COMMENT As expected, the opposition PKR won the Kajang by-election. It did so with a smaller majority in number of voters, 5,379, but a larger share of the overall vote, up from 56.8 percent to 59.1 percent.
This was an important win for the opposition. Yet, the results did not send the decisive signal of a growing groundswell of support for Pakatan Rakyat nor did it send a signal of gains for the incumbent BN government, which ordinarily in a time of national crisis would have won stronger support.
Rather it points to minor shifts in voting behaviour that suggest both sides need to improve their strategies of engagement with voters.
Kajang is a constituency with a long history of political activism. Close to Kuala Lumpur and one of Malaysia's national universities, the roots of political activity run deep. In fact one of the striking features of this seat is how few fence-sitters there were, with both sides trying hard to convert the converted.
The campaign evolved from a focus on the 'Kajang Move' resulting from tensions over the state leadership in PKR to the sentencing of party’s de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim. It changed from disadvantaging the opposition to placing the government on the defensive.
There was an element of stepping back in time to a period where outrage over a politically motivated conviction moved voters. Based on focus group discussions and interviews, the sentencing of Anwar over a decade ago was the number one issue that influenced voting behaviour.
In this rerun, there was less anger and more resignation. The majority of voters nevertheless sent a clear signal that the methods used by the BN towards the opposition were not acceptable.
Despite the core issue, the two-month campaign was filled the conflicting and confusing messaging. The mantra of ‘Wan Azizah to Putrajaya’ just did not make sense to many voters, who were not sure whether she was running for the state leadership or national power. It was also not clear if they were voting for her or her husband, Anwar.
If confusion clouded the votes for Pakatan, then contradictions were paramount in the BN messaging. BN moved from highlighting division in the opposition to promoting a racially divisive message calling for the Chinese to vote along ethnic lines.
The messaging was all over the place, as both the BN and Pakatan used every play in the book to win voters with limited results. Neither side evoked the 'spirit' as it was not clear who was more tired - the campaigners or the voters.
Indeed, both sides relied on the old playbook in their campaigning. BR1M 3.0, transportation allowances and 'gifts' of food were the dominant mode of BN engagement, with efforts focused on maintaining their political base - although comparatively less money was spent on this 'buy'-election than others.
This vote buying was buttressed by grassroots mobilisation of both the Umno and MCA political base with appeals along racial lines. MCA was more explicit in its call to vote for a Chinese representative, although race and religion were a major undertone on all sides.
For Pakatan, the 'Putrajaya' song was replayed but it seemed out of tune with this by-election. With political infighting within the opposition over the Selangor government and jockeying for positions within PKR for its May party polls close to the surface, the dance steps to the music seemed unclear, with the campaign itself highly decentralised, uneven and disjointed.
In terms of coordination, there was a flashback to the Hulu Selangor by-election, where PKR contenders did not appear to be helping each other. The overall focus seemed on winning power rather than representing people, with a campaign heavily personality based.
The opposition appeared to be replaying Reformasi 2.0 without a clear programme and plan on what the revised reform programme would be.
The end result is that the campaign relied on negative messaging on both sides, alienating those in the middle. The level of inspiration was overall missing. Those aligned came out to vote, with those less connected staying at home.
Beyond the messaging and campaigning, four factors help us understand why fewer voters came to the polls.
Foremost is the impact of MH370 which overshadowed the campaign. For many Malaysians this crisis, this period of loss for the families and commitment to finding the plane was far more important that the continued saga of BN-Pakatan political contestation.
Frankly, many voters could not be bothered with what some saw as the persistent petty squabbling of politicians. Elites across the political spectrum do not appreciate that many in the public are tired of the fighting and focus on winning power rather than governance. MH370 brought this home, eclipsing the campaign.
An estimated quarter of voters lived outside of Kajang, disproportionately Chinese and younger voters. With the Ching Ming festival beginning next weekend, many Chinese voters did not return for the polls. The timing of the by-election appeared to be set carefully to make it less viable for more opposition-inclined voters to come back and vote.
Along with timing, the incentive to vote was not as strong. This involved, for some voters, financial incentives, with fewer goodies distributed. But the main deterrent was that this vote was a 'sure win' for the opposition and many voters did not think their vote was needed.
