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Swing time in Kuala Terengganu

A man peers over his shoulder outside Pasar Payang (All pics by Lainie Yeoh, unless otherwise noted)

SATURDAY, 17 Jan 2009, is D-Day for Kuala Terengganu, but things are no clearer as to which way the votes will go. Trying to understand how voters here decide has been an intriguing exercise.

Despite enthusiastic responses to ceramah by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat and incentives dished out by the Barisan Nasional (BN), by-election talk is largely fixated on one thing: the candidate’s personality.

According to an independent poll, for 77% of Kuala Terengganu voters, the candidate’s personality is the most important factor in deciding whom to support.

PAS candidate Wahid Endut making a speech to the predominantly Chinese Malaysian crowd in Ocean restaurant

If that were really so, it is bad news for the BN’s Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh, who has been labelled “snobbish”, and good news for affable PAS candidate Abdul Wahid Endut. Azharudin Mamat @ Adam, who is standing as an independent, is expected to be a spoiler for PAS.

Against the backdrop of the opposition tsunami in the March 2008 general election and the Permatang Pauh parliamentary by-election in August 2008, it is difficult to grasp why issues take a back seat here. It may be that anti-BN sentiment in the west coast of the peninsula has not flowed east.

Gauging voter sentiment is also complicated by the fact that what matters to Malay Malaysian voters does not to non-Malay Malaysians, and vice-versa. Malay Malaysians form 88% of the Kuala Terengganu electorate, and the Chinese Malaysians a sizeable 11%.

With information gleaned from locals at the grassroots and political levels, and a review of the BN and Pakatan Rakyat campaigns, The Nut Graph tries to make sense of how Kuala Terengganu voters think, and the factors that could influence their ballots tomorrow.

Kuala Terengganu is not a hardcore PAS seat

Despite being near Kelantan, locals say PAS’s strength in Kuala Terengganu is only 30%, while the rest of the voters are largely fence-sitters. Being neither PAS nor Umno loyalists, Kuala Terengganu’s voters are generally swingers by nature. This is evidenced by the fact that the electorate in this seat previously elected Members of Parliament from three different parties: Semangat 46 in 1990, the BN in 1995, and PAS in 1999.

The peculiarities of Malay Malaysian voters in judging candidates

Malay Malaysians, who form 88% of the seat’s electorate, tend to appraise candidates by way of elimination. “If they think one candidate is aloof, they’ll ‘throw’ — not give, but throw — their vote to the opponent without necessarily considering his [or her] capabilities,” says a Kuala Terengganu division Umno member.

This is apparently unique to Malay Malaysians in Kuala Terengganu, and backs the view that they are natural-born swingers. Hence, PAS’s candidate in the 2008 general election, Mohamad Sabu, lost because he was an “outsider” from Penang.

It grinds the Umno camp to think that voters would support Abdul Wahid based on this. Though a five-term Wakaf Mempelam state assemblyperson, his track record outside that seat is unknown. Being the PAS state treasurer is only relevant to party members, and not to the rest of the electorate.

The issues-driven-but-pragmatic Chinese

A diabolo performance to entertain those at the MCA ceramah

Chinese Malaysian voters in Kuala Terengganu have identified with issues imported by the Pakatan Rakyat that touch on their ethnicity. These have included the “pendatang” remark by Umno’s Datuk Ahmad Ismail, Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir’s proposal on vernacular schools, and the Internal Security Act arrests of the DAP’s Teresa Kok and a Sin Chew Daily reporter.

That Wan Ahmad Farid appears unfriendly matters less here, as the faces they deal with on a daily basis belong to the local MCA leaders. Whether a vote for PAS means the implementation of hudud law is also irrelevant at the moment, as this by-election does not change the government at federal or state level.

Chinese Malaysian voters at a DAP ceramah in Ocean restaurant

If the Chinese Malaysians vote for PAS in large numbers, it would be to express their indignance at the veiled threat by Terengganu Menteri Besar Datuk Ahmad Said, who said development funding would be denied to Chinese Malaysian-majority polling stations that voted for the opposition. If they solidly backed the BN, it could be out of survival instinct for the rest of the term until payback time in the next general election.

The sweeteners

PAS likes to say that the BN has the three Ms: money, media and machinery. Cabinet ministers and deputy ministers have been in town almost daily, launching one ministry function or another, during which goodies are given or pledged.

