Will ‘M factor’ save the day?

By Zubaidah Abu Bakar (NST)

TODAY, the more than 98,000 voters of Bukit Gantang, Bukit Selambau and Batang Ai will go to the polls for the second time in 13 months.

Amid speculation on who will come out tops, the registered voters hold the key to victory in the first ever triple by-election.

At the eleventh hour of campaigning, party workers still cannot say with confidence who among the principal contenders will emerge as winners in Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau.

Batang Ai, however, is fancied to remain with the Barisan Nasional.

Both the BN and Pakatan Rakyat camps claim the game is evenly poised with either side capable of scoring an injury-time goal.

Observers, however, detect no major shift in votes from Pakatan to the BN since the last general election over a year ago although campaigning has been intense in the two bukits.

Bringing former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau was meant to boost the BN's campaign, with Umno leaders confident the "M factor" would swing Malay votes to their side.

However, the large turnout at Dr Mahathir's first stop at Dataran PPP in Simpang and later at Institut Kemahiran Mara in Sungai Petani mostly consisted of Umno supporters welcoming his return to the party on Saturday.

The crowd included supporters from all over the country, including old-timers from the Kubang Pasu division, which Dr Mahathir headed for many years.

The question is whether Dr Mahathir's message will filter down to voters in time for the ballot.

Several opposition leaders think he will reclaim the votes of Umno members lost in the 2008 general election.

But in Bukit Gantang, Pas elections director Datuk Mustaffa Ali, who a few days ago said Umno was ahead in the contest for Malay votes, expressed confidence that Pas now had an edge over BN.

There the campaigning has been fierce, with Pakatan billing the parliamentary by-election as a referendum on the BN's takeover of the Perak state government.

Aiming for advantage, Pas fielded the ousted menteri besar, Datuk Seri Mohd Nizar Jamaluddin, who is facing local Umno man Ismail Saffian and independent Kamarul Ramizu Idris.

Of the 55,562 Bukit Gantang voters, nearly 64 per cent are Malays, many of whom seem to be tilting towards Umno-BN. A majority of the 27 per cent Chinese voters is thought to be solidly behind Pakatan as are the Indians who make up nine per cent.

In Bukit Selambau, although the main contest will be between BN and Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the 13 independent candidates in the fray could act as spoilers to Datuk S. Ganesan, the BN candidate from MIC, and the PKR's S. Manikumar.

The release of two leaders of the banned Hindu Rights Action Force is said to have an impact on the Indian voters, who account for nearly 30 per cent of the 35,140 voters in the state constituency, one of the biggest percentages in the country.

Half of the voters who are Malays are said to be split, and most of the 19 per cent Chinese are expected to vote PKR.

Pas president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang has said that the Malays may reject Manikumar in favour of an independent candidate of their own race.

It will be interesting to see whether the 8,006 voters in Batang Ai, who are mostly Iban, will dismiss Pakatan's ambition of winning Sarawak from long-time Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abdul Taib Mahmud, who leads Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu Sarawak, one of the 13 BN component parties.

It is widely reckoned that the Ibans from the longhouses are more likely to vote for the status quo and return a BN candidate.

The chances of PKR's Jawah Gerang beating Malcom Mussen Lamoh of BN's Parti Rakyat Sarawak depended on the PKR's ground machinery, which is inferior to the BN's.

If the BN or Pakatan were to win 3-0 tonight, a mini-tsunami could inundate the political landscape.

A 3-0 win will re-energise BN, which has been defeated twice in by-elections in Permatang Pauh and Kuala Terengganu after being hard hit in the 2008 general election.

A 3-0 win for Pakatan will be seen by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's supporters as clearing his line of sight to Putrajaya.