Pas has nose in front as finish line beckons

(The Malaysian Insider) – Less than 24 hours before the Kuala Terengganu by-election and both sides agree on one thing: barring an unusually high voter turnout Pas looks set to capture the seat.

Checks by the Malaysian Insider with officials from both camps shows that Pas’ Abdul Wahid Endot is  leading Umno’s Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh by between 500 to 1,000 votes.

But Pas believes that this advantage could be wiped out if the voter turnout is higher than 85 per cent.

Why? Pas officials claim that a larger than usual voter turnout equals = electoral shenanigans = phantom voters.

On the flip side, Umno/Barisan Nasional believe that the slight edge which Pas has could be wiped out if many of the fence sitters make the effort to vote tomorrow.

At least 20 per cent of the Malay vote in Kuala Terengganu has been categorised as fence-sitters, meaning that these voters are not affiliated to any political party and are influenced by the quality of the candidate fielded and issues of the day.

The prevailing view in Umno is that the fence sitters have begun to swing to their side.

A week ago, security agencies estimated that the Pas candidate was leading by up to 3,000 votes.

Intense door-to-door campaigning and liberal spread of government largesse have helped to pare down the Pas influence among the fence sitters.

Both sides have already started doing a post-mortem on the by-election campaign and have culled some useful lessons from Kuala Terengganu.

Lesson 1:  Yes, the Umno machinery for the by-election was much more organised than the limp one on show in Permatang Pauh but the political party’s ability to score an own goal was there for all to witness — and take advantage off.

Umno leaders spent more time than the Opposition analysing their candidate’s weakness. From the word go, the focus was on Wan Ahmad Farid’s body language, gait, smile (or lack of it), family background, ties with the Prime Minister.

Soon enough, Pas caught on and their campaigners made the character of the Umno candidate their main platform.

On Thursday, Pas held 38 ceramahs in Kuala Terengganu.

Their focus: Wan Ahmad Farid. Pas speakers hammered away at him, slamming for aloofness to the fact that he did not attend the tahlil prayers for the late Datuk Razali Ismail, the former BN MP for Kuala Terengganu whose death from a heart attack made it necessary for a by-election to be called.

But really the Pas officials were latecomers.

Wan Ahmad Farid’s biggest critics were in his own party.

Lesson 2: When Pas leads an election campaign, the tone is less shrill.

The focus was not on Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

In the ijok and in Permatang Pauh by elections, the guns of attack were trained on the deputy prime minister. Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his PKR colleagues implicated Najib in the murder of Mongolian model Altantuya Shariibuu and impropriety in the award of defence contracts.

This time around, there was less character assassination of the DPM. BN officials say that a main reason is that Pas’ strong selling point in the Malay heartland has always been its ideology, the integrity of its candidate.

When it does launch an attack, it is likely to be on the policies of the government, rather than individuals.

On the eve of the general elections in 2004, party president Datuk Abdul Hadi Awang veered away from this path and attacked Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s religious credentials.

Pas loyalists conceded that this approach backfired badly with the voters.

Lesson 3: The effect of the March 8 tsunami could be on the wane. Umno/BN may lose the Kuala Terengganu seat but campaigners feel less animosity on the ground. They can approach voters without having doors shut on their faces.

Part of the reason could be that this is a Malay-majority seat and there is little traction for issues like temple demolition and the Hindu Rights Action Force.

But BN campaigners believe that political fatigue has set in.

Lesson 4: Anwar and his comrades in Pakatan Rakyat had better get down to ironing out some of the major differences between themselves.

Many Malaysians want the Pakatan Rakyat experiment to succeed so that a two-party system will become a reality. But they will only put up with the infighting and double-speak for so long.

March 2009 is just two months away but the PKR, PAS and DAP still have not cobbled together a common platform, something they can call their own.

Common hatred against Umno/BN cannot be the only thread that keeps the opposition coalition together.

After the by-election, Anwar, Abdul Hadi and Lim Kit Siang should nail down Pakatan Rakyat’s position on hudud, meritocracy, religious freedom, Malay rights, etc.

Their free pass with the voters of Malaysia will not last forever.