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Curtain up in Kuala Terengganu

Corrected on 8 Jan 2009 at 7.45am

(Updated 12.33pm, 7 Jan 2009)

Press photographers having a field day covering Nomination Day at Stadium Negeri in Kuala Terengganu

TEN minutes before the nomination centre at the Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin Indoor Stadium in Kuala Terengganu opened at 9am on 6 Jan 2009 for the Kuala Terengganu by-election, there was a most unusual and perplexing atmosphere. It was absolutely serene.

Barring the odd early-bird straggler, hardly any supporters from either of the two major competing parties were within sight of the barriers that the police had placed on both sides of a 100m-long buffer zone. The last couple of by-elections saw raucous crowds early on. In Ijok, police learnt the hard way to expand the buffer zone beyond a water bottle’s throw. In Permatang Pauh, the festivities began as early as 7.30am.

Word came in from fellow reporters that Barisan Nasional (BN) and PAS supporters had been gathering en masse at their respective bases — BN at Seri Iman, the official home of the Terengganu menteri besar, and PAS at Wisma Persekutuan — from as early as 8am. But their party parades to the nomination centre didn’t appear until five minutes to nine.

When BN candidate Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh, flanked by Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak and the Terengganu menteri besar, walked briskly into the nomination centre, the customary cheers and chants were absent. It actually felt like what it really was: They’re just filing in papers, no?

Political showpiece

Not quite. Nomination Day is a political showpiece. This by-election, while lacking the immediately tangible impact of altering power in Parliament or the state, has come to be defined by who’s a proxy for whom; the spectacle is as much a proxy for the political strategies employed.

The PAS candidate
Just the night before, Najib, at a gathering in Taman Tamadun Islam, exhorted Umno politicians and campaign workers to stick close to kampung values.The deputy prime minister urged them to drop the elitist airs and to “mesra dengan rakyat”, which is something Wan Ahmad Farid has difficulty following, if the word on the street is anything to go by (and in politics, it always is). The Kuala Terengganu folk were to be charmed by genteel grace, not to be impressed by the machismo of war-cries or the call-to-arms to crush opponents.

In Wakaf Mempelam state assemblyperson Mohd Abdul Wahid Endut, PAS had sorted through the proxies of internal factions and plumped for one with modest ambitions. In fact, he had earlier asked, as far as possible, not to be chosen as a candidate.

His about-turn was evident when he squeezed through the PAS-supporting crowd crammed against the barriers, to march to the nomination centre with most of the top leaders of PAS, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and the DAP. (De facto PKR leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was absent, while the DAP’s Lim Kit Siang would turn up later.)

The BN candidate
(Corrected) Wan Ahmad Farid’s entourage, besides Najib and Terengganu Menteri Besar (MB) Datuk Ahmad Said, also consisted of all of the BN’s top leadership, including Umno Youth deputy Khairy Jamaluddin. MIC president Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu was however not present.

Independent candidates

Third to go in were two men in white serban and flowing jubah, one of which many reporters mistook to be the Angkatan Keadilan Insan Malaysia (Akim) candidate. The pair hurried out from the centre at 9.40am, and as reporters converged upon them, the younger-looking of the two was revealed to be independent candidate Azharudin bin Mamat @ Adam.

Azharudin, who described his occupation as “tabib” or traditional physician, was apparently in a rush to rectify a problem in his nomination forms, and would just manage to re-submit them two minutes before the end of the stipulated time.

Speaking to the press after he had been confirmed as a candidate, Azharudin said little, if anything at all. Nodding and shaking his head by way of answers, he fobbed off queries about his motives by just audibly grunting something about helping the poor.

The independent candidate
With no bilik gerakan, and only a lorry as a campaign vehicle, Azharudin’s qualifications as a candidate raises questions about his sincerity, especially when a fourth candidate has a strong influence over a seat that had a winning majority of 628 in March 2008. The actual Akim candidate, party vice-president Harun Abdul Rahman Mohd, was just outside the nomination centre, giving an impromptu press conference. He declared that he was effectively withdrawing from the contest, and had not submitted his nomination forms.

In a prepared statement, Harun said he was stepping aside to give priority to PAS, because they shared the same Islamist stance. He fully endorsed PAS, wished for political parties to unite in order to topple the BN, and urged supporters of Akim, PKR and Umno to support PAS. Later in the day, Akim president Hanafi Hamat said Harun would face action by the party for his action.

Crossing over the divide

While the candidates and aides were inside the nomination centre, outside was that rare spectacle of inter-party mingling that most people would never see beyond the walls of Parliament. BN and PAS VIPs were seated separately in tents barely two steps apart, and the ease with which the politicians crossed over this divide belied their enmity in the public sphere.

The candidates and their top leaders made courtesy calls in the opposing tents. Najib and PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang shook hands and wished each other well. Hadi Awang received a hearty hug from Ahmad Said, and it was wide smiles and friendly jibes all around.

Among the best inter-party charmers from the Pakatan Rakyat were PAS Terengganu commissioner Mustafa Ali, Selangor MB Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim, and Perak MB Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, who moved with cosy camaraderie around the BN tent. The BN’s friendliest interlopers were Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yaim and Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil.

Rais, in particular, was involved in conversations with Batu Member of Parliament (MP) Tian Chua and PAS vice-president Datuk Husam Musa that extended to more than just courtesy greetings. With a Sony DSLR camera slung over his shoulder, the foreign minister was like a tourist taking snaps of everyone from the BN, PAS, and even the press.

DAP Seputeh MP Teresa Kok’s little chat with Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar had her make a dig at her nemesis Datuk Seri Dr Mohamad Khir Toyo, a few metres away. Syed Hamid rebuffed her; Kok rolled her eyes; and they both laughed.

Angkatan Muda Keadilan chief Fariz Musa (right) engages Husam Musa in conversation
while PKR Information Chief Tian Chua looks on

Perception is everything

Proceedings drew to a close with press conferences, where the two major candidates and their party leaders told the public what they already expected them to say. No, Wan Ahmad Farid is not a proxy for Pak Lah, he’s just the best candidate there is, said Najib. No, the Altantuya Shaariibuu murder case is not relevant to this by-election (Najib again). No, the implementation of hudud will not spook Chinese voters because they know they’re not affected (Mustafa Ali). Neither side was drawn to comment on the third candidate.

Where perception is everything, the political capital from a win in the Kuala Terengganu by-election would be a massive boost to either of the major coalitions. It would be a referendum of, if not Najib’s, then certainly the BN’s ability to recover; and a referendum of the Pakatan Rakyat’s ambitions to take over government.

It would be a showpiece that would undoubtedly influence political fates. In the great play of the by-election, Act One, Nomination Day’s curtain-raiser introduced its actors, all chuckles, grins and back-slaps. The curtain comes down on polling day, 17 Jan.

See also: Nomination day in KT

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