ZUBAIDAH ABU BAKAR: Kuala Terengganu a litmus test for BN, Pas

(NST) Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat's neck to neck race for the Kuala Terengganu parliamentary seat appears set to go right down to the wire, write ZUBAIDAH ABU BAKAR

TOMORROW is D-Day for Kuala Terengganu voters.

A majority of the constituency's 80,229 registered voters are expected to choose their new wakil rakyat. Their duty will be done when they have cast their ballots, and life will then return to normal. Not until Parliament sits again, from Feb 16 to March 19, will they know if the man they had picked to represent them is the kind of wakil rakyat they had wanted.

Their options are Barisan Nasional candidate Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh, Pas' Mohd Abdul Wahid Endut and independent Azharuddin Mamat @ Adam.

Nonetheless, most of those who vote will have it in the back of their minds that one seat won by either party is not going to make a significant difference to the power equation in Parliament.

Those who will be most affected by the result are the leaders of Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat, as the by-election is seen as a litmus test for both opposing coalitions. It will show whether BN has gained ground among Malays, or if Pakatan Rakyat has overcome the disarray among its members and convinced voters that it still holds the power in the states it rules.

Winning P36 Kuala Terengganu is, therefore, crucial to both BN and PR. Since the campaigning period began on Jan 7, their heavyweights have been making a beeline to this Waterfront Heritage City to woo voters to their respective sides.

Their targets are largely the 70,877 Malay voters and 8,983 Chinese voters, the latter widely regarded as kingmakers. There has been a special focus on campaigning among voters under 40, whose political psychology is considered "not stable".

As much as Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak insisted that the by-election is not a referendum on him, it has been perceived as such as he is leading the BN charge in an electoral battle that comes just before he takes over the national premiership.

If BN retains the seat tomorrow, it will be seen as a stamp of approval on Najib's leadership and a sign that there is a ray of hope that the fractured coalition might survive the 2013 general election.

It could also be interpreted as showing that despite teaching the BN a lesson by giving their votes to the opposition in March 2008, Malaysians still want BN to govern the country.

Then again, losing Kuala Terengganu to PR would not mean total rejection of Najib's leadership, particularly among Umno members. If BN loses, it is almost certain that the biggest issues were the BN candidate, the disunity in Terengganu Umno and national issues.

Infighting in Umno ahead of its internal elections in March may cause a setback, however, as some Umno leaders and their supporters are in Kuala Terengganu not to help retain the seat but to campaign for the party elections.

A win for the Umno candidate would show that people believe that Umno had learned its lessons from the March political tsunami and is willing to listen to the cry for reforms to remain relevant to the Malays.

Should voters decide to give victory to Pas, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's Pakatan Rakyat can continue to claim that it is maintaining its momentum after nine months in power in five states and winning big at the federal level despite intra-party problems, particularly between Pas and DAP over the former's Islamisation agenda in PR-controlled states.

There are also some who see this by-election as a referendum on Pas, which was unable to wrest Terengganu from BN in the last general election. Pas lost control in 2004 after a mere one-term stint in power from 1999.

A loss for Pas could hamper its Terengganu faction's offensive against the rise of the progressive pro-Anwar group, the "Erdogans", before the party elections in mid-year.

Professor James Chin of Monash University Malaysia said it wouldn't look good for BN if it loses the first by-election of the new year.

"It does not matter if Najib says it's not about him," Chin said, "it's what the voters think that is important. If Pas wins, it will be a major boost for Anwar's leadership. It will also mean that hudud will no longer be an issue with the Chinese community."

Kuala Terengganu is one of the classic swing seats in Malaysia; not a safe seat for either BN or Pas. The parliamentary seat, always a traditional battleground for Umno and Pas, went from being a BN seat in 1986, winning with a majority of 3,324 votes, to a Semangat 46 seat in 1990 (majority 1,880).

It reverted to BN in 1995 (majority 4,852) before going to Pas in 1999 (majority 14,488) and then back to the BN again in 2004 (majority 1,933).

BN retained the seat in the 2008 elections with a majority of 628.

The opposition has been harping on the oil royalties that were withheld from Terengganu when Pas won in 1999 and recently reinstated, and the lavish spending on development projects like the Monsoon Cup and the Islamic Civilisation Park.

Racial issues and corruption were the two biggest national issues, although the sluggish economy, hudud, the teaching of Mathematics and Science in English and the Internal Security Act all paved the campaign trail.

The BN has touted the "people-centric" development programmes of the BN government, while making an extra effort to target certain segments of society, especially the unpredictable Malay voters.

Political scientist Mohammad Agus Yusoff of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia thinks BN should use the remaining hours of the campaign to galvanise an "increasing number" of "silent voters" among civil servants.

"There are also the fence-sitters who account for about 20 per cent of the total voters needing to be convinced," Agus said.

The clock is ticking. The last 24 hours are crucial, and both sides should be alert for bombshells and "secret weapons".