The Barisan Nasional’s Votebanks

Posted on March 16, 2016

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The-BN-VotebanksAccording to Wikipedia, a votebank is a loyal bloc of voters from a single community, who consistently back a certain candidate or political formation in elections.

Such behaviour is often the result of an expectation of real or imagined benefits from the political formation, often at the cost of other communities.

Votebanks play a pivotal role in closely contested elections.

Barisan Nasional (BN), the ruling coalition, has seen its vote share slide since the 2004 general election and received only 48% of votes cast at GE13 in 2013.

These votebanks may be its last bastion of support.

So who are these votebanks and how big are they? Are they really impregnable or can they be taken away from the vault of BN?

Loyal civil servants

With a total of 1.4 million employed by the government in various sectors, such as education, healthcare, judiciary and legal, police and armed forces, the Malaysian civil service represents a sizable voting bloc.

Adding to the above, we have more than 750,000 pensioners who still feel obliged to vote for BN, which is the only government they have known all their lives.

Some do so out of obligation, some out of gratitude and support while others out of fear that their pension and privileges would be withdrawn if they voted for the opposition.

If we add both current and former civil servants plus their spouses and family members not on the government payroll but share similar political persuasion or fear, we are looking at a votebank of around three to four million voters. That represents between 23% and 30% out of 13.2 million voters (as of GE13).

Grateful Felda settlers

The Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) is one of the most successful poverty eradication schemes in Malaysia.

Founded in 1956, it allocated land to the rural poor in newly developed areas and organised smallholders to grow cash crops, first rubber and then oil palm.

Over its six decades, it has helped more than 110,000 settlers and their families, first making them landowners and now shareholders of Felda Global Ventures (FGV), a global agricultural and agri-commodities company.

In the process, it has uplifted the standard of living of the settlers and educated their children.

Some may believe that the plummeting of FGV’s share price from its initial public offering (IPO) price of RM4.55 per share in 2012 to its current price of RM1.57 (as of January 15, 2016), many settlers would be unsettled.

But I am doubtful that this alone would be enough to remove the sense of indebtedness many feels towards BN and specifically, Umno.

They know they had nothing before and now they are shareholders. Prices of shares and commodities will rise and fall but to them, Umno is always there for them.

The value of the Felda votebank is compounded by the fact that malapportionment in favour of rural constituencies means that the 1.2 million or so Felda voters are disproportionately advantaged over urban voters.

According to Politweet’s classification of urban, semi-urban and rural seats, Felda schemes are present in 54 of the 179 seats considered semi-urban and rural.

In GE13, BN won 128 of these 179 semi-urban and rural seats (72%) with Felda schemes delivering all seats with average vote percentage of 75%.

Relying on Rela

Prior to GE13, the BN government went on a recruitment drive to boost up the membership of the People’s Volunteer Corp (Rela), an agency under the Home Ministry, to 2.87 million.

This paramilitary force would be involved in security tasks at big functions, traffic control and guarding public buildings.

While Rela members are not necessarily obligated to vote for BN, there can be little doubt that they are under pressure to do so.

During the Teluk Intan by-election in 2014, Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told a gathering of Rela members that he knew there were 2,019 Rela members who were eligible to vote but did not.

He went on to promise them new uniforms should the BN candidate win.

Hinting that the government knows who voted or even hint that their vote is not secret is a form of intimidation.

Using different forms of threats and bribery, BN’s hold on these votebanks is reinforced.

Where punitive action against those deemed disloyal is considered normal and expected, many who work for the government or receive any form of privileges have to weigh between voting as expected of them and to vote with their conscience and risk losing everything – promotions, privileges and pensions.

Together with the solid support from the Borneon states of Sabah and Sarawak, that I wrote about last week, these BN votebanks are sizable and like impregnable fortresses.

The challenge for the opposition is to find ways to scale the walls of these BN bastions or hope for internal revolts to tear down these walls.

First published in The Malaysian Insider on January 18, 2016.