PAS candidate Mohd Salleh Man (right), Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Guan Eng on nomination day, 17 Aug
(Pic courtesy of theSun)
IT was a by-election the Barisan Nasional (BN) knew it would lose, but had to fight anyway. Unable to use the same excuse it had for opting out of Penanti, the BN went into Permatang Pasir disadvantaged from the start with its choice of candidate.
Rohaizat Othman lost to PAS’s Mohd Salleh Man by 4,551 votes — a dip in margin from the 5,433 obtained by the Islamist party in the 2008 general election, but a comfortable margin nonetheless. This drop comes with a reduced voter turnout of 73%, compared with 82% last year.
Permatang Pasir was a by-election of little significance to the balance of power in the Penang government. Salleh defended a seat PAS has held for the last three terms.
Still, his victory means the Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’s tripartite alliance remains intact in the state legislative assembly. Additionally, Salleh will soon assume the post of Penang Islamic Religious Council president. This would be a welcome bonus to PAS, which was not given an executive council post in the state government after the general election.
The by-election also clearly indicates sentiment towards the PR and the BN, given the PR’s internal problems of late, and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s recent moves to liberalise the economy and re-brand Malaysian unity.
In the lead
But PAS was already the lead horse before the by-election candidates were announced, based on a canvassing exercise among Permatang Pasir voters by the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research.
Director Ibrahim Suffian told The Nut Graph that those queried said they were concerned about the economy and lack of local amenities and services. Yet, their support was already leaning towards PAS even before they knew of Rohaizat’s disbarment.
BN candidate Rohaizat (Pic
courtesy of theSun) “It suggests some amount of cynicism towards the federal ruling government despite their concerns about livelihood issues,” Ibrahim said in a phone interview.
As such, the BN’s choice of a bad candidate only made its chances harder. Its development promise to make Permatang Pasir the federal government’s “anak emas” also had little impact on voters.
Neither did voters accept Umno‘s racial rhetoric to rally the Malay Malaysian vote around the BN’s candidate. Nor was the exploitation of inter-racial issues like Selangor’s beer sales dispute and the Kedah PAS government’s closure of a pig abattoir effective in convincing voters about ideological differences within the PR.
Other topics, like Teoh Beng Hock‘s death and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission‘s investigation of Selangor PR assemblypersons, were not posed to Permatang Pasir voters by Merdeka Center, but these were exploited by PR ceramah to stir emotions. Yet, these were not definitive issues, but merely piggybacked on prevailing national sentiment on corruption and abuse of power in government institutions.
Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin says it’s hard to draw any national conclusion from Permatang Pasir. This is in large part because of its position as one of three state seats within Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s Permatang Pauh parliamentary constituency.
“This by-election was a confluence of both national and domestic issues, but you cannot say it’s a referendum on national issues or the government under Najib. Past results for this seat have a strong correspondence to Anwar’s roots in this area, even while he was with Umno. The localised sentiment which favours him is a strong factor,” Khairy tells The Nut Graph.
Political analyst Prof James Chin from of Monash University Malaysia agrees, noting that if the BN had won, the result would say more about Anwar than about PAS.
“It would have reflected badly on his leadership of the PR. It can be taken that voters here still believe in his ability to lead Pakatan,” Chin says.
Chinese Malaysians at a DAP dinner on 23 Aug listening to Anwar speak
Guan Eng’s symbolism
Detailed information on where the votes went according to ethnicity and age are not available at press time. But PAS central committee member Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad says the large winning majority, despite a slightly lower turnout, means that voting trends remain unchanged from the general election.
“For sure it looks like the Chinese [Malaysian] votes are still with us and the Malay [Malaysian] vote remains unchanged. The lower turnout is likely due to it being a working day and the absence of outstation voters,” he tells The Nut Graph in an immediate reaction after the results were announced tonight.
Malay Malaysians comprise 72.6% of voters and Chinese Malaysians 26%.
If there was any ambivalence Chinese Malaysians here may have felt about PAS given the disputes over beer sales in Selangor and the pig abattoir in Kedah, Chin believes that Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng played a crucial role in retaining their vote for PAS.
“Having a Chinese [Malaysian] chief minister is an important symbol for them. Chinese [Malaysians] in Penang are pragmatic and their reaction will be to fend off the threats the DAP and PR are facing from Umno.”
Local opinion on Lim is divided, with some saying he could do more, and others conceding that his hands are tied by decisions made by the past BN state government.
Preparing for the general election
Political parties will be looking for lessons on voting patterns to prepare for the next general election.
For the BN, Permatang Pasir should tell them that the Malay Malaysian vote in ethnically mixed areas is a lot harder to rally than in a rural, overwhelmingly Malay Malaysian seat like Manik Urai. There, the swing of votes to the BN was said to be due to a new bridge promised to constituents if the BN won.
Salleh with PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang (left) meeting voters at the Kubang Semang Ramadan bazaar
But to truly gauge trends ahead of the next national polls, a better seat for a by-election would be in Umno’s stronghold of Johor, or one where the PR won for the first time in the 2008 general election.
Permatang Pasir was not the right test bed to gauge the BN’s popularity given local sentiments towards Anwar’s incumbency.
“I see Permatang Pasir as more of a popular referendum on Umno and Anwar,” says Chin.
While it’s good news for Anwar, who will mark a one-year anniversary in recapturing the Permatang Pauh seat tomorrow on 26 Aug, it comes at a time when the viability of PKR, PAS and the DAP to rule together will face renewed questioning.
News of Anwar’s purported secret meeting with Najib, and PAS’s latest moves to let mosque officials arrest beer-drinking Muslims and to stop a pop concert, will cast question marks on the PR’s commitment to stay together. For now, though, the PR can bask in their record of winning all but Batang Ai in the eight by-elections Malaysia has had in the last 18 months.
The Nut Graph needs your support