A very crucial battle looms

In predominantly Malay Kuala Terengganu, the Chinese hold a vital hand. And while a local candidate is all-important, the election stakes go all the way up to Putrajaya.


Suhaini Aznam, The Star

KUALA Terengganu is just one parliamentary seat awash in monsoon rains. Winning or losing will make no difference to the lie of the land. Rather, it is a moral fight.

At stake is the reputation of prime minister-elect Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. At national level, this by-election is his first leadership test – and he knows it.

“We cannot lose this election and then just three months later, have him succeed as party president (and therefore Prime Minister) uncontested,” said state Umno Youth information chief Razali Idris, 42.

But on the ground, voters were busily debating the merits of that all-important candidate.

The people of Terengganu set great store in having an approachable MP on whose door they can knock at all hours of the day and night. Since March, Umno has learnt the hard way that it can no longer field any old face and draw voters on the strength of its party brand name.

So while Umno announced its candidate almost a month before the Jan 17 polling day – in part to allow time for Umno rival camps to cool down and rectify any attempts to sabotage party efforts – PAS decided to wait it out.

Under the watchful eye of 14 truckloads of General Operations Force police brought in to ensure calm, PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang named five-term Wakaf Mempelam state assemblyman Mohd Abdul Wahid Endut as its flag bearer in front of some 3,000 party members in a packed indoor stadium on Jan 1.

It was a last-minute switch because Abdul Wahid was not even on the original shortlist of four possible contenders.

At 52, Abdul Wahid is part of the second echelon that will eventually inherit the party under a different political equation. He is a Hadi loyalist, unlike the shortlisted front-runner, Batu Burok assemblyman Dr Syed Azman Ahmad Nawawi whom Razali claimed was already bringing “unsur unsur Anwar” (vestiges of Anwar) to PAS, referring to PKR advisor Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

Unlike Anwar’s landslide victory in Permatang Pauh last August, this by-election has no ready icon. So candidates are crucial. PAS had conducted a house-to-house random survey in the three state constituencies of Wakaf Mempelam, Ladang and Batu Burok soon after the Election Commission announced the by-election in early December and found that 80% of the households named Dr Syed Azman as their preferred candidate. The eleventh-hour change of plans could well have been hatched at an afternoon meeting at Abdul Hadi’s home in Rusila, just hours before the announcement was made.

People in Terengganu like friendly, humble leaders who would not hesitate to invite them for a teh tarik. Deputy Home Minister Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh, 46, having been away a great deal as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s political secretary and later as deputy minister, does not quite fit this bill. Even the owner of an Umno warong passed on “hearsay” that Wan Ahmad was “a bit aloof”, while the PKR Youth officials for Ladang were whooping in joy, anticipating a walkover.

It is an image that Wan Ahmad was trying hard to dispel as he handed out footballs and cut school boys’ hair on his meet-the-people rounds. His advantage is that having been named early, he can go about on his soft campaign long before nomination day on Jan 6.

State PAS treasurer Abdul Wahid, on the other hand, may be an old hand in local politics but is not well-known outside his own state constituency. First impressions of Abdul Wahid are of “a down to earth, kampung man” – an image that served him well in Wakaf Mempelam but might not quite cut it on Parliament’s national stage.

Razali is relieved that PAS chose Abdul Wahid to carry its torch.

“At the state assembly, Abdul Wahid just talks about Umno khianat, Barisan khianat (Umno treachery, Barisan treachery),” he claimed. “Had Syed Azman been the candidate, Umno would have had to work extra hard.”

Given the current nationwide mood for change, even Umno supporters like taxi driver Ismail Salleh, who hails from the PAS stronghold of Marang, thinks that having a bit of Opposition is good so that the Government “would not get too comfortable”.

Development is an old Umno staple and Kuala Terengganu, now a city, has grown tremendously in the past two decades. If Umno is toying with the idea of luring voters with even more development money, well, it might just work in Terengganu where people have long lived in poverty.

Bound by feelings

By comparison, Kelantanese have a tradition of being financially independent, said Ismail, who had once distributed fertilisers there.

