IF the Permatang Pauh by-election indirectly shortened Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s political life, the Kuala Terengganu by-election will not be much kinder to his chosen successor. It has been reported in Malaysiakini that incoming prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak sees this by-election as a do-or-die battle for the Barisan Nasional (BN).
While such emphasis may be needed to mobilise his troops, his assertion is far from accurate. On the positive side for Najib, only the loss of this by-election by a large margin would immediately send the BN government into intensive care. That said, there would be little reward for him even if he does win this uphill battle.
Najib is given a traditional welcome as he arrives for the launch of the Felda hotel in Kuala Terengganu on 5 Jan
No miracles for Najib
Traditionally, the BN has an upper hand in by-elections as it can pull national resources from around the country to dwarf the poorly oiled opposition machinery. Possible upsets by opposition candidates therefore raise the stakes exactly because of this unlevel playing field, and by-elections can be significant in three ways.
First, they may affect the government’s legislative majority. A case in point was the Pengkalan Pasir by-election in 2005. PAS’s defeat reduced the government majority to a wafer-thin 23:22 in the 45-member Kelantan state assembly.
This will not be the case in Kuala Terengganu. In the 222-member Parliament, a BN victory will keep the government-to-opposition balance at 138:84 (62.16% majority), while a Pakatan Rakyat triumph will slightly reduce it to 137:85 (61.71%).
Second, a by-election can also be a personal battle for a defiant politician to test his or her popularity, like Tambunan (1984) for Datuk Seri Panglima Joseph Pairin Kitingan or Johor Baru (1988) for Datuk Shahrir Samad. Though the seat was vacated by his wife, Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s Permatang Pauh (2008) showdown was a similar popularity test.
In those battles, a defeat would have been seriously demoralising for the politician and his supporters, but they all indeed turned out triumphant and electrified.
In Kuala Terengganu, there is no such prize for the BN. While five-term state legislator Mohd Abdul Wahid Endut is no local lightweight, his defeat, unless by a large margin, will not send shockwaves through PAS or the Pakatan Rakyat. And Najib would not even be able to claim Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh’s victory as that of his own faction. Farid is perceived so strongly to be Abdullah’s man that even Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad cannot help but attack him.
Najib greets PAS candidate Abdul Wahid Endut on
Nomination Day, 6 Jan 2009However, if Farid loses humiliatingly, the defeat will be capitalised by the opposition as the Malay heartland’s rejection of Najib and used as a powerful weapon in the coming Sarawak state elections.
Demystifying Parit Raja
The third significance of a by-election is that it serves as a barometer for the next general election, much like mid-term elections and opinion polls. Malaysia has no mid-term elections such as staggered state elections, except in Sarawak, and opinion polls do not capture the effects of party machinery. Thus, by-elections are the darlings for both politicians and voters. This is where Kuala Terengganu really matters.
However, the usefulness of by-election results in the projection of voting trends is constrained by two factors: proximity to the general election, and representativeness of the constituency. For example, the three by-elections (Batu Talam, Machap and Ijok) in 2007 were bad estimators for the 2008 polls because they took place before the Hindraf rally.
The BN’s spin has been that the Kuala Terengganu by-election will be a replay of Parit Raja in 1988. In Parit Raja, the Umno Baru candidate marginally defeated the independent candidate, backed by Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s Team B, which later became Semangat 46 (S46) in 1989. It was supposed to be a turning point for Umno as Tun Musa Hitam’s faction soon broke away from Team B to join Mahathir’s Umno Baru, leaving Razaleigh in the political wilderness till today.
On the surface, Kuala Terengganu and Parit Raja are quite similar. Both are heavily Malay seats — the Terengganu parliamentary seat has a Malay to non-Malay ratio of 88:11, while the Johor state seat had a ratio of 81:19. Both seats were also left vacant because of the demise of BN incumbents.
But Kuala Terengganu cannot be Najib’s turning point to arrest the rise of Anwar and Pakatan Rakyat like another Parit Raja, because Parit Raja itself was never such a turning point.
