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The Melaka state election is history now. The verdict is in. The dust has settled. It would be fair to say that few expected UMNO-BN to do so well; fewer still expected Pakatan Harapan to do so badly. 

Melaka might turn out to be a harbinger of things to come.  At the very least, it provides a good indication about the evolving attitudes of voters. Opposition party apologists may complain about gerrymandering, Covid-related campaign restrictions and the unfairness of the first-past-the-post system, but there’s no escaping the fact that the ground is shifting back to UMNO-BN. Consider too, that UMNO-BN has won almost every by-election since GE14.

UMNO’s remarkable success suggests that the party may finally be putting the whole 1MDB debacle behind it. For many Malay voters, UMNO, despite its internal bickering and dismal record of corruption and abuse of power, remains their first choice. It has become something of a natural governing party. UMNO is so strongly identified with Malay nationalism, Malay rights and Islam that Malay voters in general cannot fathom life without UMNO. Even a bad UMNO is still better than no UMNO, especially given the alternatives.

The instability and chaos that followed UMNO’s GE14 defeat – three changes of government in three years and the inept handling of the Covid crisis that has led to mass economic hardship – has left many voters yearning for the “old days”. They just want life to get back to normal as quickly as possible, and they see UMNO as the best party to achieve that. They know that the system is terribly corrupt but they can’t do anything about that; all they can hope for is that at least some of the money will trickle down to them. Religion is also hugely important; again, UMNO seems to offer the best balance between advancing the Islamic agenda and maintaining overall stability and development.

Even non-Malay voters might be yearning for the old days.  Both MCA and MIC which many – me included – had declared dead and buried after GE14 are now coming back to life. Chinese voters in particular had high hopes that their support of the DAP would bring them better opportunities and fairer treatment; it has not turned out that way. Perhaps the reality that they might have to reconcile themselves to lower expectations is finally sinking in after the starry-eyed expectations of the Pakatan Harapan years.

Taken together, it suggests that UMNO-BN is going to make major gains come GE15. They may not win enough votes to form the government by themselves, but they will certainly win enough votes to form the backbone of the next government, sealing their position as the natural governing party of Malaysia.

Going forward, leadership issues will dominate UMNO from now till the next elections. The anomaly of Ismail Sabri being prime minister but not party chief and Zahid being party chief but not prime minister will have to be resolved if the party is to quickly consolidate its gains post-Melaka.

For the first time since independence, a sitting prime minister was completely irrelevant in a significant election. With his cabinet members fighting each other, he had no choice but to stay detached. Now that UMNO won big on its own, he will find himself increasingly isolated within his own party. He either finds a way to sideline current president Zahid Hamidi or end up a one-term prime minister. Perhaps the courts might do that for him. His only ace for the time being is that as prime minister he alone gets to decide when to call the next election. Of course, UMNO could withdraw support for Ismail Sabri in parliament, but there’s no telling who might come to his aid.

Former prime minister Najib Tun Razak – despite his conviction on charges of money-laundering, corruption and abuse of power – has once again demonstrated that he remains a force to be reckoned with. He led the charge in Melaka and can now share in the afterglow of victory. He may not enjoy majority support within UMNO – no one does – but given the fractured leadership, the support he enjoys is probably enough to make him the most popular leader in the party right now. Now we have to wait for December 8th when the Court of Appeal finally delivers its verdict on Najib’s appeal against his 12-year sentence. If it goes against him, his political career is finished; if it does not, there’ll be no stopping him.

Zahid was strangely absent from what was after all an important state election, preferring to travel abroad to seek treatment for a back injury. One has to wonder why our politicians are prone to back injuries but that is another story. Some suggest he was worried that the party might do badly and thought it prudent to distance himself from it just to be safe. 

UMNO’s victory in Melaka is bad news for the cabinet cluster – particularly Hishammuddin Hussein, Khairy Jamaluddin, Shahidan Kassim and Annuar Musa – who previously refused to support their president’s call for Muhyiddin Yassin to step down. If Zahid has his way, they will not be nominated to stand under the UMNO banner in GE15. The indications are that these ministers have already lost the support of their branches and can be removed without much controversy.

The other thing that Melaka tells us is that, for the most part, all the talk of democratic reform does not resonate with a significant segment of voters. And neither does the 1MDB issue. It is not that they don’t care; it’s just that they are more focused on the daily challenges of life. 

Bottom line: UMNO is set to return come GE15 with a strong enough mandate to form the next government. How strong a mandate will depend on how well Pakatan Harapan does. Thus far, there is little indication that Pakatan Harapan under the feeble leadership of Anwar Ibrahim has what it takes to generate the kind of mass popular support that they will need to win.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 27th November 2021]