14Ogos2020

Agenda Daily

POLL POSITION

As signals that the general election is imminent get stronger, all eyes are on the ruling coalition. Just how strong a mandate can it secure this time around?

MORE SIGNS THAT THE GENERAL ELECTION IS AROUND THE CORNER have emerged recently. The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, is asking the people to give him more time and afresh mandate.

He also met some 3,000 Umno division leaders and keymembers at the Putra World Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur totalk about the election.

The Star newspaper, in a Jan 23 report, quoted him as pleadingfor more time to deliver his promises, saying that his Governmentis in the process of implementing almost all the programmes ithad promised.

But Abdullah was realistic in his expectations. When asked bythe Press on whether the Barisan Nasional (BN) would receivethe same overwhelming mandate as it did in 2004, he said he did not think so.

‘If I get it, I will be very happy. But I am being very, very practical,’he said, adding that the 2004 victory was overwhelming becauseof the leadership change when he replaced Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

The question is: Will there be a manageable fall in the supportfor his administration, or a landslide rejection of the rulingcoalition as the opposition is expecting?

It’s impossible to say with any precision the degree of rejection that the BN will suffer.

Historically, all Prime Ministers have done well in their maiden general elections and lost some support in the subsequent ones.

In the case of Abdullah, the loss of support could be higher because he is starting from a very high base, having won massively in the last general election.

Theoretically, we can gauge voters’ sentiment and the level of support for a political party, specially the ruling party, fairly easily.

The so-called coffee-shop talk, for instance, says a lot about voters’ feelings.

It is for this reason that intelligence instruments of the state are often used or, as some people would say, misused for purposes of partisan politics, especially close to the general election.

HERE TODAY, GONE TOMORROW

SOON after the 1995 general election, I wrote a commentary in the Utusan Malaysia newspaper reminding the Kedah BN leaders not to be carried away by the party’s stunning victory – winning34 out of the 36 state assembly seats.

I warned them of the narrow margin – between 5% and 15% ofthe popular vote – that separated them from Pas in more than athird of the constituencies.

Understandably, they were not pleased. They did not cherish anybody deflating their balloons. Five years later, they lost nearly all these seats – 12 to be exact – to Pas.

Another case in point is Terengganu. Some six months before the same general election, I went to Kuala Terengganu to attend a sports event organised by the Berita Harian newspaper.

The guest of honour was the Menteri Besar, Tan Sri Wan Mokhtar Ahmad.

Upon learning that the majority of the guests were teachers and education officers, I asked an ex-teacher, who was trained in the state, to do a sample survey of the thinking and sentiments of as many people as possible.

While flying back to Kuala Lumpur the same evening, he told me that the sentiments were: ‘We have had enough of Wan Mokhtar’ and ‘We will teach him a lesson’.

This was before the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, was sacked from the government and Umno.

As it turned out, the BN was almost completely routed, losing all but four of the 32 state seats.

The opposition to the long-serving Menteri Besar and the sacking and imprisonment of Anwar turned the Terengganu voters whole-heartedly against the BN in spite of the rapid petroleuminduced socio-economic development.

KEEPING PROMISES

IN 2004, the combination of the euphoria over the appointment of ‘Mr Nice Guy’ Abdullah, who was then perceived as a good and pious man, and a vote of thanks to Tun Dr Mahathir, won the BN its biggest ever mandate. It recaptured Terengganu.

Four years have passed and the honeymoon is long over.

Abdullah has gone on to have an open quarrel with Tun Dr Mahathir, cancelled or postponed many Mahathir-era projects and gone soft on his anti-corruption crusade.

As a result, Malaysia’s global ratings in almost all socio-economic areas have taken a beating. This was followed by a steep rise in the crime rate and consumer prices.

The launching of the 9th Malaysia Plan and a series of mega development corridors covering the entire nation have created a lot of hype and as many controversies, but have yet to show results.

As Abdullah himself admitted, ‘these things are not easy and take time to accomplish’.

