A sign that people are beginning to warm up to PM

By Zubaidah Abu Bakar (NST)

PAS' narrow win and severely-reduced majority in yesterday's by-election in Manik Urai signal one thing — that it is losing its grip in a state it has been governing for the past 19 years.

That, and the fact that Umno has made significant inroads in Kelantan.

Sure, voters like Che Jalal Muda, who has been casting his vote in Sungai Peria in the past three elections, could not help Barisan Nasional candidate Tuan Aziz Tuan Mat win.

But his vote counted in drastically reducing the majority obtained by Pas — the incumbent. Its candidate, Mohd Fauzi Abdullah, won by only 65 votes.

In the general election last year, the late Ismail Yaacob of Pas defeated BN's Zulkifli Omar with a 1,352 vote-majority.

In a democratic electoral system, a win is still a win, no matter how small the margin is.

Umno will have to live with that until the next election.

But, Pas cannot pretend that it is a victory that it can be proud of. Manik Urai was considered a Pas stronghold for more than two decades.

Pas can no longer thump its chest now that it has lost five of the nine polling stations.

It does seem like the frequent appearance of Pas spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, who has been menteri besar from 1990, in the constituency, appears to no longer have an overwhelming impact as before.

For Umno, it is a defeat. But by any measure, it is a moral victory.

It is a positive signal, given that the BN has lost all past by-elections in the peninsula since the coalition's dismal performance — its worst — in the 2008 general election.

One thing is certain: Umno must have done something right to be able to reduce the majority in the Pas fortress.

The BN surpassed Pas in youth votes by 61 votes. Still, it is not a clear sign that young Malays are returning to Umno's fold.

Umno's hard work has clearly paid off.

Credit has to be given to Kelantan Umno chief Datuk Mustapa Mohamed who traversed several hundreds of kilometres of the small constituency after the seat fell vacant following Ismail's death.

The decision by the Umno headquarters to have a central command centre, where activities were monitored, could have greatly contributed to Umno's performance.

Another factor is the exceptionally very high voter turnout — 87.33 per cent, with a total of 10,736 of the 12,293 eligible voters casting their votes.

Pas has now to examine the outcome. Its leaders need to seek answers as the narrow win came as a complete surprise.

Pas was banking on its outstation voters but their contribution failed even to maintain last election's majority.

This, despite a hundred more of its supporters returning to vote compared with the 1,200 voters in 2008.

Dr Sivamurugan Pandian, of Universiti Sains Malaysia, thinks the young voters who returned to vote could be the factor that caused a reduction in support for Pas.

"They might want to see change and could also be fed up with the conflicts in Pas," he says.

The fact that Pas claimed it won by a 2,000 majority an hour before polling ended just showed how confident the party was.

"Its a combination of many factors; the major thing is that Nik Aziz is no longer the decisive factor in Kelantan," says Professor Mohammed Mustaffa Ishak of Universiti Utara Malaysia.

He feels that Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Mustapa and Umno information chief Ahmad Maslan deserve a pat on the back.

Professor James Chin, of Monash University Malaysia, says voters are annoyed with the infighting in Pas.

"Some wanted the bridge that they had been waiting since the 1980s," he remarked.

To say Umno's failure to wrest the seat from Pas is a rejection of Datuk Seri Najib Razak is flawed.

It's more a sign that people are beginning to warm up to the prime minister.

Umno's ability to regain support in a Pas stronghold may have probably found the prime minister his winning formula in future elections.

Its just a beginning of a much bigger battle — to win the hearts and minds of the urban and more sophisticated voters.