Finally, this election was not seen as making a difference. While the opposition touted the election's symbolic value, there was little doubt who would win and whether it would matter.
In addition, many voters are losing faith in elections - not helped by yet another 'blackout' during counting in this by-election reported in Sungai Chua. Doubts were also centred on what would happen after the elections with regard to the Selangor government.
The impact on political power at the national or state level was not clear. The reasons to come out to vote beyond Anwar did not resonate with voters. It is thus no wonder that 16 percent less turnout was recorded.
Shifts in voting behaviour
In spite of this, there are important shifts in the voting behaviour. The results were affected by the straight-fight (no independent candidates) dynamic, but not completely so.
There are small changes to the status quo in voting. Already reported are swings among Chinese and Malay voters, ranging from seven to 10 percent.
Let's take the Chinese voters first. This swing towards BN needs to be treated with caution as it is the Chinese youth primarily who did not return to vote, and if they had, the outcome would have looked very similar to the 2013 results. At best, the MCA held onto its political base, especially older and female voters.
Its focus on local issues kept many of its loyal voters, and its appeal to racial representation reinforced traditional affinities. A closer look shows that the MCA gains were not substantive, although to keep its base in the current context showed some resilience among its voters where they have had decades of grassroots support.
What stands out however is that MCA continues to have very minor level of support among the constituency it claims to represent, reinforcing its persistent legitimacy crisis and weakness within the Umno-led government.
The Malay swing towards the opposition is more meaningful. There were fewer Malay voters living outside the constituency, and interviews pointed to some shifts in loyalties. These were concentrated among Malay women and younger Malay voters.
The connection to PKR’s Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and the sympathy she invoked resonated, along with increasing frustration with higher costs of living. For the first time since 1999, a plurality of Malays appeared to have voted for the opposition in this constituency, revealing a decline in support in the Umno base.
Part of this can be explained by the Umno campaign, less spending and the fact that the PKR candidate was a Malay. The results however reveal the main challenge ahead for Umno lies with the disconnect between its promises and governance in the post-GE13 environment, especially in managing the economy.
Prime Minister Najib Razak's political legitimacy is dwindling as it appears that he is losing ground among the group his party touts itself to represent.
While race still is the dominant paradigm to interpret the results, the meaningful fault lines in this election were generation and gender divides. PKR did capture the majority of youth, as it did in 2008 and 1999, with the BN relying heavily on older voters.
BN on its part continued to win over women, although not to the same extent as before, especially among younger women.
With two women in the campaign, the mobilisation of women was evident, and this helps us to understand the persistent Chinese base for MCA (disproportionately female and connected with Chew Mei Fun's style) and the decline of support for BN among Malays, who are more connected to Wan Azizah.
If there are any implications evident in this by-election from voting behavior, it is that women and youth still hold the future trajectory of electoral victory for either side.
Rocky path ahead
This by-election is just one of the many battles for Malaysia's continued polarised political contestation.
This 'sure win' will be followed by what will likely be a decisive victory for BN in Balingian, Sarawak. What makes Kajang more impactful is its multiethnic composition and the effects on the opposition leadership.
For Najib's government, the post-GE13 climate is much harder to navigate as the policies of cutting back subsidies and the resultant higher cost of living are hurting its base particularly hard.
The prominent use of racial politics narrows its ability to reach out to the non-Malays. Najib as a leader has been weakened and has less electoral appeal. Infighting within his own party continues to percolate, as the PM continues to face discontent within Umno. The by-election results, especially the changes in Malay votes, will place additional pressure on Najib.
For the opposition, the battle will be inside Pakatan. The fulcrum will move back to the reasons for the 'Kajang Move' in the first place and disagreements over leadership. The struggle for power in Selangor will continue and infighting within the opposition will persist until it is resolved, likely with the PKR May polls.
Voters will have to deal with both sides focusing on internal politicking rather than governance. Kajang may seem sweet for both sides giving it a reduced majority and victory respectively, but the bitterness is coming.
Given the distractions from attention to the problems of ordinary citizens, both sides need to keep in mind that the real bitterness they have to worry about is further alienation from a public who would like less focus on politics and more attention to people.
DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University. She can be reached email@example.com.