BN billboard in Kuala Terengganu, with the caption Merakyatkan pembangunan

For example, on 9 Jan, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak presided over a ceremony with Wan Farid to award bids worth RM15.8 million to 583 Class F contractors in the state. The event could be explained as just another government ceremony, if not for its timing during the by-election campaign and the attendance of the BN candidate.

Poorly articulated propaganda

Opposition party newspapers and ceramah have  played a broken record of litanies against the BN, but apart from the candidates’ personalities, none have been exploited to good effect. Hudud was called a “non-issue”. Corrupt leaders were not news. The Altantuya Shaariibuu murder only got passing mention.

Even what could have been the by-election’s hottest issue, the oil royalty deficit, got muddled up in statistics before degenerating into how un-Islamic it was of the BN to use the funds on wasteful projects. The lack of good arguments has probably fuelled the sense that this is an election without any major issues.

However, there have been some attempts to play the race or religious card, mostly from the BN. Former Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) Youth members who have defected to Umno have decried the higher number of non-Muslims executive councillors in Pakatan Rakyat state governments, and the possibility of DAP adviser Lim Kit Siang becoming deputy prime minister. The MCA has raised the hudud spectre with Chinese Malaysian voters.

The Pakatan Rakyat campaign strategy

Earlier speculation that PAS would be territorial and deny Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim an active role in campaigning has turned out to be unfounded. Although Anwar is not on the ground in Kuala Terengganu daily, he has spent at least three nights on the ceramah circuit.

Nik Aziz speaks at a ceramah, with Lim Kit Siang, Datuk Zaid Ibrahim and Raja Petra Kamarudin at the table nearby
(Pic by Danny Lim)

The presence of Pakatan Rakyat superstars has also provided a curiosity factor that partly explains the large turnouts at their ceramah. The DAP’s Lim and son, Penang Chief Minister Guan Eng, are a novelty for both voters here, as is Malaysia Today‘s Raja Petra Kamarudin. PAS spiritual leader Datuk Seri Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat surprised everyone by giving a speech at a Chinese seafood restaurant as listeners drank beer.

The alliance showed its multiracial stripes despite the flap over implementing hudud law, with DAP chairperson Karpal Singh making the most noise. Not surprisingly, he has not shown up in the state to campaign.

Lim Guan Eng at Markaz Tarbiyah PAS

The Pakatan Rakyat has conducted cross-campaigns, i.e. representatives from each party appearing on a common platform, be it their leaders speaking at ceramah, or party workers going door-to-door canvassing for votes. To non-Malay Malaysian voters, it makes the alliance look more muhibbah than the BN campaign, which has largely been conducted along community lines. The exception is when the BN candidate or Umno leaders make forays into Kampung Cina, and the MCA and Gerakan play the role of tour guide.

The BN campaign strategy

A new Umno strategy has some predicting a win for the BN, despite the general perception that PAS has the edge. A BN Terengganu elected representative, an Umno cabinet minister or deputy, and an Umno supreme council member have been assigned to lead the campaign at each of the 38 polling districts. Even the menteris besar from other BN states are here. These top guns go door-to-door canvassing for votes in Malay Malaysian villages.

It is considered an effective strategy, one that covers Wan Farid’s own lack of campaign experience. This strategy has also allowed top party leaders to control the election machinery instead of the local Umno division, which is still said to be battling lethargy and infighting.

Umno supporters believe that even if Malay Malaysian voters don’t like the BN candidate, they may be swayed enough with the presence of a national leader having tea in their home.

“If they still vote [for the] opposition, then we know Umno really tak laku in Kuala Terengganu,” a Kuala Terengganu division member said.

The people decide

Workers in Kampung Cina take a break to watch BN representatives canvass for votes in the streets below

With so many variables, all predictions at this stage are speculative. Given that the campaign period has been relatively uneventful, one gets the sense that most voters have already made up their minds and are merely watching the political parties knock themselves out.

See also:
Fence-sitters hold the key
Positive and negative campaigning
Reckoning with the electorate
Assessing Chinese Malaysian support
KT’s decorative touch
Surviving perception
Getting the message across in KT
Politicising Islam in KT
Contrasting campaign styles in KT

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