Malay vote split, BN has edge

Najib faces first big test in Bukit Gantang polls near heart of Perak constitutional crisis 

By Hazlin Hassan, The Straits Times

HUGE billboards proclaiming 'Daulat Tuanku', or 'Long live the King' greet visitors entering Perak, belying the political tension that surrounds the once-peaceful state. 

It was here that Barisan Nasional (BN) staged a takeover of the state government in February, prompting a constitutional crisis when the sitting government refused to step down after four of its assemblymen defected.

And it is here that new Prime Minister Najib Razak faces his first big test. If his coalition wins the by-election in Bukit Gantang, located some 10 minutes away, it would be a big boost to his standing.

A former BN stronghold, the constituency fell to opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) last year, but a by-election was called after its MP Roslan Shaharum died in February. 'It is a referendum for Najib,' political analyst Mohammad Agus Yusoff told AFP. 'He has to win the hearts of the people.'

The significance of this by-election could explain why top guns from both sides have descended on Bukit Gantang to back the campaigns. Yesterday, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim turned up, as did Umno deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin, who is expected to be deputy premier. On Sunday, Tan Sri Muhyiddin distributed RM1 million (S$418,900) worth of funds to a Chinese school.

The by-election in the Malay-majority seat is also seen as a test for the Malay vote. Malay voters make up 63.5 per cent of the 55,562-strong electorate.

Observers say the Malay vote is split between Umno and PAS, a result of the crisis that followed the defection of four state lawmakers from Pakatan Rakyat. The state's Sultan installed an Umno menteri besar to replace PAS' Datuk Seri Nizar Jamaluddin, but the latter refused to step down, requesting to 'mohon derhaka', or humbly revolt, against the ruler. This prompted outrage from BN supporters and also divided the Malays, many of whom respect the royals.

'The Malays find it hard to give their vote to Nizar, they are very sensitive and attached to the Perak Sultan, who is highly-respected,' said Universiti Utara Malaysia's professor of politics Mohamed Mustafa Ishak. 'The (opposition) Perak state government has really touched the nerves of the Malays there.'

A PAS party insider admitted that Umno's candidate Ismail Saffian is leading, with 51 per cent of the Malay votes against PAS' 49 per cent. 'BN is slightly ahead but we hope to catch up within the next few days,' he said.