How long will Malaysia’s Penang remain pro-DAP, with former enemy Umno now an ally?

The king has tasked Anwar to bring together partners and rivals under a unity government in a bid to cool the temperature after November’s national polls.

Umno’s removal from power was a major driver for PH supporters during their years in opposition.

Umno ultimately lost in the 2018 national polls. Its leader at the time, the former prime minister Najib Razakwas imprisoned last August for corruption involving 42 million ringgit (US$9.2 million) linked to a scandal-tainted former state fund unit 1Malaysia Development Berhad.

Supporters of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak chant outside the Kuala Lumpur Courts Complex on July 28, 2020. Photo: Bloomberg

Supporters of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak chant outside the Kuala Lumpur Courts Complex on July 28, 2020. Photo: Bloomberg

An estimated 1.2 million voters are eligible to vote in next month’s state polls, but with many working in other states or outside the country, DAP leaders are worried voters may feel angry enough at the Umno partnership to turn a blind eye to this election.

“DAP’s venture with Umno is a gamble, and one that could affect its performance in the Penang state polls,” said Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, an associate director at government affairs consultancy Vriens & Partners.

“In a state where pro-DAP supporters used to be ABU stalwarts [“anything but Umno”]it is not surprising that there is lower voter turnout, especially among older voters.”

PH secured a supermajority in the Penang state assembly in 2018, winning all but three of the 40 seats. DAP holds the majority of seats with 19 won.

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Too passive?

Election preparations have also been affected in recent months amid talk that some party leaders have allegedly lobbied to replace Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow, arguing that he has been too passive in seeking big-ticket deals to help boost the state’s economy.

DAP supremo Anthony Loke had to meet with the party’s top leadership, who decided last week to keep Chow as their choice for prime minister should they retain control of Penang for a fourth straight term.

“We cannot afford to make the same mistake as Gerakan did in 2008, when they could not decide who to choose as prime minister from their list of candidates,” a source close to the party’s leadership told This Week in Asia, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Transport Minister Anthony Loke leads the DAP, whose leaders are worried that voters may feel angered enough by the Umno partnership to turn a blind eye in this election.  Image: Facebook

Transport Minister Anthony Loke leads the DAP, whose leaders are worried that voters may feel angered enough by the Umno partnership to turn a blind eye in this election. Photo: Facebook

Gerakan, once a member of the Umno-led Barisan Nasional coalition and now part of the opposition PN, ruled the Penang state government for nearly 40 years before being ousted by voters in the 2008 polls.

Chow’s rise to prime minister in 2018 was widely welcomed by Penang residents, who appreciated his quiet and approachable nature – a stark change from the brash style of his predecessor and now national DAP chairman, Lim Guan Eng.

But with Penang now considered a semiconductor hub not only for Malaysia, but also for the region, some are of the opinion that “Mr Nice Guy” may not be well-suited to capitalize on the billions of dollars worth of potential investments arising from the ongoing trade tensions between the United States and China.

“[Chow] better connect with all and sundry in Penang, is less controversial and more desirable,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “But we need someone with vision and courage.”

Penang is considered a semiconductor hub not only for Malaysia, but also for the region.  Photo: Shutterstock

Penang is considered a semiconductor hub not only for Malaysia, but also for the region. Image: Shutterstock

A double edged sword

As DAP struggles to contain grief among its supporters, Umno voters will also have to come to terms with new loyalties, after decades of being led to believe that DAP is anything from an extension of Singaporethe long-time leader of the People’s Action Party for being communist.

“For Umno voters, there are definitely reservations about Umno’s collaboration with DAP … there are some of them who may turn out to vote for PN,” said Syaza Farhana Mohamad Shukri, who heads the political science department at the International Islamic University Malaysia.

The consensus among analysts is that PH and DAP will continue to rule for a fourth term but in the presence of the PN, especially in seats closer to the neighboring state of Kedah held by the opposition.

The big question is how much will happen on August 12.

PN chairman and former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin reportedly said last month that the party had a good chance of winning almost half of the 40 seats contested in Penang.

And it may not seem so far-fetched, according to some.

“Yes, it could happen and it could result in DAP not having a two-thirds majority in Penang,” said Vriens’ Shazwan. “But they are unlikely to lose the state.”

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