Buka puasa delicacies outside a PAS centre in Permatang Pasir
“ALL this is just to create the setting,” Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) elections director Saifuddin Nasution says. He waves his hand, gesturing towards a just-concluded press conference by PAS leaders in which they again harped on the disbarment of Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate Rohaizat Othman.
The onslaught by the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) about Rohaizat’s moral fitness to stand as a candidate in the Permatang Pasir by-election has been a daily affair. It is the PR’s strongest psychological weapon — one which the BN delivered to them.
“We didn’t create any untruths about Rohaizat, it [was] already there, [as clarified] by the Bar Council,” Saifuddin says.
But will voters decide who to vote for today, on 25 Aug 2009, based on a campaign that has been rife with personality attacks and short on people’s issues?
Permatang Pasir’s 20,290 voters go to polls from 8am to 5pm. They will choose between the BN’s Rohaizat, who is Permatang Pauh Umno division secretary, and Penang PAS commissioner Mohd Salleh Man. PAS is defending its only seat in the DAP-dominant Penang legislative assembly.
Based on sentiment, a PAS win appears likely. The question is whether it can maintain its 2008 general election majority of 5,433 votes.
Permatang Pasir March 2008 general election results
|| Datuk Mohd Hamdan Abdul Rahman (PAS)
| Ahmad Sahar Shuib (Umno)
| Voter turnout
Source: Election Commission
Even if all things were equal between both candidates, PR leaders say they would still have faced a tough campaign. Despite Rohaizat’s disbarment, the PR has had to go up against attempts to weaken support for the alliance using race, religion and the PR’s internal problems.
The news about PKR’s Lunas assemblyperson turning independent in the Kedah state assembly two days before polling appears to be another BN strategy to create doubts about the PR, its leaders believe. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has said it shows the PR’s instability. And PKR adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was forced to admit that the party had weaknesses in its vetting system for the 2008 general election.
There are other issues. Muslim voters watched the verbal spat between Umno and PAS leaders over PAS spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, and whether he did or did not say that Umno members would go to hell.
The BN has also accused the PR of registering phantom voters in the constituency with the help of co-conspirators in the Penang Election Commission. These claims, by Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, are yet unproven. It is, however, interesting to see the BN using one of the PR’s common complaints while contesting in an election.
In what the PR hopes will be a vote-clincher among Malay Malaysians, Anwar announced on the night of 23 Aug that the Penang government would appoint Salleh as Penang Islamic Religious Council president if he wins. This is perhaps an attempt to answer Khairy’s other taunt that despite being in the Penang PR, PAS has not been given an executive council post in the state government.
The DAP’s Bukit Bendera Member of Parliament Liew Chin Tong says the worst thing that could happen if PAS loses is the retreat of each of the PR parties into communalism.
Liew Chin Tong“If PAS were to be left out of the Penang government, supporters might feel that multiracial cooperation is no longer viable,” he says. In other words, a dejected PAS might retreat into stronger Islamism to underscore its identity, possibly causing an opposite but similar reaction from the DAP.
“Umno’s campaign through its media for the past half a year has taken its toll on the PR in the eyes of the public. I can’t say for sure if voters really believe it, but I would rather be cautious than overconfident,” Liew adds.
Sungai Tiang assemblyperson Suraya Yaacob, of the BN in Kedah, feels that this by-election has been a “missed opportunity” to gauge voter sentiment about the federal government.
“The truth about Rohaizat does not mean it will cause people to vote for PAS. It may upset voters, but not enough to make them vote. It [was] too personal. The issues in this election end up not being about the respective parties and what they can do for voters, but [about] the candidates,” she tells The Nut Graph while campaigning for Rohaizat.
PAS central committee member Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad is aware that the party should not “overkill” on Rohaizat’s disbarment. “Among Malay [Malaysian] voters, it might turn into sympathy votes or cause resentment against PAS,” he says.
PAS candidate Salleh is not free from allegations either, but claims of misappropriation of party funds are unproven.
If the BN has any optimism, it is based on the hope that voters want the best of two worlds: a state seat under the BN, but a PR government at the state level, says Seberang Jaya assemblyperson Datuk Arif Shah Omar Shah, who heads the BN campaign for non-Malay voters.
He notes: “It’s only two to three years more till the next general election, and people are willing to give the BN a chance in Permatang Pasir. If they vote for the BN, they know they can enjoy federal benefits while still maintaining the DAP-led state government. It’s a win-win situation for voters.”
Turnout on polling today is something the politicians are genuinely concerned about. It is a working day, and coincides with the Muslim fasting month.
The DAP’s Bukit Mertajam Member of Parliament Chong Eng feels assured of support for the PR in the Kampung Cross Street polling district, where voters are nearly 80% Chinese Malaysian. But she admits that voters may be tired of election politicking, a year after the Permatang Pauh parliamentary by-election last August, and the Penanti state by-election in June.
Chong Eng (right) visiting with a Chinese Malaysian voter
With voter sentiment hard to read, politicians say it all depends on the turnout today. Suraya estimates either more spoilt votes or a low turnout of about 60%. Her guess is in line with that of some DAP leaders, too, who predict a 60% to 65% turnout.
Voter turnout in the last by-election in Manik Urai was 88%, in which PAS won by a whisker. In Penanti, turnout was the lowest ever in national elections history, at 46%. Many attributed it to the fact that the BN did not contest.
Liew says a lower turnout will yield a lower majority for PAS in Permatang Pasir. But a turnout higher than 60% will be “very good news”. This is based on speculation that BN supporters may be demoralised over their lacklustre campaign, while PR supporters are in the mood for a fight.
After PAS wrested the Permatang Pasir seat from the BN in 1999 with a 3,194 majority, PAS’s margin of victory dipped to a majority of 679 votes in 2004, attributed to the national feel-good factor over the new premiership of Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. PAS’s majority jumped to 5,433 in the 2008 general election in line with protest votes against the BN that were felt nationwide.
Arif Shah points to the possibility of a lower majority for PAS this time, based on the 2004 results. “People are thinking about giving Najib a chance. At the same time, people are questioning the state of affairs in Pakatan,” he says.
If, indeed, the results by the end of today see a lower turnout and a lower majority for PAS, it will be a win the PR can celebrate. But it might also set the stage for the BN’s recovery in the years to come.
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