A tight race to the finish

By Sharon Tan (The Edge Financial Daily)

NEITHER Barisan Nasional (BN) nor PAS can claim to be in the lead in Bukit Gantang. 

With campaigning entering the last lap, the central issue for voters revolves around Pakatan Rakyat’s (PR) 10-month rule as the Perak state government before they were ousted by BN. Also in the limelight was the protest by PAS supporters against the Sultan of Perak for not allowing the state assembly to be dissolved.

If BN was on the defensive in the Kuala Terengganu by-election in January where issues of oil royalty and corruption took centre stage, this time, it switched on the attack mode from the word go in Bukit Gantang.

PAS candidate Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin was their prime target being labelled “derhaka” to the Sultan of Perak for not stepping down as Perak Menteri Besar as requested by the Ruler.

Nizar, the menteri besar for 10 months, was also called a DAP stooge, especially for Datuk Ngeh Koo Ham and Nga Kor Ming,  the DAP Perak chief and deputy chief respectively who were also former exco members.

Land issue, a matter close to the Malays, was also another main topic of BN’s campaign prompting PAS and its partners to explain all the issues at their nightly ceramah.

While the Chinese were more responsive to the opposition’s dissent in the manner in which the state government was changed, the Malay constituents were less enthusiastic as land matters were explained. The Malay voters were seen nodding their heads as the leaders explained that land was given not only to settlers of new villagers that constitute mainly Chinese, but also to Malays living in kampung tersusun in Perak.

As part of the campaign strategy, Nizar makes pit stops at various villages where he explained his actions to the villagers. At a stop in Kampung Salak, the villagers were more eager to ask about the status of the titles to their land than the “derhaka” issue.

However, the “derhaka” issue superseded the land issue in some places. At a PAS ceramah, a supporter said the issue does not bother him but it is an issue that the older generation would ponder upon.

BN, meanwhile, was not having an easy time either. It seemed that Ismail Saffian was not the choice of the Bukit Gantang division which favoured either its division or deputy division chief. Umno deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who is leading the charge, was quick to quash such talk although the rumour mill has not stopped.

An Umno supporter who said that while he supported his party, he found it difficult to accept the way the Perak government was taken over.

“I am an Umno supporter but I don’t think they way they took Perak was right. Why can’t they do it the gentleman way as Nizar has suggested? Let the rakyat decide lah,” he said but was quiet when asked if that would affect the way he voted.

The presence of fewer big guns from component parties suggests that the non-Malay votes are tilting heavily towards the opposition. In fact Muhyiddin alluded to it by stating that BN would need more time to win over the Chinese.

Campaigning in Bukit Gantang did not actually hit a high note until two days ago. With Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak sworn in, a sense of excitement was injected into the otherwise dull campaign.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who has just rejoined Umno is expected to cement some votes for BN. For many, Dr Mahathir is a symbol of development and prosperity, and his presence to reinforce BN’s campaign may cause some last-minute swing.

While PAS is confident of the non-Malay votes, the Malay votes that make up about 63.5% of the constituency is split. PAS election director Datuk Mustafa Ali said the party will close the gap by polling day and is comfortable with its current position.

On the fact that PAS needs to win with more Malay votes to make it a moral win, a party leader said that is not an issue. “We are all Malaysians. Every vote counts. It does not matter whether it is a Malay or Chinese or Indian vote,” he said.

PAS, known for its cermah perdana or mega ceramah that lines up big names and attracts big crowds, has resorted to ceramah kelompok with 10-15 ceramah per night at various places throughout the constituency.

“We want to reach out to our target audience. The ceramah perdana brings in many outsiders,” explained Mustafa.

The biggest ceramah to date is the one last Saturday night where about 2,000 people thronged Kampung Tebok in Trong (a BN state assembly seat) to hear PAS spiritual adviser Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat speak. The soft-spoken Nik Aziz spent the weekend in Bukit Gantang meeting voters and leading prayers, often drawing big crowds.

Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim also made his presence felt; first with a ceramah in Trong that was attended by a multi-racial crowd who braved the rain and then spent Sunday zig-zagging through the constituency.

True to its promise, BN has yet to dish out any mega projects in Bukit Gantang unlike in previous by-elections that promised development that ran into hundreds of millions. What are obvious are newly tarred roads and there was talk of free bicycles and motorbikes for some villagers.

Among the three by-elections tomorrow, Bukit Gantang is the unspoken crown jewel.

A win for PAS/PR would translate into the coalition still having the unwavering trust of the people, thus giving them a much-needed boost to their battered morale since the fall of the Perak government in February.

A loss, however, would mean that it may face a steeper hill in the next general election. It would also mean that the coalition may have not served the people as well as they had thought during their 10 months of administration.

For BN, a win would be seen as a blessing from the people. The way the Perak BN government was formed has been analysed, questioned, criticised and subjected to court scrutiny. A win by local boy Ismail would be seen as a blessing from the people. (BN’s tagline is seeking blessing from the people.) It may also be a sign that the people may be happier with the old rather than the new and untested way.

Bukit Gantang by-election is a tight race with the odds stacked quite equally on both sides. Now the parties will just have to hold their breath until tomorrow night to know their fate.