“They have no scruples about taking the (Barisan) bait but leaving the hook untouched. Not so in Terengganu, where people are still bound by feelings of terhutang budi (gratitude),” said Ismail, who together with other taxi drivers had each received about RM10,000 in government assistance.

Pak Awang the beca rider too, was convinced that there was nothing wrong in supporting those who had helped out during floods and other hard times.

“When PAS ruled (1999-2004), everything was given to cronies,” he claimed.

Arithmetically, however, PAS has the upper hand, having won three of the four state seats in the last general election. Only Bandar went to MCA.

Nevertheless, state PAS deputy commissioner Datuk Wan Muttalib Embong considers PAS the underdog, by virtue of the Barisan having won Kuala Terengganu by a 628 vote margin last March. So PAS is far from complacent. The week before nomination day, everyone was still calling the odds at 50-50.

Terengganu’s 88% Malay voters have very decided political opinions but unlike their Penang cousins, are rather more reticent in voicing these to strangers.

Nevertheless, locals easily identify eateries by their political leanings.

When searching for the PAS headquarters, a smiling seamstress told me: “Don’t bother asking there, that’s an Umno kedai; the warong across the street is a PAS hangout.”

Political identity stretches even to the ubiquitous handphone – blue means Barisan, green for PAS.

With such clear demarcations by party affiliation, it is the fence-sitters who will swing the day.

Umno is going on a direct-to-voter campaign.

“There will be no huge rallies except for the Prime Minister or his deputy,” said Razali.

“Ministers will not be dragged here and there. They have been assigned specific areas and ballot boxes. If everyone does his job, Barisan officials will be able to meet each voter at least once.”

Umno members make up 40% of Kuala Terengganu voters.

“The reason we lost last March was that not all Umno members voted Umno,” said Razali tersely.

“But even if every Umno member votes Umno this time, we still cannot win the by-election. We still need the fence-sitters.”

From its “war room” of wall charts, events on the board and detailed breakdown of past results, PKR too is targeting this wavering 20% of blue-green voters.

“Anwar had instructed us to work as if we are the ones standing in this election” said state PKR Youth head Fariz Musa, whose team is throwing themselves wholeheartedly into staging large night rallies, complete with personal attacks on Wan Farid.

A decisive component of these fence-sitters are the 8,787 (11.4%) Chinese voters, most of them concentrated in the Bandar and Ladang urban state constituencies.

Soft approach

PAS is approaching them with a soft touch – in keeping with the state’s gentler culture. Three doctors were giving free blood pressure and sugar level health checks under a tent next to a kedai makan.

“The Chinese like this. They then go and buy their own medicine from the Chinese medicine hall,” said Hanafiah Mat, head of the Terengganu PAS Supporters Club.

Hanafiah is comfortable that the Chinese seem to be leaning towards PAS this time.

“Most are retailers who have suffered from the price rise in consumer goods forced on them by wholesalers. But as shopkeepers, they cannot sell their goods because locals cannot afford to buy them,” he said.

“The Chinese are also grateful to PAS for reverting to the name Kg Cina when we came into power, after the Barisan had changed it to Jln Bandar,” he added.

More specifically, no party is fielding a Chinese candidate this time to split the Chinese vote.

“The Chinese in Terengganu tend to follow the Malays. They speak like locals, boleh beri salam (pronounce the Muslim greeting of peace) and identify with their Malay neighbours,” said PKR Ladang branch chairman Abu Bakar Kasim.

Not everyone is as sanguine. Nor should anyone take the inscrutable Chinese vote for granted.

“The Chinese are the silent voters,” noted Meru assemblyman Dr Abdul Rani Osman, one of the PKR volunteers manning the makeshift health clinic.

“You cannot gauge where their votes will go. At most, a few would say “kuih bulan” (mooncakes – referring to PAS’ party symbol) before thanking you for your services.”

By the political countdown, it is early days yet. Much can happen in two weeks.

Already, there is a hint that this is not going to be a simple straight fight between the blues and the greens. Come nomination day on Tuesday, local politicians expect to see at least a five-cornered fight, with Umno tacitly backing a clutch of Independents to split the Opposition vote.