Tense times for Umno in Terengganu

The Kuala Terengganu by-election will have a major impact on the political prestige of Najib and the top leaders of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno), which is still struggling to regain its footing after the March national election.

The Straits Times

For weeks, Barisan Nasional (BN) top guns campaigning in the north-eastern Terengganu state have gone to great lengths to stress that the by-election of a parliamentary constituency there this weekend should not be used as a referendum on public support for the government.

But judging by the millions of dollars in government funding and man-hours expended by the BN politicians led by Deputy Premier Najib Abdul Razak at a time when Malaysia is facing its most serious economic crisis, the folk of Kuala Terengganu cannot be blamed for thinking that their vote this Saturday carries serious national ramifications.

Datuk Seri Najib admitted as much at a closed-door briefing with several editors from the country’s mainstream news organisations recently when he described the by-election of the Kuala Terengganu constituency, which fell vacant after the death of the BN representative in late November, as a battleground to blunt the opposition’s momentum which has been on the uptrend since the national elections last March.

And BN politicians privately concede that defeat in the Terengganu state capital could result in more electoral setbacks in the future, particularly in Sarawak which must hold its state legislative elections in the next 12 months.

The opposition led by an alliance headed by former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim has set its guns on making inroads in Sarawak and neighbouring Sabah in East Malaysia, because the two states hold a huge sway over the national power equation.

The BN now holds a 29-seat majority in the 222-member Lower House, which many analysts consider to be wafer-thin by Malaysian standards, particularly because the East Malaysian parties delivered 42 parliamentary seats to the ruling coalition government.

Serious setbacks in Sarawak at the state elections could precipitate defections from the BN to the Anwar-led opposition coalition in the national Parliament.

More immediately, the Kuala Terengganu by-election will have a major impact on the political prestige of Najib and the top leaders of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno), which is still struggling to regain its footing after the March national election.

The Kuala Terengganu by-election represents the first test for Umno since the drubbing the party and the BN received in the Permatang Pauh by-election which saw the return of Datuk Seri Anwar to Parliament and his appointment as head of the opposition alliance.

In the post-mortem of the Permatang Pauh electoral contest, Umno leaders reasoned that the ruling coalition’s poor showing was largely due to public rejection of the leadership of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who is also Umno president.

The anti-Abdullah forces, led by International Trade Minister and Johor Umno strongman Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, argued that Datuk Seri Abdullah needed to speed up the handover of the country’s leadership if Umno was to regain its appeal among the country’s politically dominant Malay community.

The gambit worked, and last November, Abdullah declared that he would step down this March and hand over power to Najib, who has received popular endorsement from the party’s rank and file to take over the leadership of Umno and the BN.

But the mood in Kuala Terengganu suggests that the much-touted power transition has not done enough to remedy the growing public disenchantment towards the government.

The BN candidate from Umno had won the seat by a narrow majority in the March elections.

But the odds are now against the government candidate, Datuk Wan Farid Wan Salleh.

The Chinese, who make up roughly 11 per cent of the constituents in the parliamentary seat, appear to be in an anti-establishment mood.

Sentiment on the Malay ground, particularly among the civil servants and the younger voters, is also lukewarm, at best, towards the government candidate.

Some Umno officials privately argue that Wan Farid’s candidacy was not widely welcomed in the party because of his close association with Prime Minister Abdullah and that, in turn, has hurt the government campaign.

But many local politicians in Terengganu say that Umno’s troubles run deeper than the choice of a candidate.

The party is wracked by infighting ahead of its own internal elections in March and many of the politicians campaigning in the Kuala Terengganu by-election are in the field to boost their own respective profiles, they say.

That is why a slim victory for Umno, or worse yet a defeat, would only signal the party’s growing disconnect with the public and its failure to carry out internal reforms to renew its appeal among voters.

Outgoing Prime Minister Abdullah should not be used as a convenient excuse for defeat.