Would you vote for Mahathir’s new party?

In early June, I wrote about Muhyiddin’s decision to sack Mahathir and his sympathisers from BERSATU. I said it was strategic because Mahathir would be left without a party. Without a party, he would have no authority, platform or influence.

The standard assumption is that it is highly unlikely that Mahathir would join an existing party, and that he would only take the radical step of starting a new party as a last resort. That is why Muhyiddin dared to sack Mahathir – he had time and resources on his side. 

Therefore, it is surprising that Mahathir had to resort toforming a new party. 

Of course, his first option was to abandon his PH allies and form a new government with the largest Malay parties, and him as the prime minister. We know from an insider’s knowledge that this was always in the works. But Muhyiddin, of all people, beat him to it. 

Then, Mahathir’s new option was to use his PH allies to regain power as prime minister after the betrayal. He told PH that the Perikatan Nasional schemers used his name and he never intended to abandon his PH allies. However, PH could not agree to allow Mahathir as prime minister – even for 6 months. This one failed too. 

Later, Mahathir decided to use an old tactic from the playbook – a proxy. He proposed Shafie Apdal as prime minister and his son, Mukhriz Mahathir, as deputy. Anything but Anwar. This was shot down too due to PKR’s insistence on putting Anwar as prime minister.

Finally, Mahathir tried to get back the party he founded. He brought a legal challenge against his termination from BERSATU, but this was denied by the court. Upon receiving the news that his challenge failed, Mahathir was left without a choice but to form a new party.

Starting all over is a bad idea

Forming a new party was always a bad idea. The first problem – although cosmetic – is that a good name is hard to find. That is why Mahathir was only able to call it “Bebas” for now. The other more pressing problem is that grassroots support and elite leadership support is hard to build.

A political party must command sufficient leadership influence, either assuming federal or state executive positions to strengthen the party. Other than that, it must have enough people on the ground to mobilise voters. Not only must you make people remember your party’s logo, colour, and struggles, you must also make them remember your face. This is even before what you say and do for them. 

But this situation was made worse for Mahathir because his party is exactly the same as BERSATU. Mahathir’s new party fights against corruption and fights for the Malays. This was BERSATU’s mission statement in 2017. 

2020 is also different from 2017. Just because the old mission statement of BERSATU has worked to rile up voters from the ground does not mean that the same will happen now. 

First, the fight for corruption has undergone its ups and downs. Although it is true that corruption is still a pressing issue in this country, voters are starting to experience fatigue. 

What corruption means today

The poster boy of kleptocracy, Najib Razak, has recently been sentenced to 12 years in prison and RM210 million fine. These are signs of unprecedented progress. Because Muhyiddin was intent on making sure his Cabinet was freefrom major corruption scandals and court cases, the moral case against corruption is not as strong as 2018. 

There is less firing power in the political cause of corruption. 

Although hope was renewed in 2018, the reversal of our gains with Muhyiddin’s coup d’état also means that voters are tired of politics in general. Most people do not feel as emotionally attached to the cause of corruption as they were 2 years ago; they felt cheated by politicians and think that they are all the same. 

Second, the fight for Malay votes is quadruply difficult now. Although Mahathir, like any other Malay-based political leader, has hinted to the possibility of having non-Malay members, this was never sincere. The same was done in BERSATU (with its Associate Membership for non-Malays)or Amanah; but in the end, they are primarily Malay-based parties fighting for race-based votes. 

Malay parties need monopoly to win

The problem with this approach is that race-based parties rely on a monopoly of Malay votes to retain power. The common cry of “uniting the Malays” often comes with a political understanding that without a concentrated home for Malay voters, the race-based parties will never win. That is why PAS is willing to collaborate with UMNO, and also why BERSATU is working hard to be accepted by UMNO-PAS. 

All of them know that if they continue to split Malay votes, none of them will win. There is no hope for them to count on non-Malay votes or voters that cross racial lines because their parties were built on Malay ideology, driven to attract Malay votes. This is oftentimes antithetical to other voting profile. 

News has started to emerge that there is and will continue to be large-scale resignations from BERSATU to join Mahathir’s new party. Lest we misunderstand, this is not a sign of the growing strength of Mahathir. Instead, it is simply a split of two weak Malay-based parties to make both weaker. The net effect is that UMNO and PAS will strengthen as the main Malay political bloc. 

After all, there is a reason why UMNO and PAS is hesitant to accept BERSATU into their fore. UMNO and PAS have spent half a century building its grassroots network of supporters – they are good on their own.

(Publication found here: https://m.malaysiakini.com/news/538150)

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