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Post-Election Report 2013 Malaysian Election: Part II

- May 13, 2013

We are pleased to continue our series of Election Reports with the second of two post-election reports on the Malaysian elections by Thomas Pepinsky, who teaches in the Government Department at Cornell University. His first post was presented last week on The Monkey Cage here. You can follow his series of Malaysian election previews at his blog Indolaysia. The following post builds on analyses which were previously posted at the Australian National University’s New Mandala and the University of Nottingham’s CPI blog.


In my previous post, I discussed how ethnicity, region, and authoritarianism shape Malay politics. In this post, I dissect the results of Malaysia’s thirteenth general elections (GE13), illustrating these three fundamentals of Malaysian politics at work.

The Results: Region and Ethnicity

The electoral data that I was able to assemble from Malaysian internet sources should be seen as preliminary. Nevertheless, they help us to understand just how the ruling coalition fared. First, two-coalition vote shares by parliamentary district.

figure 1

We see very clearly that East Malaysia’s strong showing for the BN gave the government its majority of seats. This is not new—the 2008 elections also saw the BN depending on East Malaysia for its parliamentary majority—but there will now be unprecedented pressure on the BN to put East Malaysian issues front and center.

Also evident in the maps is a clear trend in the peninsula toward opposition victories in smaller electoral districts, which tend to be urban areas. It’s tempting to view this as an urban-rural divide. However, it is just as much an illustration of ethnic politics at work, for Malay districts tend to be large rural districts.

To show this, I draw on district level data on ethnicity that I gathered in 2008 (gated version; ungated PDF here). While updated data on ethnicity by electoral district has recently been made available, and I hope to use it in future analyses, these new data will almost certainly not change these conclusions in any appreciable way. First, we can examine the fraction of each district’s population that is bumiputera (in calculating these figures for the peninsula, this means Malay, and in East Malaysia this means non-Chinese) by the district’s total land area.

figure 2

We learn from this figure that there are many small districts with bumiputera majorities, but larger districts are almost exclusively bumiputera. Further evidence of the role of ethnicity can be seen in the following graph. It compares BN vote share in the peninsula to the percent Malay in each district, with each data point colored according to the BN party contesting in that race.

figure 3

The figure shows that the 2013 elections were a crushing defeat for all peninsular parties except for UMNO. And the relationship between ethnicity and two-coalition vote share is remarkably close, making it very easy to predict BN vote shares using just the percentage of the electoral district’s population which is Malay. First, a quadratic fit:

figure 4

Next, as a regression:

figure 5

NB: the Pasir Mas district was excluded, as BN-allied candidate Ibrahim Ali was not technically a BN candidate.

From these results, we learn that almost 61% of the variation in the two-party vote share going to the BN candidate can be predicted by knowing just what percentage of the district’s population is Malay…and nothing more.

Gerrymandering, Rural Bias, and Malapportionment

The other important outcome of GE13 is that the BN won almost 60% of the seats with less than half of the votes. My preliminary data have 5,241,699 votes going to the BN and 5,623,243 for the PR, or 48.2% of the two-coalition vote share for the ruling coalition (again excluding Ibrahim Ali from the BN). This is possible for two reasons: the BN lost heavily in more races than it won heavily, and it tended to win in districts with smaller populations due to the gerrymandering (or “rural bias”).

figure 6

The Opposition

What of the opposition’s electoral fortunes? These also tell us quite a bit about how to interpret the results. First, we know that due to the differences in the parties’ ethnic constituencies, we tend to see particular head-to-head matchups depending on each district’s ethnic makeup. This means that we rarely will see UMNO against DAP, or PAS against MCA. Looking at the columns of the following table, that pattern is abundantly clear. We also see that the DAP contested the fewest total seats, but won a large majority of those that it contested. PAS and PKR, by contrast, has won far fewer seats even with more districts being contested—and the pan-ethnic PKR did much better against MCA than UMNO.

figure 7

Further insight can be gained by inspecting the distribution of the Malay population across the districts in which each PR party contests.

figure 8

These are “bounded” kernel density plots, bounded because the percent Malay in a district lies in the interval [0,100]. To interpret them, begin first with the two red lines. The solid red line shows that the DAP contests in the most heavily non-Malay districts, and the dashed red line indicates that of these seats, the lower the Malay population, the more likely the DAP was to win. The solid green line shows that PAS contests in the most heavily Malay districts, and wins in those districts too.

The blue lines are most interesting. As I noted about a week ago, there were substantial numbers of PKR candidates running in heavily Malay districts, even though most PKR candidates in peninsular Malaysia are still found in those districts that are 40-60% Malay. I suggested that the PR could combine PAS wins in majority Malay districts, DAP wins in majority non-Malay districts, and PKR wins in the more evenly divided districts (assuming that they could rely on strong showings from non-Malay voters). That is precisely what appears to have occurred: PKR’s wins in the peninsula come almost exclusively from the divided districts.

