Bridget Welsh on Manik Urai

Kelantan has always been a state for surprises and the slim victory by PAS is an excellent example. Despite PAS claiming a whopping 2,000 majority one hour before the close of polls, when the results were counted, PAS squeaked through with an embarrassing 65 majority.

While some would say, a small victory is still a victory and point to PAS win in Manek Urai as the fifth loss for BN since March 2008, the reality is that this by-election is a serious loss for the opposition.

It shows that the opposition has lost ground in the Malay heartland, the traditional base of political power. It extends the gains Umno won among Malays in the Bukit Gantang election, and provides badly-needed momentum for Najib Abdul Razak’s government.

While the implications of this contest are important at the national level, the campaign itself was very much a local dynamic.

The fight on the ground was fiercely contested as each party attempted to win over the 12,293 voters, often visiting the estimated 1,200 undecided voters more than five times in a 10-day campaign. These voters, along with the estimated 1,700 living outside of the area were decisive in the outcome.

PAS had the advantage in this traditionally ’safe seat’ and it showed on the ground as the presence of green flags dominated the terrain in this rural constituency. They embraced their local advantage and organised their campaign around Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the party’s spiritual leader and beloved menteri besar.

PAS miscalculates the ground

The sea of green, especially on polling day when supporters poured in, fostered a sense of overconfidence. In contrast, the Umno machinery worked quietly as it established its base in a makeshift tent that provided an air-conditioned oasis for reporters and outsider party workers.

Umno was on a mission to burnish its reputation and this translated into a zeal as it focused on campaigning strategically.

The Umno big guns stayed away in what was perceived to be a losing battle, leaving the diehards to work the ground.

Even on polling day, when leaders left the constituency early, Umno knew it faced an uphill battle and expected defeat despite their campaigning.

The closeness came as a surprise to all sides, especially PAS who severely miscalculated the ground.

The campaign itself lacked the level of intensity of other Umno-PAS contests. Most of the campaigning involved house-to-house networking. The large ceramah featuring Pakatan Rakyat leaders drew more outsiders than locals as the battle was fought through face-to-face interactions rather than oratory skills.

There were two parallel set of issues – those discussed openly and those behind closed doors.

The former included the long-standing (and somewhat) stale contrast between religion and development (manifested over the discussion of the Manek Urai Lama bridge), the Terengganu-transplanted discussion on the failure by the federal government to pay RM1 billion royalty to the state, and perceived corruption on the part of Umno and its credibility in governance.

Umno did not present itself as the secular alternative, but portrayed itself as Islamic, reflecting its increasing efforts to embrace religion as part of its own identity. Relying on regional identity, PAS consistently appealed to the uniqueness of the Kelantanese, stressing the need for the state to continue to be ruled by the Islamic party. None of these issues were new as the lines of support in Kelantan have been long established.