Monday, October 12, 2009

Even Corruption Trumps Extremism

Umno’s victory in Bagan Pinang was almost assured even before the candidates were announced. Most well-informed insiders in both the Umno and Opposition camps will privately concede as much. Of course neither side – and especially not Umno – could afford to take anything, even a constituency such as Bagan Pinang, for granted. But the handwriting was on the wall from early on.

PAS was of course hoping that wrestling the seat away from Umno would be a huge feather in its cap; not to mention that it would give PAS even more muscle in the Opposition coalition. The fact that PAS got handily knocked down should serve to teach PAS (and the Opposition in general) several lessons.

First, while the Malay electorate is split, PAS has yet got lots of leg-work to do – especially in Umno’s backyard – to bring a bigger chunk of the Malay electorate (the military notwithstanding) along. Second, this also applies, to a significant degree, to their ability to attract the non-Malay vote especially where PAS’ credentials are still suspect. This latter point, of course, should serve as an unambiguous reminder to the fanatic faction of PAS that steering the party to the fringes of extremism will only serve to make them a perpetually regional party with a naturally limited appeal. It is not going to be good enough for PAS to merely harp on Umno’s failings; it is going to have to emerge as a party with a moderate agenda

Despite all the conventional wisdom, the Malaysian voter will ultimately choose not the devil it knows over the one it does not, but will instead go for the middle ground. Most voters - across race lines - want a government that can get the right balance, and thus capturing the political middle ground has always been critical to winning. While in recent past Umno has lost much of the middle ground through its own dismal failings (scandals, corruption, mismanagement, abuse of power…), Bagan Pinang reminds is that PAS cannot assume that it will become the default beneficiary of Umno’s ailment.

While Umno may be corrupted and may even field a tainted candidate, the fact remains that voters in Bagan Pinang and many other pockets of the country will still opt for Umno than PAS. However, the latter can do wonders to change that scenario if it can craft a moderate enough message and image to appeal to the centrist voters. PAS’ breakthrough will come precisely when it can win in a demographic such as Bagan Pinang. And that will require being able to reach enough non-Malay and Malay centrist voters.

Umno’s corruption may be disgusting, but enough voters still seem to be suspicious of PAS’ extremists.

G. Krishnan