The big question is: Will the people who associate his rule with rising fuel prices, shortages of essential goods and a mounting crime rate wait for these promises to materialise, or will they send an angry message via the ballot box?

A Perak Umno Member of Parliament is confident that the majority of the Malays would continue to support the BN, arguing that while prices of consumer goods might have risen, the rural voters are enjoying better incomes as a result of high palm oil and rubber prices.

Unfortunately, not all voters are rubber or palm oil growers or traders who can manipulate supplies and prices to maintain their income.

In the rice-growing areas, farmers are complaining about the falling standards of living as the prices and production of padi have failed to keep pace with the rising prices of essential goods and services.

They are accusing the government of going back on its promise during the 2004 election to raise the price of padi. There might not have been such a promise except for the loose talk by the BN campaigners. But to these simple rice growers, a promise is a promise no matter who makes it.

OPPOSITION GAINING GROUND?

IN broad terms, one can safely expect the BN to face a toughchallenge in Malay-majority states like Kedah and Terengganu, where the margin of victory in 2004 was small.

The BN is unlikely to lose Kedah. Pas may regain the ground it lost in 2004, but not to the point of ousting the BN. Defending Terengganu, however, is going to be a much tougher call.

Terengganu is going to be a very interesting bet. If the BN, which won only four state assembly seats in 1999, could cause an upset in 2004, there is nothing to stop Pas, which now has the same number of seats, to reverse its fortune.

Other than socio-economic issues, a major point of contention that might cause the BN votes in Terengganu is the allegation that state financial resources are being diverted to ‘glamorous projects’ like boat races and housing development for the rich and famous.

The BN’s hope of recapturing Kelantan remains highly tentative despite the various Umno factions in the state claiming that they have now gained the upper hand.

The state Umno is fractured into gangs, groups and factions of all shapes and colours, all claiming to lead the party and knocking on Pas’ door.

The lack of unity has always been the Achilles’ Heel of Kelantan Umno in the post-Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah stewardship.

On the other hand, Pas Menteri Besar, Datuk Seri Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, remains hugely popular and widely respected. With the injection of young and urbane nonulama leaders, Pas is beginning to look like a real alternative to Umno to the younger Malays.

Such multi-party and multi-racial civil society movements as the free election campaign or better known as Bersih and the campaign against the Internal Security Act (ISA) have also given Pas a more liberal profile and outlook.

The big question, however, remains: Can Pas work with the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Anwar-led Parti Keadilan Rakyat to take on the might of the BN?

Pas is not likely to want to form a rigid or permanent pact with either Keadilan or the DAP. Experience in the last few general elections suggests that Pas is better off fighting the election alone.

But it may not be opposed to the idea of entering into a loose arrangement with Keadilan to ensure that they do not split the votes by fighting each other.

Umno cannot also take lightly the challenge that Pas may pose in other Malay-majority states like Perlis, Perak and Pahang. Even in Penang, Pas stands a good chance of mounting a credible challenge in the Malay-majority constituencies.

If at all the opposition is likely to forge a stronger collaboration, the place should and would be Penang, the Prime Minister’s home state and where the opposition has a history of winning the state assembly. In 1969, Gerakan, which was then an opposition party, wrested the state from the Alliance – the predecessor to the BN.

The battle for Penang has always been fierce, starting with the rivalry among the BN parties. Although all the three major parties – Umno, Gerakan and the MCA — have equal strength in the state legislative assembly, the Chief Minister’s post since 1969 has always been held by Gerakan.

The MCA, which lost the state to Gerakan in 1969, has to contend with playing second fiddle to Umno and Gerakan. Both Umno and the MCA, as a matter of posturing, regularly demand the right to fill the coveted post. In the 2004 general election, they each won 12 seats – conceding only two to the opposition.

At greater risk are the parliamentary seats. The BN looks pretty secure in the state contest mainly because the non-Malays, in particular the majority Chinese, are reluctant to support the opposition for fear of jeopardising the status quo, ie, keeping Penang as a Chinese-ruled state.

