The merry-go-round in Kuala Terengganu’s Islam Hadhari theme park
THE Kuala Terengganu by-election, which has to be called following the death of its Member of Parliament Datuk Razali Ismail from the Barisan Nasional (BN), will be held on 17 Jan 2009, with nomination day falling on 6 Jan.
The parliamentary seat is one of the classic swing seats in Malaysia. It went from a Barisan Nasional (BN) seat in 1986 (majority 3,324 votes to a Semangat 46 seat in 1990 (majority 1,880). It then reverted to the BN in 1995 (majority 4,852) before going to PAS in 1999 (majority 14,488) and then back to the BN again in 2004 (majority 1,933). The BN retained the seat in the 2008 elections (majority 628).
Without doubt, the bulk of the resources and campaigning will occur in the Malay Malaysian areas in this constituency where Umno will fight tooth and nail against PAS. But should both parties’ strengths cancel each other out in these areas, the non-Malay Malaysian vote will play a decisive role in determining this by-election’s outcome.
Non-Malay Malaysians only comprise 12% of Kuala Terengganu’s electorate. Most of these voters are Chinese Malaysians (11%) and can be found in the town areas of Kuala Terengganu. They comprise almost 40% of the electorate in the state seat of Bandar, currently held by the MCA, and the only Terengganu state seat that Umno did not contest in the 2008 general election.
Voting patterns in Bandar
The influence of non-Malay Malaysian voters here can be neatly illustrated by a brief examination of voting patterns in the Bandar state seat.
PAS won this state seat by a margin of 511 votes in the 1999 general election against Wong Foon Meng, the MCA’s new secretary-general. MCA’s Toh Chin Yaw won back this seat in 2004 with a majority of 1,612 votes. He held on to this seat with a reduced majority of 1,142 in 2008.
The BN was able to win back this seat from PAS in 2004 largely because PAS was not able to hold on to the Chinese Malaysian votes it had clawed from the MCA in 1999. Table 1 below illustrates this point.
In 2004, PAS lost this state seat because of its inability to hold on to the Chinese Malaysian votes in areas with a significant percentage of such voters.
Excerpt of Table 1: Cabang Tiga and Hiliran Masjid
It actually made gains against the BN from 1999 to 2004 in Cabang Tiga and Hiliran Masjid, two polling stations with about an 85% Malay Malaysian electorate.
But in four other polling stations with more than 40% Chinese Malaysian voters (Pulau Kambing, Kampung Cina, Pejabat Bandaran and Paya Bunga), PAS lost a significant number of votes.
Excerpt of Table 1: Polling stations with more than 40% Chinese Malaysian voters
Indeed, these four polling stations swung the elections by approximately 2,700 votes, an amount not only enough to win this state seat, but also larger than the BN majority at the parliamentary level (1,933).
The BN lost ground in these four decisive polling stations in 2008 but not enough to lose the state and parliamentary seats. In other words, if PAS had managed to retain the level of support it received in 1999 in these four polling stations with a large percentage of Chinese Malaysian voters, it is likely that they might have won the Kuala Terengganu parliamentary seat in 2004 and 2008.
I am not convinced that PAS president and former Terengganu Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang realises the importance of the Chinese Malaysian vote in a seat that is 88% Malay Malaysian, and in a state that is more than 95% Malay Malaysian. If he sidelines opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and the DAP, it is likely that PAS will lose this by-election.
However, if Hadi Awang is strategic and allows his Pakatan Rakyat partners ample room to campaign in the areas with a significant number of Chinese Malaysian voters, this electoral race would be much more competitive.
It would indeed be ironic if this by-election boils down to how a few Chinese Malaysian voters in four polling stations vote. This is just one of the many interesting storylines which forms the backdrop of what promises to be a keenly contested and politically significant by-election.
Ong Kian Ming is a PhD candidate in political science at Duke University. He can be reached at [email protected]. He thanks Lai Soon Keat and Dr Bridget Welsh for the 2004 and 2008 elections polling station data.
See Part I: Challenges in Kuala Terengganu