BN has the crowds, but Pakatan banks on 11th hour surge

In fact, for most, their minds had already been made up at least two months ago, when Perak fell into the hands of the BN. And whoever emerges as winner, whether PR’s Nizar or BN’s Ismail Saffian, will also be the determining factor on which coalition the people of Perak really want to lead their government.


BUKIT GANTANG, April 7 — If crowd size is a worthy enough yardstick to measure ground support, Barisan Nasional's Ismail Saffian should win today’s by-election hands down.

Unfortunately for the first-timer however, an election is never so cut and dry, especially one dubbed as a “referendum” or a “litmus test” to determine the people’s support for either Pakatan Rakyat or BN.

And in Taiping, nothing is ever quite what it seems. Its unpredictable weather condition should be a telling enough indication.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s presence in the contituency yesterday may have been overwhelming to say the least. It is true that thousands of people had clamoured to see the man who had put Malaysia on the world map.

They cheered him on, they rushed to his side to catch a closer glimpse of him, and they whispered in excitement among themselves.

The ever-smiling Dr Mahathir, dressed in his signature khaki-coloured bush jacket suit, was in his usual form — slow, steady and confident as ever.

When he addressed the crowd, he urged the people to make the right choice during polling day today. He also praised Umno by pledging his confidence in the party's new leadership under Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak. The crowd seemed to drink in his every syllable.

Would this translate into votes, however?

Some have called Dr Mahathir a political has-been who constantly harps on what he has been, and one who is never willing to exit the limelight.

To Pas deputy president Nasharudidn Mat Isa, the former prime minister is nothing but “recycled goods”.

“He is like recycled goods. One moment he is in Umno and one moment he is out.

“He does not even have a strong stand with Umno,” he had said recently.

Nasharuddin also said that Dr Mahathir, popular though he may be, would do nothing to help BN woo the non-Malay voters in the Bukit Gantang constituency.

Since campaigning began on March 29, it had remained clear that the PR was banking most, if not all, of its hopes on the Chinese and Indian voters here.

As such, they had focussed instead on covering as much ground as possible in the Malay rural villages, which are predominantly Umno strongholds.

PR’s candidate, former mentri besar Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin of Pas, has been going to at least 10 such villages in a night, trying his level best to ensure that people could finally place a face to his name.

According to PKR president Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Ismail however, the rural Malays in Bukit Gantang know the crest of only one party — Umno.

”They lack the information. But we are gaining ground and we have been trying,” she said.

And while the presence of BN’s Dr Mahathir may have made an impact on the non-Malay voters here, the presence of Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim too has helped PR make some inroads with the Malays.

He certainly left his mark in the constituency with the stubborn BN-centric Malay voters when he hit the campaign trail here on Sunday.

“We were worried a little at first but we believe things are a little different now even with the Malay voters,” he said after addressing a Chinese-strong crowd here in Simpang.

Anwar’s confidence is not without merit.

Even Pas’s central election director Datuk Mustafa Ali, who only a few days ago admitted that they were behind in Malay votes, told a press conference yesterday that things had literally changed overnight.

“Dr Mahathir drew a large crowd, yes. But there is nothing special about imported crowds. The BN would never allow Dr Mahathir’s presence to go uncelebrated so they could not take the risk of not bringing in their own team of supporters to make the function more lively,” he said.

He added that over the past few days, the rural Malays had come to their senses and it only took the dissemination of information to make them open their eyes.

“They just lacked information and in the past, we never had the machinery to spread such information,” he said.

On Sunday, ceramahs in several rural Malay villages proved Mustafa’s words and it was clear that a wind of change had been slowly sweeping across the constituency.

Thousands of people followed Anwar where he went and in Taman Mewah, an Umno stronghold, a surprisingly large and responsive crowd gathered to see the former deputy prime minister speak.

When he prompted them, they cheered. When he smiled, they smiled along with him. It was an exhilarating moment for the PR, especially in the final hours before today's polling day.

Suddenly, everyone is talking about the “bulan” party and what its candidate could do for the people.

One could walk into any coffee shop or sundry store and likely hear the change in conversations. The people are suddenly now curious – can this Nizar really do all that he claims he can?

While they may not have the answer to that, many seemed curious enough that they could be willing to cross the space next to the “bulan” symbol on their balloting sheets today.

One trader said: “Actually, it is not so much that we support the party itself. What we want is justice for the people. So since the BN has been in control for more than 50 years, and still we do not see the benefits, I believe there is no harm in trying something new for a change.”

He added that in the worst case scenario, at least a change in government would kick BN into action and out of complacency.

This trader is just one in the dozens that were interviewed in villages. The rest were either completely starry-eyed with the Opposition's promises or cautiously supportive.

Still, in any election, it is never advisable to be too confident. Perak DAP chief Datuk Ngeh Koo Ham said: “We cannot be too confident. But we do believe that we are ahead.”

Umno deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who has been campaigning for BN in town since the elections began, said yesterday that he too believed that BN was ahead.

He cited the change in guard at the helm of the country as one of the driving factor to help BN win the elections.

“I have spoken to the people and I believe that there is at least some change with the people’s support. They are having renewed confidence in us, especially with Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak now in charge,” he said.

However, predictions aside, the heat is now on in Bukit Gantang. One thing is for sure: Voters casting their ballots today are doing so because of their strong convictions, born out of exasperation over the events of the past few months.

In fact, for most, their minds had already been made up at least two months ago, when Perak fell into the hands of the BN. And whoever emerges as winner, whether PR’s Nizar or BN’s Ismail Saffian, will also be the determining factor on which coalition the people of Perak really want to lead their government.