But the BN has to be prepared to face stiff challenge at the parliamentary level. The Chinese voters, while favouring the BN in the state assembly election, are supportive of the opposition in the Federal contest.

In the last election, the DAP contested in seven out of 13 parliamentary seats and won four. The fifth opposition seat was won by Keadilan.

The downfall of the opposition in past general elections was its inability to put up credible candidates apart from the familiar faces like DAP Chairman Lim Kit Siang and Deputy Chairman Karpal Singh, and policies that can match the BN. Or they were simply too arrogant with their banners and slogans.

Apart from universal issues like the rising cost of living and the worsening crime situation, a number of local issues will feature in the race for Penang.

These include the promised Second Penang Bridge, the Penang urban transport system and the Northern Corridor Economic Region (NCER).

If the proposed development of Penang Hill in the run-up to the 1990 general election caused the BN dearly – forcing the resignation of the respected Chief Minister Tun Lim Chong Eu — the proposed conversion of the Batu Gantong Racecourse into the Penang Global City Centre (PGCC) and Batu Kawan in Seberang Perai into a new growth centre could have a similar effect in the coming general election.

Both projects, which include the relocation of the racecourse to Batu Kawan, have been privatised to the same corporate entity, while the proposed alignment of the second bridge conveniently connects the two mega projects.

Whereas the wealthier Chinese may welcome the opportunity to invest in these prime properties, the headache for Umno is to allay the fears of the poorer Malays that they will not be further alienated and sidelined.

The BN can expect to face an even steeper challenge from the DAP in such Chinese-dominated urban centres as Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh. This time around, the non-Malay voters may be joined by professional and middle-class Malays in siding with the opposition.

In 2004, the DAP won four out of five Federal Territory seats that it contested and three out of eight in Perak. In urban and semi-urban areas where the Malays form a simple majority, Pas stands a better chance of making an impact than Keadilan.

Fence sitters among the Malays are more likely to vote for a Pas candidate than Keadilan. The latter’s weakness remains its former affiliation to Umno.

The biggest hope for the BN in defending its two-third parliamentary majority rests with such ‘loyal states’ as Johor, Sarawak and Sabah.

The saying that the BN will win even if it puts a piece of rock to contest in Johor may still hold true. The Johoreans, in particular the Malays, are immovable in their support for the BN.

Sarawak is expected to continue to give a solid victory to the BN not so much because of the strength of the federal coalition but due to the unique nature of the state BN. The Sarawak BN is made up exclusively of state-based parties.

As long as they are left alone to mind their own business, Sarawak voters are only too happy to vote for the state BN. An added strength for the state BN is the much-touted reconciliation between the Chief Minister Tan Sri Taib Mahmud and his uncle, the former Chief Minister and Governor Tun Abdul Rahman Yaakob.

Whatever the assumption, one thing is certain — the outcome of the election will determine the future of Abdullah’s leadership.

Being an astute political survivor, Abdullah is not unaware of public sentiment and mounting criticism within and outside the BN against his leadership.

But because Umno has become so clubby and there is a pervasive fear that their movements are being ‘policed’, the majority of officeholders are fearful about speaking out.

But behind closed doors and away from the radarscope of the budak-budak PM – PM’s boys – the discussions on the party’s future are passionate if not outright strident.

This raises the spectre of what the Malays call pukul anak sindir menantu. Literally translated, it means to beat one’s daughter out of anger or dislike for one’s son-in-law.

The voters, including the traditional supporters of Umno and the BN, might be using the general election to punish their parties in the hope of forcing internal changes.

This could very well happen because they see neither the desire nor the hope to change party leadership through party elections since most parties have deferred their elections on the pretext of preparing for the general election.

As for Umno, many of its members are not likely to take lightly what they see as the capitulation on the part of their leaders in tackling communal-type demands by the minority races.

Maybe too that the Prime Minister is far from finding his damai abadi – ultimate peace and contentment.

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