Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Malaysian Politics: Barisan Nasional

One Year On, The BN Still Has No Answer

In last year’s general election on March 8, voter support for the Barisan Nasional dropped to an all-time low. The party won just 49% of the popular votes in the peninsula and lost five key states to the Opposition.

Twelve months down the road, a chastised BN still seems unsure about what to do to recover its ground.

This is not what is supposed to happen. The natural response to defeat should be shock and denial, followed by acceptance, reconstruction, and, hopefully, recovery. But the BN appears bogged down at stage one.

Take the case of Umno. Rebuilding of the party should have begun with the admission of failure and the taking of responsibility. But nobody has accepted responsibility for the party’s disastrous outing in the election. Instead, the party has been engaging in a series of actions to fudge the issue and explain away the need for anyone to take responsibility.

This is inconsistent with Umno’s professed maturity and has done it no good. By placing the future of individuals over that of the party, it shows how lopsided its sense of priorities has become.

Can we trust Umno to get its act together soon? We have to wait till March 26, it seems, when Datuk Seri Najib Razak takes over from Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badai as party president. So far, Najib has made the right noisesabout the need for change. But change is something you do, not something you talk about. So what he does and who he appoints to help him in government will be closely watched.

How have the other major component parties of the BN responded to their election debacle?

The MCA had gone to the 2008 polls with a battered standing. It had spent the previous two years in factional infighting, and the party leader’s claim to leadership was based mainly on the fact that he was head of the faction that won.

Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting also had limited political nous. He could not decide whether the MCA was a social or a political organization. He failed to articulate clear political goals for the party and the community. His campaign platform highlighted the party’s welfare activities instead of emphasizing the political role the party had to play in government by providing checks and balances.

To his credit, Ka Ting accepted responsibility for the party’s poor performance and did not contest the subsequent party election.

Datuk Ong Tee Keat is now party president. He, too, has promised change, but is in danger of allowing his rhetoric to cloud his message. He needs to spell out in practical terms what he means.

Gerakan is in a more difficult position. It was wiped out in Penang, the state it had dominated for many years and where its leader, Tan Sri Koh Tsu Khoon was chief minister. Nationwide, the party has managed to retain only a token presence : two parliamentary seats and three state seats.

The political space the Gerakan has tried to occupy has now ben taken over by the DAP and PKR. Its prospects for recovery are limited, and will be considerably diminished if the Pakatan government in Penang is able to maintain the level of public support it enjoys.

So is the Gerakan a viable political proposition anymore? Some members think not, and have left for more neutral ground or joined the Opposition. The party has so far avoided confronting the issue, but it continues to ignore it at its own peril, for that is the surest way to political irrelevance.

The MIC is the smallest of the founding members of the Barisan Nasional and is relied on to secure the Indian vote. Support for the party, however, has probably never been lower.

The reasons are many, and they include having a president who treats the party like his own; the rise of alternative social-political activist groups like Hindraf which have outflanked the MIC in the espousal of Indian community causes; and the growing success of opposition parties like the DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat in winning Indian political support.

Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu has carved out a role for himself in the MIC that has no equivalent in any other BN party. He runs the party in a tight-fisted style and brooks no opposition. In the 2008 election, his was the loudest boast, a dare to take on one and all in his parliamentary constituency of Sungai Siput. But he was soundly beaten by a political unknown, but has not become any humbler.

What is the party’s future? Can it win back the Indian vote? Samy Vellu’s supporters say he is indispensable to MIC’s recovery. His critics, on the other hand, say nothing will change without a change of leadership. At the party elections next month, the former view is likely to prevail. The biggest sigh of relief then will probably be heard in Opposition parties, where many view Samy Vellu as one of the main reasons they are winning support from the Indian community.

BN’s recovery will take time but is not assured. “If you can’t strengthen your own position, try at least to weaken your enemy’s.” That’s not a quotation from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, but it well describes what the Barisan Nasional is doing Perak these days: harass the Pakatan Rakyat and prevent it from settling down and showing what it can do in government.

No one knows how the political impasse in Perak is going to pan out, but the BN is obviously hoping to come out on top and rule the state. But even if it fails to do so, it will have done enough to keep the Pakatan Rakyat off-balance and on the defensive.

But BN strategists should not feel so smug. They may win a battle and yet lose the war. The dispute in Perak is the battle, and the next general election is the war. What matters is winning back enough voter support to achieve victory at the polls in three or four years’ time.

It is a fair guess that right now popular support for the BN and the Pakatan Rakyat has not changed much over the last 12 months. In the general election, Pakatan won 51% of the votes in the peninsula and the BN won 49%. The results of two recent by-elections, at Permatang Pauh and Kuala Terengganu, have confirmed that this division of support has remained fairly constant.

By-elections are a particularly stringent test for the Pakatan because it has to contend with the massive firepower of the BN concentrated in a small locality. In both by-elections, the Pakatan was able to hold the line. This confirmed the solidity of its support.

Two more by-elections will be held soon in the peninsula on April 7, at Bukit Selambau in Kedah and Bukit Gantang in Perak. If the Pakatan can successfully defend both seats, it will further confirm that the election outcome of March 8 last year was no flash in the pan, and that the popular support the Opposition enjoys is not easily disassembled.

So the BN’s task of winning back voter support is not easy one. Is there winning formula? And will there be enough time to work through it so that it will have an impact in the next general election?

The BN’s problem is that it has lost the trust of a large section of the community. They do not believe the BN will do the right thing by them. After enduring years of neglect, arrogance, abuse of power, corruption, cronyism and discrimination, they finally said “No” at the ballot box.

How can the BN re-build trust? There is no magic here. The formula is simple: honesty, equity, respect and justice. Question is, can these be delivered? And can it be done in sufficient measure to make an impact in the next general election?

The responsibility to deliver will be Najib’s. He won’t find it easy. The rot that has set in is deep-seated and endemic and it will take a strong and determined leader to unwind the system.

Najib can start with Umno. If Umno can demonstrate resolution and move away from the culture of patronage and entitlement that is plaguing it, if it can re-capture some of the high ideals and broad-mindedness of its early years, then there may be some reason to think that change is in the air.

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