Status quo in Manik Urai

(The Nut Graph) ON 12 July 2009, after a final rally for the Manik Urai by-election campaign, PAS spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat admitted that he thought his party would retain the state seat.

"Confident? Yes, I'm confident. But I don't know, there might be phantom voters," Nik Aziz, who is also Kelantan menteri besar, half-jokingly told reporters.

Answering questions about the federal government's RM1 billion debt that PAS alleges is owed to the Kelantan government, Nik Aziz quipped: "If we are in federal government, then it'll be easy to get our money."

Contrast this easygoing demeanour to Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who appeared in SK Manik Urai Baru for a state-wide Teacher's Day function earlier the same day.

"We have a new deal for Manik Urai," the Umno deputy president, who is also education minister, said, citing development injections such as the RM125 million education allocation for the constituency.

Appealing for rationality, Muhyiddin said the constituency deserved to be developed, but the minds of its residents were still pilloried. "We are offering something better than Nik Aziz. Why don't you support Barisan Nasional (BN)?" he asked.

The Manik Urai by-election is pitting PAS's Mohd Fauzi Abdullah against the BN's Tuan Aziz Tuan Mat, two individuals who are similar in their lack of political charisma. Both have depended heavily on the reputations and machinery of their respective parties.

More magnetic leaders from both sides have descended on the constituency, appearing at nightly ceramah to convince voters that their respective parties have the most to offer. Posters of Nik Aziz and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak were more prominent than those of Tuan Aziz or Abe Uji, as Mohd Fauzi is colloquially known, throughout the campaigning period.

Yet this blitz has done little but maintain the status quo of opinion. The Islamist party was the favourite at the beginning of this race, on 6 July when nomination took place. Since then there has not been any indication of a shift. As the people of Manik Urai prepare to vote today on 14 July, a PAS victory is quite certain.

Muhyiddin at the Teacher's Day function

BN's miscalculation

One of the reasons why this is so is the BN campaign's weakness, which was rife with miscalculation. This was best exemplified by the ruling coalition's early strategy of disparaging Mohd Fauzi's education — or rather, his lack of.

In introducing candidate Tuan Aziz, Muhyiddin emphasised the former South Kelantan Development Authority officer's university degree, and consistently pointed out that "he is not a fishmonger".

Kelantan Umno chief Datuk Mustapa Mohamed would later try to soften this message, qualifying it by saying "while PAS's candidate is good, the BN's candidate is excellent."

But the damage was done. Muhyiddin's quip was seen as an indirect insult to Mohd Fauzi's person. Worse, it was one that could be transposed to encompass Manik Urai voters as a whole. The majority of the constituency's 12,293 voters are rubber tappers, with little in the way of formal education.

PAS was swift in exploiting the issue. A protest jointly organised by the party and the Kelantan Fishmongers Association on 10 July railed against the BN's "insults to their profession". Nik Aziz pointed out that the Prophet Muhammad himself had been a lowly shepherd.

"What's wrong with selling fish? It is halal work. What about corruption? They make fun of fishmongers, but their party is full of corruption and they are proud of it," Nik Aziz had said.

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