Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Monday his coalition would examine what led to its crushing defeat in a parliamentary by-election this weekend, with some analysts pointing to a series of such losses as a sign that his could be a one-term government.
The ruling Pakatan Harapan bloc absorbed its fourth parliamentary electoral defeat on Saturday when the opposition scored a landslide majority of over 15,000 votes in seizing the Tanjung Piai seat in southern Johor state. The large margin came as a shock, coalition leaders said.
“A detailed, serious and honest ‘post-mortem’ at all levels of the party will be made to identify the true cause of defeat in this by-election,” Mahathir said in a statement, as he acknowledged that his party was expecting to lose – but only by about 2,000 votes.
Seri Wee Jeck Seng, the Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate, emerged as the winner in the six-cornered electoral fight that had been closely watched by analysts.
“The majority garnered by the opposition comes as a shock,” Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), a main partner in Pakatan, said in a statement.
“Is a clear message to the PH [Pakatan Harapan] leadership,” he said. “We have to learn from this defeat and take cognizance.”
The Tanjung Piai election, the ninth by-election held after Pakatan took power in May 2018, was called after parliamentarian Mohamed Farid died on Sept. 21 due to heart complications. Farid was a member of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), one of the components of the ruling coalition.
The coalition’s resounding defeat in the by-election “is a really hard slap in the face for the inadequacies and broken promises of the newly-ruling party,” political analyst Munir Majid wrote in a New Straits Times column Monday.
“Not holding together in power as it did in opposition, [Pakatan] is showing all the signs of being a one-term government,” Munir said.
In July, the Merdeka Center, an independent pollster, said Mahathir’s approval rating rose to the highest since September, rebounding from an all-time low in March to reach 62 percent.
But, according to Merdeka, which conducted the survey from June 28 to July 1, the approval rating for the ruling coalition has plunged to 41 percent, way below the 64 percent popularity once enjoyed by Pakatan when it trounced Barisan in a stunning triumph that catapulted Mahathir back to power in May 2018.
Before Barisan’s defeat at the polls, its anchor party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), had dominated Malaysian government for 61 years.
Murray Hunter, in an opinion column for Asia Sentinel on Monday, said the ruling coalition’s defeat in Johor “leaves the Malaysian political landscape in total instability.”
He cited several issues that could have angered voters, including open infighting among Pakatan leaders and Mahathir’s hesitation to hand over power to Anwar.
Mahathir, then 93, stunned the nation when he defected to the opposition and joined forces with Anwar, his arch nemesis whom he once sent to jail on a sodomy charge. Before the 2018 election, he solidified support by promising to eventually transfer power to Anwar, should Pakatan win the general election that year.
“The message is loud and clear to Pakatan,” Hunter said. “Unless there is a total change in direction, [Pakatan] will be completely decimated in the next general election.”