M'sia's GE14: The "warning signs" that hinted at a Pakatan Harapan victory

The signs were all there.

Sulaiman Daud | September 28, 2018, 09:23 AM

Much like a murder mystery, a shock election result prompts experts to go over the case, trying to pinpoint how things went down.

The ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute held a seminar on Sept. 27 to discuss the victory of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition over the previously undefeated Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

Their verdict? Despite pre-election predictions of a BN victory, certain trends and conditions on the ground hinted at how it would turn out.

Economic concerns went beyond bread-and-butter issues

Although conventional wisdom holds that voters are more influenced by local, "bread-and-butter" issues, this did not seem to be the case for GE14.

According to Yeah Kim Leng, an economics professor at Sunway University Business school, national-level issues were prioritised by voters. He said:

"Economic concerns and corruption topped the list of election issues."

According to a poll conducted before the election, more than half of middle-income voters and about 75 per cent of high-income voters felt that the country was heading in the "wrong direction."


PH leaders like Mahathir Mohamad and Mat Sabu were also effective in linking economic issues to corruption and the 1MDB scandal.

Senior Fellow Lee Hwok Aun said that they were able to speak in "plain and simple terms" to voters, and connecting unhappiness over the GST and the high cost of living to the scandals affecting the BN.

Hidden signs

On the surface, Malaysia's economic performance looked good. According to Yeah, the country had a "favourable economic environment":

  • High overall GDP growth
  • High per capita GDP growth
  • High job creation, low unemployment

Usually, such trends would favour an incumbent government.

However, Yeah pointed out that such growth was "uneven", and did not benefit the electorate equally.

For example, there was a disparity in wage levels and salary increases, with those earning the least also getting the smallest wage rises.

The cost of living, such as house prices and transport costs also affected voters.

Yeah concluded that Malaysia's favourable economic growth masked rising dissatisfaction with economic inequality, which could have contributed to the surprise election result.

Good performance by PH

The PH coalition experienced teething troubles getting off the ground in the run-up to the election.

Mahathir's new party, the PPBM, was ordered by the Registrar of Societies to be dissolved in April 2018, although the High Court later granted a stay on the decision.

But during the campaign season itself, the PH ran a tight ship.

Lee cited the cohesive campaign run by PH in Selangor, which fielded "credible candidates". Their manifesto, which made promises like abolishing the GST, struck a chord with the voters.

In the state of Johor, Senior Fellow Francis Hutchinson noted that the PH fielded heavyweight candidates in the vital state.

Politicians like former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, prominent DAP leader Lim Kit Siang and the youthful Syed Sadiq all competed in Johor, garnering strong support and winning seats there.

Good use of social media

PH were also quick to adopt social media to spread their message, such as Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter.

On May 8, the eve of the election, Mahathir and then-Prime Minister Najib Razak both appeared in live Facebook videos to stoke up support.

Najib's video garnered 1.2 million views and 7,100 shares. But Mahathir's video recorded a staggering 3.3 million views and 102,000 shares, dwarfing Najib's numbers.

It demonstrated the strength of Mahathir's popularity, but also the larger buzz that the PH managed to generate on social media.

Backlash against BN tactics

While the PH were running a good campaign, their opponents in the BN experienced a few problems of their own.

Senior Fellow Cassey Lee noted that there were a number of key defections from the BN that left to campaign under PH's banner, such as Muhyiddin Yassin.

Elsewhere, other parties decided to team up with the PH against the BN, such as Parti Warisan Sabah in Eastern Malaysia.

According to Lee, the share of seats won by these "defectors" in the election amounted to over 25 per cent.

"Nasty tricks"

BN's tactics on the ground also left much to be desired.

In Selangor, the BN failed to nominate a candidate as the Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) designate in the event of a BN victory.

While the BN "flooded" the state with paraphernalia such as flags and banners, Lee Hwok Aun said that campaign trail events were "somewhat difficult" to find.

Lee also said that some of BN's "nasty tricks" such as the aforementioned de-registration of Mahathir's PPBM and banning the use of Mahathir's image on campaign posters backfired on them.

Instead of blunting Mahathir's appeal, such measures made voters more sympathetic towards his message.

Future consequences

According to the experts, the effects of GE14 will be felt for years to come.


Going into GE14, experts expected a close contest in the state of Selangor.

Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) had decided to throw their hat in the ring, making it a three-cornered fight.

Also, the re-delineation exercise of electoral boundaries implemented just before the election was seen as "unjust", and hurting the PH's chances.

But when the votes were tallied, the PH had won an astonishing 51 out of 56 seats in the state legislative assembly.

Today, Selangor MPs have an "enormous" presence in the federal government, providing the Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and eight Cabinet-level Ministers, holding important portfolios such as Economic Affairs, Defence and Health.


Over in Johor, Hutchinson believes that PH's victory was "decisive", and that UMNO/BN were emphatically beaten in urban and semi-urban areas.

He said:

"UMNO will find it hard to come back in constituencies like Pasir Gudang, Pulai and Johor Bahru. If you consider the BN as a whole, the same goes for Tebrau."

Top image from Pakatan Harapan's Facebook page.