Which way will the scales tip in Kuala Terengganu?
Parit Raja was the third of seven by-elections held during the period between 1988 and 1989, caused by either deaths or resignations of the incumbents. With its Parit Raja victory, the BN trumped the opposition’s Johor Baru triumph and went on to enjoy two more wins (Ampang Jaya and Bentong). PAS, supported by S46 under the banner of the newly formed Angakatan Perpaduan Ummah (Apu) coalition, won the sixth by-election in the Teluk Pasu state seat in Terengganu. However, Umno had the last laugh by beating Apu in the seventh and last by-election of that period in the Tambatan state seat in Johor.
Once the ethnic context is analysed, the legend of Parit Raja can be seen to be spurious. The by-elections won by Umno after Parit Raja and the formation of Apu were not in overwhelmingly Malay-majority seats.
And arguably the opposition lost the three by-elections after Parit Raja because of non-Malay votes. In Ampang Jaya (68% Malay), Chinese Malaysian voters were alienated by Team B candidate Datuk Harun Idris, who was seen by some as responsible for the 13 May 1969 riots. In Bentong (34.5% Malay) and Tambatan (60.7% Malay), the non-Muslims’ fear of PAS’s Islamic state agenda was successfully exploited by the MCA.
Beyond Parit Raja
Amidst all this, Musa Hitam rejoined Umno after the Ampang Jaya by-election. Incidentally, Musa also chose to rejoin the party after Mahathir’s heart operation, which sparked speculation that the former was motivated by prospects of capitalising on an impending leadership vacuum in Umno.
Most importantly, the 1990 elections showed a different result. These elections saw the formation of the multiracial Gagasan Rakyat, consisting of S46 (which also remained part of the Muslim Apu), the DAP, Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) and the Indian Progressive Front (IPF). Thus, non-Malay Malaysians were not afraid to vote for the opposition, including S46 and to a lesser extent PAS.
The opposition’s failure in 1990 was largely because of the smear campaign against Razaleigh. Accused of selling out Muslims, photos of Razaleigh donning Kadazan headwear with a crucifix-like pattern were circulated widely. As a result, S46 candidates won only eight seats that year out of the 61 seats the party contested. Seven of those victories were in Razaleigh’s home state, Kelantan, while the only non-Kelantan victory occurred in Terengganu.
Rais Yatim (© British Foreign and
Commonwealth Office / Flickr.com) Of S46’s losses, 15 were near misses, where candidates lost narrowly with margins smaller than 20%, including Datuk Seri Utama Dr Rais Yatim, who lost by only 395 votes. If not for the smear campaign, S46 could have been victorious in more than eight seats.
The 1988 Parit Raja legend, in this sense, is merely a myth covering up the reality of Mahathir’s racist tactics in 1990.
A real turning point?
If Najib is lucky, what real turning point can he hope for?
The answer is a reduction of the Pakatan Rakyat’s Malay support to below 45% or that of its non-Malay support to 25% in Kuala Terengganu. That is the rough average of its support in constituencies with 75% or more Malay constituents. There were 55 such constituencies, exactly one-third of peninsular seats, in 2008. Of these, Umno won 34.
Only a fall of Malay support below 45% should alarm PKR and PAS, and induce them to lean more towards Malay-Muslim causes and strain their relations with the DAP and non-Malays constituents.
More plausible is a fall of non-Malay support to below a quarter, or an extremely low turnout of non-Malay voters. Many non-Malay Malaysians have felt betrayed by Pakatan Rakyat leaders on issues such as the PKNS general manager appointment, the alcohol ban and hudud. If that happens, the Pakatan Rakyat would have to kiss its dreams of power goodbye as PAS would likely lose all its mixed seats in the future, and PKR would probably follow suit.
Wong Chin Huat believes that voters are the bosses of politicians. They must cast their ballots to indicate their preference — even if they dislike all the candidates.