P Gunasegaram, Malaysiakini

Numbers, they say, never lie although statistics can be made to. Where they are most useful, however, is when they can be analysed to give a scale of the magnitude of the task ahead for someone who wants to achieve something.

The opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, comprising of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), PAS, DAP and allies in Sabah and Sarawak, has made plain its target of taking over the government in the next 13th general election, and is publicly confident of doing so.

Can it? The figures clearly show that it is a much easier task for Barisan Nasional to keep its power than it is for Pakatan to wrest it away. Before I get pilloried as a doomsayer for opposition chances, do hear me out. As I said, numbers don’t lie.

Let’s focus on Parliamentary elections which decide federal power. The March 2008 elections, GE12, saw a huge swing of votes to the opposition. Popular vote for BN dropped to a mere 50.3 percent from its previous 64 percent. The BN lost 58 seats to the opposition, effectively Pakatan. The opposition gained 61 seats to take 82 seats. The difference between seats gained and lost is because of the three additional seats in 2008.

In peninsular Malaysia where all of the swing occurred, the opposition had 51 percent of the popular vote. But because their strength was in the urban areas which had much higher population densities, it translated into a smaller proportionate number of 80 seats for the opposition, and 84 seats for BN in the peninsula.

What saved the day for BN was the very solid showing in Sabah and Sarawak where it lost just one seat in each of the two states to garner 25 seats in Sabah, and 31 seats in Sarawak. That gave them 56 seats from East Malaysia and thus, the right to rule.

Without the strong showing in Sabah and Sarawak, BN would have been really on the ropes, and much closer to losing the elections. In the event, BN garnered 140 seats in Parliament, comfortably exceeding Pakatan’s 82 seats, with only eight seats short of a two-thirds majority.

But it is a testament to the strong showing by BN in all the previous elections (barring the ill-fated 1969 elections) that this comfortable victory was still the worst showing by BN in any polls to date, forcing the resignation of BN head Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and the subsequent ascent of Najib Abdul Razak to his position as BN chief and prime minister.

What would it take for Pakatan to win GE13 at the federal level? BN has 58 more parliament seats. It would need at the least a swing of 30 votes for a narrow two-seat majority in the house. For that, you need to see another swing as big as the one we saw in 2008 towards the opposition.

The question is, where is Pakatan going to get the 30 seats? Most of the seats which are of a Chinese majority or which have significant Chinese populations, are already in the bag. Chinese votes can’t swing much more than it already has, and so is not likely to be decisive in terms of getting more seats, although it will help in the retention of many.

Key ‘Malay, Sabah and Sarawak’ votes

The key this time is whether there will be a continuous swing in Malay votes to PAS and PKR the way it was in 2008, and whether major swings will be seen in Sabah and Sarawak of the scale that was seen in 2008 in the peninsula.

Realistically, one should expect that the swing to Pakatan, in terms of seats won, will moderate overall in peninsular Malaysia, and that there will be some reversals even if the popular vote overall increases in favour of the opposition.

That would mean that without a significant shift in Sabah and Sarawak, and a gain of at least 15 seats there to 17 overall from East Malaysian states, there is likely to be little chance of upsetting the BN hold in terms of Parliamentary seats. Even with such a swing there, Pakatan still needs to get an additional 15 seats in the peninsular, which is not an easy task.

Yes, Pakatan will make more inroads. But will they win? Tough, but not impossible. After all, no one predicted the swing to Pakatan in 2008. What’s there to say that it could not happen again? A lot could depend on the events leading up to the elections.

Opposition pundits point to investigations by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the illegal immigration and registration of voters there which may find traction among Sabahans in favour of the opposition.

Those who think BN will win say Najib has tried hard to regain both the middle ground and Malay votes, and may succeed at least partially.

One thing’s for sure, its going to be closer than ever before. If you want to make your vote count – and your vote will count more than at anytime, since voting had begun in this country in 1955 – make sure you go out there and vote on polling day, even if you have to return from Singapore or Kalimantan.

That way, whatever the result and whichever party you supported, you would have done your part towards free and fair elections in this country, the results of which would reflect majority aspirations.

P GUNASEGARAM is publisher and editor of business news portal KiniBiz which is to be set up next month in a joint venture with Malaysiakini. He has worked as a journalist and analyst in Malaysia for over 30 years.