Can Bersatu survive the next general election?

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. It was the support Bersatu received from the then opposition DAP, PKR, and Amanah components of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) during the last election campaign that propelled the party into the position it is in today.

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, joined PH in the 2018 general election and won 13 of the 50 federal seats it contested. Since then, Bersatu 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 the Muhyiddin government, after the collapse of the PH government, Bersatu dominated with 12 ministers and 12 deputy ministers. In the current Ismail Sabri Yaakob Cabinet, Bersatu has the same number of ministers as Umno – 12. It also has 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, Bersatu has 15/79 members, with Hajiji Noor of Bersatu as chief minister.

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

Similarly, Muhyiddin resigned his position as prime minister in a move to maintain the influence of Bersatu within a subsequent government, given the unpopularity of, and public outrage with, his administration.

Muhyiddin’s resignation hasn’t been recognised by many as being a strategic move to keep Bersatu relevant.

The former Muhyiddin Cabinet is basically still in place. Sixty out of 69 members of Ismail’s ministers and deputy ministers were in Muhyiddin’s Cabinet too. Muhyiddin himself has been appointed chairman of the National Recovery Council (NRC), with ministerial rank. His move can be seen as more sideways than 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 outmanoeuvred Zahid and Najib over the last few weeks, and Mahathir back last year.

Bersatu Ideology

Bersatu, from the outset, espoused a Malay-centric ideology. There should have been no surprises when former prime minister Mahathir attended the Malay Dignity Congress back in 2019. The party supports Islam as the national religion, and upholds the position of the Malay monarchy, hence reliance on the Yang di-Petuan Agong, or King to settle political crisis, rather than the sovereignty of the Parliament.

This is indeed the Malay way of settling disputes, and, for a Malay, Article 44 of the Federal Constitution that defines the Parliament as comprising the King, Dewan Rakyat, and Dewan Negara affirms this. Bersatu believes in the democratic process, constitution, and the role of the Malay Rulers in the process of governance.

Bersatu recognises that Malaysia is a multicultural nation and believes in freedom of religion, education, harmony, and culture. The keyword here is harmony, where this word must be interpreted through a Malay-centric view. For example, quotas in education are important to keep harmony, through a Malay-centric logic.

Bersatu supports the special rights of the Malays and the native peoples of Sabah and Sarawak. Bersatu’s venture into Sabah, and interest in Sarawak, reflect this.

Bersatu ideology fits into that of the other Malay-centric parties, Umno and PAS, and 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 Mahathir resigned as prime minister, thus 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 organisational 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’s internal party politics closely resembles internal Umno 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 away.

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 affairs minister Hamzah Zainudin is probably the strongest.

Within Bersatu there are three factions: the Muhyiddin group, the ex-Umno group with MPs like Mas Ermieyati Samsudin, Abdul Latiff Ahmad, and Mustapa Mohamed, and the ex-PKR group, led by 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 multicultural orientated. There is only a small elite group of Brunei Malays in Sabah. Umno was hoping, that with the removal of Muhyiddin, it could swallow 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 Ali group.

If Umno doesn’t cooperate with Bersatu in the next elections, Bersatu 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 would 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 losing seats and maintaining its current representation in Parliament. With an electoral agreement with Umno and PAS, Bersatu could attempt to reclaim the constituency of Langkawi, held by Mahathir, who may retire once again from Parliament.

It could contest Jerlun held by Mukhriz Mahathir, Kubang Pasu held by Amiruddin Hamzah, Muar held by Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, Sri Gading held by Shahruddin Md Salleh, and Simpang Renggam held by Maszlee Malik, all former Bersatu members.

While Bersatu has been in discussions with PAS on an electoral pact, Umno is still divided on how it 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 whether these politicians brought over grassroots members when they defected to Bersatu, to help their campaigns.

On the negative side, Muhyiddin is extremely unpopular with part of the electorate, with most PH supporters blaming him for the backdoor government. However, this is not the case in the Malay heartland where Bersatu must do well electorally.

Azmin has baggage with his role in the Sheraton Move and the sex video issue a couple of years ago. However, Azmin and Zuraida have large majorities in their respective constituencies and also have 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 has 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 PH as the common enemy. Some say that Umno and 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, it could become an important “king-making” block. Bersatu’s role in Sabah could be crucial in the final seat count.

The resignation of Muhyiddin as prime minister may have positive electoral prospects for Bersatu. Public outrage will subside and the focus on Ismail as prime minister may benefit Bersatu.

Bersatu not having the prime minister’s position during the latter part of the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis may play in Bersatu’s favour. If the pandemic subsides, it will reflect positively on Muhyiddin as NRC chairman.

Bersatu will challenge the traditional two-party competition for the 80 or so Malay heartland seats. This three-party challenge will bring a new era to the Malay heartland.