Can Bersatu survive the next general election?

PARTI Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) was formed when then deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin was sacked by former prime minister Najib Razak over his criticism of the 1MDB issue. The support Bersatu received by the opposition then – Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) DAP, PKR, and Amanah – during the last election campaign propelled the party into the position it is in today.

Former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad increased Bersatu’s parliamentary influence by brokering a number of defections from Umno. Now, ironically, the future of Bersatu may be in the hands of Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, in how he decides Umno will go in the next general election.

That’s the story of Bersatu, a party made up of politicians from other political parties that has achieved a dramatic rise in power and influence through the political events of the past half decade. The big question about Bersatu is whether it can survive the next general election, and, if so, what role it will play in Malaysian politics.

Bersatu, formed in 2016, soon saw the participation of Mukhriz Mahathir, who was expelled from Umno. He was later joined by his father Dr Mahathir. Bersatu joined PH in the 2018 general election, and won 13 out of the 50 federal seats it contested. Since then, the party has exercised an influence on Malaysian federal politics well beyond its size.

Mahathir gave Bersatu many of the high-profile ministries within the PH government, six ministers and six deputy ministers. In Muhyiddin’s administration, after the collapse of the PH government, Bersatu dominated with 12 ministers and 12 deputy ministers. In Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s cabinet, Bersatu has the same number of ministers as Umno, 12, and 10 deputy ministers.

Bersatu also has a presence inside a number of state legislatures, which include Johor with 12/56 members, Kedah 6/36, Perak 6/59, Selangor 6/56, Penang 4/40, Melaka 2/28, and Kelantan 1/45. In Sabah, where Bersatu’s Hajiji Noor is the current chief minister, the party holds 15/79 members.

Over its short lifespan, Bersatu has shown itself to be pragmatic. Its main focus has been to hold and maintain power. Insiders say that Muhyiddin, during the Sheraton putsch, had little choice but to enlist the support of Umno and PAS to keep the party in power when Dr Mahathir abandoned them.

Similarly, Muhyiddin resigned from his position as prime minister to maintain Bersatu’s influence within the subsequent government, given the unpopularity of and public outrage for his administration. Muhyiddin’s resignation hasn’t been recognised by many as being a strategic move to keep Bersatu relevant.

The Muhyiddin cabinet is basically still in place. Sixty out of 69 members of the current cabinet are the same as his, and he has been appointed chairman of the National Recovery Council (NRC) with a senior minister’s rank. His move can be seen as a sideways one, more than one that’s going out. Muhyiddin’s power and influence, and that of Bersatu, is far from diminished. Arguably, he is probably still the most powerful person in government. He out-manoeuvred Zahid and Najib over the last few weeks, and Dr Mahathir last year.

Bersatu ideology

Bersatu, from the outset, espoused a Malay-centric ideology. There should have been no surprises when Dr Mahathir attended the Malay Dignity Congress back in 2019. The party supports Islam as the national religion, and upholds the position of the monarchy, hence its reliance on the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, rather than the sovereignty of Parliament, to settle political crises. This is indeed the Malay way of settling disputes, and, for a Malay, Article 44 of the Federal Constitution, which defines the Parliament as the king, Dewan Rakyat, and Dewan Negara, affirms this. Bersatu believes in the democratic process, the constitution, and the role of Malay rulers in the process of governance.

Bersatu recognises that Malaysia is a multi-cultural nation and believes in freedom of religion, education, harmony, and culture. The keyword here is harmony. This word must be interpreted through a Malay-centric view. For example, quotas in education are important to keep harmony in Malay-centric logic. Bersatu supports the special rights of the Malays and the those of the native peoples of Sabah and Sarawak. Bersatu’s venture into Sabah, and interest in Sarawak reflect this.

Bersatu’s ideology fits into that of the other Malay-centric parties, Umno and PAS, and, ideally, it sees these parties as natural allies. The party reaffirmed its Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay privilege, ideology after leaving the PH government in February 2020, when Dr Mahathir resigned as prime minister, dissolving the whole cabinet and government. Bersatu information chief Wan Saiful Wan Jan claimed that PH fell because it failed to address Malay issues adequately.

The organisation structure of Bersatu is almost a mirror image of the Umno structure. The majority of Bersatu office holders are ex-Umno members. In fact, Bersatu internal party politics closely resembles internal Umno party politics, as the recent Perlis state party infighting suggests. 

