All-out war awaits in Penanti

Regina William, The Edge

With the battle cry already sounded for a by-election in Penanti, another all-out war is on the cards between Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Barisan Nasional (BN).

Though there were initial doubts if the former deputy chief minister 1 and Penanti state assemblyman Mohammad Fairus Khairuddin had indeed relinquished his seat, following contradicting statements he made, it has become clear that he had a change of heart.

Twenty-four hours after declaring that he would stay on as state assemblyman come what may to a Chinese newspaper in an exclusive interview, Fairus did an about-turn.

He confirmed via SMS that he had indeed resigned for PKR's sake and to clear the accusations levelled against him.

Both the BN and PKR have already started scrambling to prepare for the by-election, which will be held in the next 60 days.

On Thursday night, the Umno Permatang Pauh division held a closed door meeting in preparation for the by-election while PKR de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is scheduled to show up at the Yayasan Aman in Penanti on Friday night to meet election machinery workers.

The Penanti seat comes under the Permatang Pauh parliamentary seat, which is held by Anwar, who won the by-election in August last year.

Though both sides have had turns at wresting the seat from each other during previous general elections, this time around, it will be interesting to see which side would triumph.

Before Anwar was ousted as the deputy prime minister in 1998, the seat was always with the BN, but in 1999, the then newly formed PKR wrested the seat from the BN.

In 2004, during the nationwide euphoria in favour of the BN, PKR lost the seat, only to regain it again in 2008.

This time around, despite the circumstances which resulted in the by-election, PKR seems to be in the running to retain the seat.

No doubt, the BN's battle cry would be on PKR's choice of office bearers, like Fairus who have in recent months, proven to be more of a liability than asset, causing much embarrassment to the party.

The Penanti by-election scenario would be similar to that in Bukit Selambau when both state assemblymen holding key posts quit while in office due to their personal problems.

In Bukit Selambau, even though BN told voters to punish PKR for forcing a by-election, PKR still prevailed, winning the seat with an even bigger majority, despite the lower voter turnout.

Chances are, despite the circumstances which forced the by-election, the voters in Penanti, numbering only about 15,421, would root for the opposition.

The voters in Permatang Pauh, in which Penanti is a part of, have not abandoned Anwar, even during his darker days, and will continue to throw their support behind the party.

The only time PKR lost the Penanti seat was in 2004 when Anwar fielded his private secretary Anuar Shaari, an outsider, who was ousted by BN's Datuk Abdul Jalil Abdul Majid.

This time around in Penanti, it is learnt that state PKR deputy chief Dr Mansor Othman has emerged as a strong contender to be fielded.

Mansor has been an Anwar loyalist since his Umno days and even served as his political secretary when he was the deputy prime minister. Mansor Othman, 59, is an ex-USM professor and served as the dean of its policy research faculty before joining Anwar.

After 1998, he was appointed as the Penang PKR chairman and has contested thrice on a PKR ticket during the 1999 (Balik Pulau parliamentary seat), 2004 (Seberang Jaya state seat) and 2008 (Pulau Betong state seat) general elections but failed to secure any seats.

PKR sources said Mansor was the best for the job, because the locals knew him well as he was a familiar face during Anwar's tenure as the deputy prime minister.

Mansor, who hails from Kedah, was supposed to have contested the Penanti seat in 2004 and 2008, but Anwar fielded him in other constituencies where the PKR thought they had better prospects of winning but he lost.

Mansor was also recently proposed to take up a senatorship post, which is to be debated during the state legislative assembly sitting which begins on Monday.

There have been questions raised as to the need for a by-election now, with the voters having already been put through one in Aug 26 2008 when Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail reliquished the seat for Anwar to contest.

Party insiders say that Anwar wanted representatives with credentials in the state executive council.

Currently, the two eligible Malay PKR candidates for the DCM1 and exco post are state executive councillor Abdul Malik Abul Kassim and Sungai Bakap state assemblyman Maktar Shapee.

Though Malik could fill the DCM1 post due to his credentials, the same could not be said about Maktar taking on an exco post.

Maktar, a religious teacher, is said to be ill-equipped to hold either positions.

Hence via a by-election, Anwar has the choice of handpicking Fairus' succcessor from his most trusted comrades in the party.

Besides Mansor, state PKR chairman Datuk Zahrain Hashim is also in the running, but party sources said the Bayan Baru MP would do better to concentrate on his tasks as the state PKR chief.

During the Permatang Pauh by-election, Mansor caused a stir when he submitted his nomination papers, only to withdraw it later.

He was a backup candidate in case Anwar's nomination papers were rejected, and this in itself is a strong indicator of Anwar's close relationship with Mansor.

For the BN, Umno has to get its house in order to even have a fighting chance of winning the seat.

It is an open secret that the Umno Permatang Pauh division has been perpetually riddled with problems, internal bickering and squabbles.

During the Permatang Pauh by-election last year, Umno candidate Datuk Ariff Shah Omar Shah was left to fend for himself, without any support from the division.

Since then, Ariff has been occasionally making headlines on being ostracised by division chief, Jalil.

Jalil is the most likely candidate to be fielded by Umno since he won the Permatang Pauh division elections recently.

However, many say he is a spent force, and may not make the cut.

Also, the internal politicking within the division would only result in sabotage which would do Umno no good for this by-election.

Compared to BN, PKR has much more at stake here in this by-election as losing the seat would be status quo for the party, as far as the representation in the state government is concerned.

It would also be a slap in the face for Anwar, who has until today, never failed to rally the Permatang Pauh residents towards his cause.

Will the Penanti constituents prove him wrong this time?