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The close race for Bukit Gantang

THE last few days in Bukit Gantang have been breathless ones. A whirlwind of VIPs from PAS and the Barisan Nasional (BN) has whipped through as campaigning intensified before polling day today on 7 April 2009.

Up till the night of 3 April, the race was said to be tight with votes from the Malay Malaysian electorate split between PAS and BN. Meanwhile, non-Malay Malaysians are expected to continue their strong support for the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) which comprises PAS, DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).

But as the weekend frenzy moved into higher gear on 6 April with the arrival of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, it was no longer so clear which way the votes would go. Besides Mahathir’s return to Umno, other factors have begun to kick in, such as the new leadership for the party and the country.

Dr M greeting the crowd as he arrived in Taiping on 6 April (Pic by Raj Kumar, courtesy of theSun)

Voting, which begins at 8am today and ends at 5pm, will decide whether these national-level events have any impact on a campaign that some initially thought had been decided two months ago: either you agreed with the BN’s 5 Feb coup of the Perak government, or you didn’t.

Indeed, of all the three by-elections happening simultaneously today, the one in Bukit Gantang probably holds the most significance for our democracy.

The BN’s chances

The BN’s campaign has largely revolved around PR’s resistance to the BN take over of the state. From this main theme, other issues sprung. For example, accusations that PAS’s Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin committed treason against the Perak sultan; that PAS was DAP’s puppet; and that PAS sold out Malay Malaysians by giving land titles to non-Malay Perakians.

Yet, such efforts are at best meant for fence-sitters only.

The hardcore on either side appear to have already made up their minds. The factors that may sway them and those who have not yet decided are beyond the immediate problems Perak faces.

Ibrahim Suffian
“If this by-election is just about the Perak constitutional crisis, then it would be more cut and dried. But now we have the country’s new leadership and Dr Mahathir’s return to Umno. The party is more united now,” says Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research director Ibrahim Suffian in a phone interview.

Political analyst Prof Dr Mohammad Agus Yusoff feels the Malay Malaysian vote is in the BN’s favour because Bukit Gantang is traditionally an Umno area. Royalty is revered, and Dr Mahathir is still respected by many Malay Malaysians. Umno’s track record of looking after the welfare of its rural constituents may also influence fence-sitters.

Additionally, the vote is for a parliamentary seat, and regardless of who wins it, the Perak crisis remains for the courts to solve. The balance of power in Parliament does not change either, with the BN still in the majority even if PAS wins.

The outcome of the Umno elections, the promises of party reforms, and the return of Dr Mahathir have revived Umno, even if just cosmetically.

For the ambivalent, it could be enough to stir up the same positive feelings people had when Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi first came into office right before the 2004 general election. Similarly, Malay Malaysians may feel more hopeful about Umno’s future now and may decide to give the party a chance, just like they did Abdullah, by voting BN in this by-election.

The PR’s chances

Despite these developments, PAS is still confident that it can close the gap with Umno in time. “By polling day, we should be even on the Malay [Malaysian] vote,” says PAS national elections director Datuk Mustafa Ali.

The PR campaign has called Najib’s release of 13 Internal Security Act (ISA) detainees a by-election ploy and repeatedly associated him with murdered Altantuya Shaariibuu. In short, the PR campaign has told voters to reject Najib’s tainted leadership through the ballot box. They cast Mahathir as a dictator and reminded voters of his use of the ISA, which allows for indefinite detention without trial, in 1987.

Among Chinese and Indian Malaysian voters, PAS is banking on voting trends in the last general election.

K Saraswathy, 60, is one example. She lives in a rented wooden house in Pekan Trong. She spends her time doing odd-jobs in between taking care of her two grandchildren, whose parents are disabled. She says she voted PAS last year, and may likely do so again in this by-election. But before 2008, she supported the BN.

Saraswathy with grandchild outside her home

What turned her was a group of opposition workers who came to her house to explain the ISA. “They told me to imagine how I would feel if my grandchildren were one day arrested under the ISA,” she says when met at her home.

Other local Indian Malaysians met at opposition ceramah feel it is unlikely that the release of two Hindraf leaders will sway many votes. Hindraf, though a banned organisation, has an active chapter in Taiping.

For housewife Ng Gaik See, 49, more immediate concerns like the lack of water supply in her Kuala Sepetang village indicate why she is stubbornly opposition.

“BN doesn’t take care of Chinese [Malaysians]. Before this, our pipes had no water supply. Only recently we started to get water,” she says at the DAP operations centre in the fishing village where she has come to check her name on the electoral roll.

Ng at the DAP centre in Kuala Sepetang

Depends on turnout

With 63.5% Malay Malaysian, 27.1% Chinese Malaysian, and 9.1% Indian Malaysian voters, Agus suspects that the by-election results will reflect the status quo in 2008 given the tight race.

 Bukit Gantang 2008 ethnic composition 
 Malay Malaysians
 Chinese Malaysians 27.1% 
 Indian Malaysians 9.1% 
 Other Malaysians 0.2% 

Last year, the BN captured 52.6% of the Malay Malaysian vote, and 34.8% of the non-Malay Malaysian vote, according to calculations by political analyst Ong Kian Ming. Overall, the BN only took 45.9% of total votes cast. PAS won the seat by a majority of 1,566 votes.

“This time, it will just be the fence-sitters who may swing to Umno, but not overwhelmingly. PAS can balance this with younger voters and the non-Malay Malaysian votes. Overall, PAS still has the advantage,” Agus says.

A lot depends on turnout, local observers add. The common analysis is that low voter turnout will favour the BN, while a high one will indicate voter enthusiasm to choose the opposition.

In 2008, when PAS wrested the seat, turnout was 72.4%. In 2004 when the BN won, turnout was 51.3% with a majority of 6,702 votes.

This time, polling is on a Tuesday and may pose problems for a sizeable chunk of around 3,000 voters under age 55 who live and work outside the constituency.

Bukit Gantang has three state seats — Kuala Sepetang, Changkat Jering and Trong. The first two were won by PKR last year, while Trong was retained by the BN.

PAS’s Nizar and the BN’s Ismail Saffian are the main contenders, while independent candidate Kamarul Ramizu Idris makes it a three-corner fight. But analysts don’t believe Kamarul Ramizu will create any significant impact.

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2 Responses to “The close race for Bukit Gantang”

  1. hamzah says:

    “…Agus Yusoff feels the Malay Malaysian vote is in the BN’s favour because Bukit Gantang is traditionally an Umno area. Royalty is revered, and Dr Mahathir is still respected by many Malay Malaysians. Umno’s track record of looking after the welfare of its rural constituents may also influence fence-sitters…”

    Dear Doctor – let this kampung boy from Perak enlighten you:

    1) royalty has to earn the rakyat’s respect, we know what’s right vs what’s wrong … robbing us of the right to choose is WRONG!

    2) Mahathir is respected for what he did to the country, but NOT for what he did to the rakyat!

    3) Pakatan earns the [loyalty of] ketua-ketua kampung. [Umno, what does Umno do?]

    Ketuanan Rakyat!

  2. Clive Kessler says:

    Prof Muhammad Agus Yusoff is quoted as saying that Bukit Gantang is “traditionally” an Umno area.

    A bit of historical perspective, please!

    In the 1955 elections, the Alliance won 51 of 52 seats.

    The one which it lost? That was the Perak seat that encompassed Bukit Gantang.

    It was won by PAS, whose candidate was Dato’ Panglima Bukit Gantang.

    Can’t get any more “traditional” than that!

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