Leadership and party congruency

Even though Muhyiddin has stepped down as prime minister, Bersatu is still very much under his control. There are no indications that Muhyiddin intends to step down.

A post-Muhyiddin Bersatu could be potentially leaderless. In his wake, would be leaders like Ahmad Faizal Azumu, Ronald Kiandee from Sabah, and Radzi Md Jidin. As yet, none of these are household political names. The ambitious and current Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin is probably the strongest.

Within Bersatu there are three factions. The Muhyiddin group, the ex-Umno group with MPs like Mas Ermieyati Samsudin, Abdul Latif Ahmad, and Mustafa Mohamed, and the ex-PKR group, led by Mohamed Azmin Ali, with Zuraida Kamaruddin, and Kamaruddin Jaafar.

Without Muhyiddin, these groups could erupt in a future battle for control of the party. The future of Bersatu Sabah will be interesting, as it is part of a Ketuanan Melayu party in a state that is primarily multi-culturally orientated. There is only a small elite group of Brunei Malays in Sabah. Umno was hoping, with the demise of Muhyiddin, it could have swallowed up Bersatu. 

Electoral prospects

In the 2018 general election, Bersatu stood in 50 federal seats and won 13, obtaining 5.95% of the aggregate national vote. Bersatu’s parliamentary representation increased to 32 with defectors, primarily from Umno, along with the ex-PKR Azmin group.

If Umno doesn’t cooperate with Bersatu in the next election, the latter is likely to lose up to 10 seats. Expanding into contesting more constituencies is going to be very difficult as Bersatu doesn’t have a well-developed grassroots branch structure to assist in electioneering. This would mean that Bersatu could be a party with 15-25 seats in the next parliament.

Only an agreement with Umno and PAS to prevent three-cornered electoral fights would prevent Bersatu from losing seats and maintaining its current representation in Parliament. With an electoral agreement with Umno and PAS, Bersatu could attempt to reclaim Langkawi, held by Dr Mahathir, who may retire once again from Parliament, and contest Jerlun (Mukhriz Mahathir), Kubang Pasu (Amiruddin Hamzah), Muar (Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, Sri Gading (Shahruddin Md Salleh), and Simpang Renggam (Maszlee Malik), all former Bersatu members. 

While Bersatu has been in discussions with PAS on an electoral pact, Umno is still divided on how they will treat Bersatu in the next election. How the Ismail government evolves may influence this.

Bersatu’s electoral talent is all imported from Umno and PKR. Thus, individual electoral success will very much depend upon their individual electoral branding. The major issue here is where these politicians brought over grassroot members when they defected to Bersatu to help their campaigns.

On the negative side, Muhyiddin is extremely unpopular with part of the electorate. Most PH supporters blame him for the backdoor government. However, this is not the case in the Malay heartland, where Bersatu would do well electorally. Azmin has the baggage of his role in the Sheraton Move and a sex video issue a couple of years ago. However, Azmin and Zuraida have large majorities in their respective constituencies and control over the local grassroots.

The future of Bersatu will be more dependent on backroom discussions between the leaders of the Malay-centric parties than the electoral process. There is evidence to indicate that the Bersatu leadership is very well aware of this and have been strengthening political ties with Umno and PAS. What remains to be seen is whether any agreement over which party contests which constituency can be made between Bersatu, Umno, and PAS. They see the common enemy as PH. Some pundits say that Umno-PAS have concluded an agreement to the exclusion of Bersatu.

Bersatu is not without leverage. If the party remains intact after the next election and has around 15% of the parliamentary seats, where, even with a terrible result, it could salvage 15-20 seats, it could give the party an important “king-making” block. Bersatu’s role in Sabah could be crucial in the final seat count.

Muhyiddin’s resignation as prime minister may have positive electoral prospects for Bersatu. Public outrage will subside, focus on Ismail as prime minister may benefit Bersatu. Bersatu not having the prime minister’s position during the Covid-19 and economic crises may play in Bersatu’s favour. Muhyiddin as chairman of the NRC, if the pandemic subsides, will reflect positively on Muhyiddin.

Bersatu will challenge the traditional two-party competition for the 80 or so Malay heartland seats. This could splinter into three parties, where the advantage of cooperating will be to keep out PH. This will bring a new era to the Malay heartland. – September 7, 2021.

*Murray Hunter reads The Malaysian Insight.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

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