The following graph shows the data directly, and reinforces this conclusion, with the vote shares for DAP and PAS included for comparison.

figure 9

The ecological inference problem prevents us from knowing with certainty just what happened in those divided districts. But these vote patterns are consistent with the most likely story, which is that PKR’s votes came primarily from non-Malay voters everywhere in the peninsula.

The story is at once simpler and more complex in East Malaysia. More complex because BN parties in these states are more diverse, but simpler because the results are straightforward.

figure 10

The only BN party to lose more than one seat in East Malaysia is the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), which is essentially a Chinese party. Most of the seat it lost were to the DAP. PKR mounted a broad challenge throughout East Malaysia, yet managed to win only 2 of 35 seats.

What’s Next for Malaysian Authoritarianism?

These results only barely begin to scratch the surface of GE13—the results of state elections held in 12 of the 13 Malaysian states should be particularly illuminating—but they drive home two key points. First, UMNO’s dominance of the BN coalition is complete on the peninsula, but its ability to construct a parliamentary majority depends critically on votes from East Malaysia. Second, and just as important, is the nearly complete failure of the non-Malay parties on the peninsula.

Before all the votes were even counted, allegations of ballot stuffing, “phantom voters,” and other irregularities flew. Anwar tweeted that the PR had won the election outright, and held a press conference to present evidence of voter fraud (in that tweet, #ubah is Malay for “change”). Many other observers have also concluded that the vote marred by fraud. Irregularities are nothing new for close-fought Malaysian elections. But they lead to further skepticism that the ruling coalition can claim to have prevailed in a democratic election, even one held under the laws that the government itself wrote.

The broader issue now confronting Malaysia is how the two coalitions will react. The DAP is now the largest party in the PR’s parliamentary bloc, and the results for PAS and PKR are troubling, for they—not DAP—are most likely to draw Malay votes. The future for Anwar Ibrahim is uncertain. He has been counted out many times before, but his PKR has had a dismal showing in precisely those districts where PKR tried hardest to unseat UMNO. Without the pluralist PKR and Anwar’s dynamic leadership, it is unclear how a largely Chinese social democratic party and an Islamist party can remain in the same coalition. The best hope for PR is that PKR will continue to build a pan-ethnic support base, and that it will target heavily Malay districts and East Malaysian districts for future growth.

Within the BN, UMNO is now more dominant than it has ever been: it holds 88 of the 133 seats in the BN’s parliamentary bloc, with the remaining 45 divided among 10 different parties. Yet even with this, the BN does not have the two-thirds majority to which its leaders have been accustomed. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, who is also the President of UMNO (like every Prime Minister in Malaysian history has been), may actually face a challenge to his leadership from within UMNO. More broadly, the BN needs to think about the future of the parties other than UMNO. If the coalition cannot find a credible vehicle for representing non-Malay interests on the peninsula, this bodes poorly for the Malaysia’s future.

The popular reaction to the election results has been contentious as well. Anwar and others called for Malaysians to wear black to protest the outcome. There has also been much talk of the results as a tsunami Cina (Chinese tsunami). Opinion leaders have used language that many Malaysians consider to be dangerously provocative. For example, the staunchly pro-Malay and UMNO link newspaper Utusan Malaysia led with the headline Apa lagi Cina mahu? (“What else do the Chinese want?”). UMNO hardliner Mohd Ali Rustam was quoted as saying Keputusan kali ini membuktikan kaum Cina langsung tidak menghargai kerajaan, mereka hanya hendak ubah sahaja tanpa fikirkan kesannya, tidak fikir apa yang telah kita buat selama ini (“These results prove that the Chinese community simply does not value the government, they only want change without thinking about its consequences, without thinking about what all of us have been doing for all this time.”)

Malaysians are sensitive about such statements for good reason, as the specter of the 1969 post-election riots haunts public discourse. The deeper question for Malaysia, though, is not whether or not ethnicity predicts vote choice. On that, the evidence is clear. The deeper question is whether it is possible for the BN to represent non-Malay interests in peninsular Malaysia in the way that the DAP and (to a lesser extent) PKR promise to. If not, then elections will continue on their present path, perhaps even evolving into simple contests between ethnic groups rather than among coalitions that at least claim to represent all Malaysians. Even if bumiputeras form a numerical majority, and even if the BN has long exploited ethnic cleavages as part of its electoral strategy, very few Malaysians believe that more ethnic politics is the recipe for stability or prosperity.