Corrected at 1 April 2009, 11.15pm and 2 April 2009, 2.11.pm
THE Bukit Gantang parliamentary seat can be considered a mini-Malaysia as its racial population breakdown reflects the country’s ethnic composition. With 63.5% Malay Malaysian and 35% non-Malay Malaysians voters in the constituency, what happens here could well reflect the national sentiment.
Expect a bitter fight between the Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR) for the Malay Malaysian votes, especially with emotive issues in the wake of the BN’s power grab of the state government. With the ongoing Perak constitutional crisis, Malay Malaysian voters will be tested on the things they hold dear: royalty and race.
The 35% non-Malay Malaysian voters are widely expected to remain with the opposition, but given the current economic gloom, they may also be tempted into voting for the stability and experience of the BN federal government.
As such, the by-election to be held on 7 April can be seen as a referendum on the state of the nation and the issues that have dominated national thinking in the past year since the PR’s rise to power.
Perak’s constitutional crisis is unprecedented and will definitely colour the by-election campaign. Reason could likely give way to emotion, especially when the facts and legal arguments are not easily understood.
Ibrahim Suffian Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research director Ibrahim Suffian says the lack of clear explanations on the constitution to the grassroots and the many suits filed on the matter may not help voters make an informed choice.
He also feels voters are split on the BN’s takeover. Some feel no wrong was done since party-hopping is legal. Others have lingering doubts as to whether the deserting and defecting assemblypersons from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and the DAP did so freely or under inducement.
“The average voter may not fully understand the constitutional and legal arguments of the crisis, but people still have a sense of fairness. It will depend on how the rival political parties articulate the matter, and whether their justifications are acceptable to voters,” Ibrahim said in a phone interview with The Nut Graph.
PAS expects its embattled Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin to be painted as guilty of treason against the Perak Sultan. Nizar, who is also Pasir Panjang assemblyperson, has been chosen as the PR’s candidate to go against the BN’s Ismail Safian.
Expect Umno Youth under its newly elected chief Khairy Jamaluddin to launch a repeat of its protests against PAS, such as during the Ipoh rally in February where Khairy called for Nizar to be banished from the state.
Nizar’s political secretary, Misbahul Munir Masduki, says the party will explain that no treason was committed, given that Nizar had acted constitutionally as MB in seeking the Sultan’s consent to dissolve the state assembly.
The other controversial matter is Nizar’s refusal to step down as MB at the sultan’s request, but Misbahul notes that there is no provision in the state constitution for the ruler to sack the MB.
A recent police ruling barring all campaigners from questioning the decision of the Perak Sultan, among other things, as a condition for issuing permits for ceramah appears geared to pre-empt PR attempts to explain their stand on the constitutional crisis.
Police monitoring PAS and PKR supporters on nomination day on 29 March (Pic by Raj Kumar, courtesy of theSun)
Conflating royalty with race
An unfortunate dimension in the defence of royalty is to depict Malay welfare as being under threat if the sultan can be questioned.
Tagged to this line of thinking is that Perak under the PR had been DAP-dominated, since the Chinese-based party holds the most seats in the state assembly.
“People are angry. People don’t believe PAS as their PR government has not done much for Malay [Malaysians] in the last 12 months since they came to power,” says Trong assemblyperson Datuk Rosli Hussin, who is also the Bukit Gantang Umno division chief.
Trong was the only BN state seat in the Bukit Gantang parliamentary constituency. The other two, Kuala Sepetang and Changkat Jering, were both won by PKR until Changkat Jering assemblyperson Mohd Osman Jailu declared himself an independent in February and gave his support to the BN.
Rosli feels that Malay Malaysian sentiment for BN in the coming by-election will be stronger, especially so in Trong, where Malay Malaysians who are largely farmers and fisherfolk have long depended on federal government subsidies for diesel and fertiliser.
PAS’s Nizar on his campaign trail in the fishing village of Kuala Sepetang (Pic by Raj Kumar, courtesy of theSun)
Ibrahim observes the tendency of rural Malay Malaysians to distrust the DAP, and expects Umno to harp on the PR state government’s failure to put Malay Malaysian interests ahead of other communities.
It would be a potent formula if Umno can make Malay Malaysians feel that their welfare is under threat, and that their protector the sultan is also under threat, Misbahul notes.
Non-Malay Malaysian voters
The question facing non-Malay Malaysian voters will be whether a BN state government can be fair to minority groups, given that the MCA has only one seat and the MIC none.
The vote is a parliamentary one, and the issue of “treason against the sultan” will not carry weight with Chinese Malaysian voters, who comprise 27.1%, says former Bukit Gantang MP Datuk Tan Lian Hoe from (corrected) Gerakan.
Tan Lian Hoe “We’ll highlight other grouses, such as the lack of development in Bukit Gantang, and show that only a BN MP can deliver. The Chinese villages there did not get any land titles,” said Tan, who is now the MP for Grik.
However, Taiping MP Nga Kor Ming, who is the PR state exco, says land titles were in the process of being approved when the BN takeover happened.
Nga said the BN should clearly state whether it intends to continue issuing freehold titles to new villages and not suppress the issue during the by-election campaign.
Test of new national leaders
Following its recent polls, Umno will have to manage any discontent spilling over from losers in order to conduct a united campaign.
PAS’s Misbahul is hopeful that the infighting Umno is infamous for will be the BN’s undoing in Bukit Gantang.
But the PR would do well to prepare for an all-out battle by the BN under a new national leadership elected at the Umno elections. New party president Datuk Seri Najib Razak will not want a blot on his rise to the highest office with a failed by-election after defeats in Permatang Pauh and Kuala Terengganu in the past year.
New Umno leaders will also want to prove their mettle to party members and the rest of Malaysia.
As for the PR, having been unable to force a state-wide election to resolve Perak’s constitutional crisis, winning Bukit Gantang would be a moral victory.
Given the high stakes on both sides, and despite two other concurrent by-elections in Bukit Selambau and Batang Ai, the battle for Bukit Gantang will be a no-holds barred contest.