as an example where BN flags were more visible, but the coalition still lost the seat.
'Minority vote crucial'
Commenting on Indian votes in the last election, Umcedel fellow and political scientist Balakrishnan Suppaiah said GE13 showed the minority vote becoming more crucial.
Balakrishnan (left) said statements of Indian support returning to BN was "debatable." His own surveys showed that more Indians - particularly young men - now backed the opposition.
"Minority empowerment is getting better and better as the regime wants to keep Indians on the side of the establishment to serve the overall interest of the Malays," he said.
Umcedel also presented a case study done in Temerloh, Pahang, where Saifuddin Abdullah, who is seen as a liberal young Umno leader, failed to defend his Temerloh parliamentary constituency against PAS Youth chief Nasrudin Hassan, who is known for his hardline Islamic stance.
Through a survey of 850 respondents made over three days recently, Umcedel concluded that the Chinese swing votes were the reason Saifuddin lost as Chinese families were pressured by their returning children to try and change the government.
"They supported the opposition not because of the principle, not because of the struggle but because of the "Ubah" tune... a big number of them do not even know who the PAS candidate was," Umcedel's Redzuan said.
"Many of the Chinese work and stay away from their parents but they came back for this particular election."
Adding that the Chinese now realised they were duped, he jokingly predicted that if a re-election was held today, Saifuddin would win back his seat in Parliament.