With the dust barely settled on the Kuala Terengganu by-election last month, the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition is thrown into two more by-elections in which many unresolved controversies are likely to hold sway. The sudden by-elections in Perak and Kedah will take place in two seats that have a significant non-Malay voter base.
“The non-Malay votes will play a decisive role in these two by-elections,” said electoral analyst Ong Kian Ming. That is not good news for the BN.
Through regular surveys, it would appear that while the Malay support for BN may have held since the March general election last year, the non-Malay support has fallen.
If it had its way, the BN will not want to face voters at a time when pro-opposition sentiment is boiling over. But it has no choice, as the law requires that the by-elections be held within 60 days of the seat becoming vacant.
The Bukit Gantang parliamentary seat in Perak fell vacant when the Pas MP Roslan Shaharum died suddenly of a heart attack on Monday.
The Bukit Selambau state seat in Kedah was vacated when its PKR assemblyman V. Arumugam reportedly quit over claims that he was being pressured to defect. He is still missing but Kedah Menteri Besar Datuk Azizan Abdul Razak has announced his resignation. So far, there is no word to the contrary.
Allegations have surfaced that Arumugam had married a second wife in contravention of the law. The PKR has claimed that he married her only through religious rites, and did not register it. He is still legally married to his first wife.
Although in different states, both seats have significant numbers of non-Malay voters, making it very hard for the BN to wrest them away.
“The mood of the day is against the status quo, especially among the non-Malay voters and the young,” said Professor Agus Yusoff, a political analyst.
The voter breakdown for the Perak parliamentary seat is 63.5 per cent Malay, 27.1 per cent Chinese and 9.1 per cent Indian. For the Kedah state seat, it is 50.2 per cent Malay, 19.3 per cent Chinese and 29.5 per cent Indian.
Ong's study showed that about 53 per cent of the Malays voted for BN in Bukit Gantang last March. Only about 35 per cent of non-Malays did so, sharply down from the 85 per cent in 2004.
As for the Kedah seat, the Malay support for the BN was a high 63 per cent, with the non-Malay vote at a low 26 per cent, according to the study.
The non-Malay vote had plummeted in March last year because of resentment over the heightening race rhetoric at that time.
The situation has not improved much. “Umno didn't change, it didn't come clean on issues, or deliver on promises to change,” said Agus.
Two major controversies that have special resonance for the minority communities, are still raging.
The first is the BN-Umno seizure of the Perak state government last week. It angered many voters, and will become the biggest issue in the Bukit Gantang by-election.
The Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition may take full advantage of this by fielding former Perak Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Nizar Jamaluddin as a candidate.
“I believe Nizar is a symbolic figure in view of the present circumstances,” said Perak DAP chairman Ngeh Koo Ham.
Nizar was popular among the non-Malays, and his move to approve permanent land leases for Chinese new villages and vernacular schools was hailed. There is concern now among villagers whether the BN government will continue this policy.
The new BN Menteri Besar Datuk Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir has said it was too early to decide.
The non-Malay votes in Perak will be very difficult for the BN. This is clear from the response to the defecting Chinese assemblyman Hee Yit Fong. The locals were so enraged that her family is taking the brunt of their anger.
In Kedah, the major issue that will play among the non-Malay voters, especially the Indians, is the perception of continued marginalisation of the community. This had lost the BN most of their Indian support last March.
The BN is likely to be further hobbled by a MIC candidate. The party is hugely unpopular with the Indian community.
As a result, analysts believe BN's strongest voter bank in both seats will be the Malay votes. In Perak, Umno still has a fairly strong standing in the community. Of the 28 BN assemblymen, 27 are from Umno.
“The Malay vote is fairly status quo, but the young voters may be different. They may swing away,” said Agus.
The Malay dissatisfaction over the perception of their diminishing political clout, especially in Perak where their numbers form less than half the population, could also come into play. But it will be hard work for the BN - Agencies.