AFTER losing in all of the by-elections it has contested in the peninsula since March 2008, the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s Bagan Pinang win must taste like ambrosia. The BN’s candidate from Umno, Tan Sri Isa Samad, polled 8,013 votes against the 2,578 votes garnered by PAS’s Zulkefly Omar. In fact, Isa’s majority of 5,435 votes far outstrips the 2,333 majority enjoyed by the BN in the March 2008 general election.
The BN’s stunning performance in Bagan Pinang on 11 Oct 2009 is nothing short of a landslide. Many are wondering what this says about the BN and the PR, and more importantly, what it says about voters.
Leaving that question aside for the moment, Isa’s increased majority must also be a relief for BN chairperson and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak. After the fielding of corruption-tainted Isa drew ire from none other than Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Najib can now sleep easy for a little while longer.
Najib must also be particularly relieved about the postal votes — a whopping 3,521 of the 4,611 votes cast went to the BN.
Corruption allegations notwithstanding, Isa was a candidate whose undeniable popularity among locals would have held him in good stead. He is, after all, a towering figure in local politics here. And Umno and the rest of the BN knew this from the beginning.
Khairy (File pic) As Umno Youth chief and Rembau Member of Parliament Khairy Jamaluddin tells The Nut Graph: “Local politics trumps over national concerns. There is a disconnect between the national consciousness (regarding Isa’s money politics charges) and local realities in politics,” Khairy explains.
“As a former menteri besar, Isa has a good track record. He knows people here. He is that rare Umno leader who has the ability to put people at ease.”
In short, Isa charmed his way out of the stigma of corruption and abuse of power. Well, charm was only part of the equation. He also rode on several government functions to campaign — which goes against the ethics of election campaigning. And all of this prompts Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, in charge of PAS’s Bagan Pinang by-election machinery, to call this “a very sad day for the nation”.
He tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview: “As Mahathir says, corruption thrives because voters keep supporting leaders who have been found guilty.”
Dzulkefly says the public should not construe the results as an endorsement of Isa per se, but as an endorsement of corruption.
The crowd reacts as Isa is declared the winner
Headaches for the BN and PR
The BN might think this is its first big step in staving off the Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’s onslaught, but it should also realise that this victory is a double-edged sword. Political analyst Prof Dr James Chin, from Monash University, Sunway Campus tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview: “This victory will be seen by Umno warlords that the party just needs to leave everything to them, and [can] forget about reforms.” He is referring specifically to party giants who were dropped in Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s cabinet line-up of 2008 for various reasons.
Khairy disagrees. “It really depends on the individual’s credibility. Apart from the money politics issue, Isa is much-liked by locals. So-called warlords can succeed if they are well accepted by their own constituents.”
But Chin stresses that Isa’s win could also shake state-level politics in Negeri Sembilan. “For example, now that Isa has won, what will (Menteri Besar Datuk Seri) Mohamad Hassan do? It is probably his worst nightmare.”
Chin sees that Hassan will be damned if he does not appoint Isa as a state exco. But Hassan might very well be damned even if he does appoint Isa as exco. Negeri Sembilan will likely see internal tensions not unlike Terengganu: BN-controlled, but hardly a picnic for the coalition’s leadership.
But the BN does not corner the market of political headaches. The PR also needs to do some soul-searching on what went wrong in Bagan Pinang. Dzulkefly says the odds were stacked against PAS anyway. “We are pretty weak in Bagan Pinang. PAS has only around 100 members in Bagan Pinang compared to Umno’s approximately 3,000 members here,” he says.
According to Chin, however, this is not the only issue the PR needs to reflect upon. “Voters are also probably starting to doubt if the PR can hold it together after all its recent bickering.” Chin says the constant outbursts by Selangor exco from PAS Datuk Dr Hasan Ali, and the Penang government’s handling of the Kampung Buah Pala affair, could have also dented the PR’s image quite badly.
Isa (centre), with Muhyiddin on his left
Political Islam, again
But apart from politicking within the BN and PR, what impact does the Bagan Pinang by-election result have on the direction Malaysia is heading? For one thing, sociologist Prof Dr Norani Othman observes that the battle for Islam between Umno and PAS is only intensifying.
“I’ve been saying since the mid-1990s that Umno and PAS are going on the same trajectory regarding their stand on Islam and a plural society. Ultimately they are both the same,” she tells The Nut Graph in a telephone interview.
She says this is true of PAS even though it purports to support the PR’s multiracial and inclusive vision for now. “PAS can speak about embracing non-Muslims only when Muslims are clearly stronger and in the majority,” she explains. “But subliminally, their discourse is really about mere tolerance, not acceptance.”
But is the battle for Islam truly played out during elections, or is it mere rhetoric and political theatre? “Especially for a party like PAS, which has a long-term vision, elections provide it with a sort of political pacemaker to take the pulse of its struggles,” Norani says.
In the case of PAS, its strategy is multi-pronged: it aims to convert society to the Islamic agenda at all levels. In addition to winning at the ballot box, PAS also targets mosques and residential committees to transform residential areas, and the civil service to reach working Malay-Muslim Malaysians.
Dzulkefly Which is probably why Dzulkefly is ultimately not too worried about this by-election outcome. He tells The Nut Graph he is confident that although PAS has lost the battle, it will win the war.
But as long as Umno and PAS are battling for control over the country, Islam will continue being politicised on the stumps at every by-election or even general election in the near future. After all, if Islam could play such a big role in Bagan Pinang — a state seat where supposedly local issues predominated — it could happen anywhere else in the country.
Therefore, as sweet as Umno finds this victory, it is not going to be the panacea to national disillusionment that the BN has claimed it would be. In fact, it raises very difficult questions about the state of governance, corruption, voter awareness and political Islam in this country.
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