Repeat result will do for Barisan

By Baradan Kuppusamy (The Star)

IT IS by-election season again, and this time it’s a straight fight between PAS and Umno for the hearts and minds of the 20,500 voters in Permatang Pasir, Penang.

The battle is really for the Malays, who form 72% of the voters.

However, a huge percentage of the voters work in the Klang Valley and many will have to “balik kampung” next Wednesday to vote.

The Chinese and Indian voters for this state seat could be kingmakers, in the event that the Malays votes are evenly divided between PAS and Umno.

Recent trends have shown that Umno might be gaining ground on PAS if the recent Manek Urai by-election in Terengganu can be taken as an indicator.

In that PAS stronghold, Umno managed to reduce the majority from 1,350 votes to just 65.

For Umno, this is a strong signal that its standing among the rural Malays is strengthening.

Like Manek Urai, Permatang Pasir is another PAS stronghold and the party is hoping to retain the seat with the help of the Pakatan Rakyat leaders Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Kit Siang.

They have vowed to help PAS keep the seat but there is some anxiety in PAS circles following its near defeat in Manek Urai.

PAS’ confidence has been shaken and it is looking for a clear and comfortable win in Permatang Pasir to convince itself that loyalty in the Malay heartland is still intact.

Umno has gone on the aggressive in recent weeks by slamming PAS for working with the DAP to promote secularism and for purportedly letting Islam down.

It is also raising the Selangor beer sale fiasco and the “unfriendly” remarks made by the DAP against PKR and PAS, to undermine support for PAS among the rural Malay voters.

The Permatang Pasir by-election, which will see Umno’s Rohaizat Othman, 38, a syariah lawyer, fighting it out with Penang PAS commissioner Mohd Salleh Man, 52, is the battleground where these and other issues will be tested out over the next nine days.

The campaign period is short but it is set to be fiery as both parties are leaving no stones unturned to convince the already blase voters.

PKR president Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Ismail won the Permatang Pauh parliamentary seat in the 2008 general election but six months later she resigned, forcing a by-election that her husband, Anwar, won.

In May, former Penang Deputy chief minister and PKR Penanti state assemblyman Mohammad Fairus Khairuddin resigned, paving the way for Anwar’s right-hand man in Penang, Mansor Osman, to contest and win against the independents.

The Barisan Nasional boycotted the by-election and nearly 50% of the voters did not turn up to vote, indicating that the coalition’s hardcore support remains intact in the constituency.

Including Permatang Pasir, there will be four elections in the parliamentary constituency in fewer than 17 months.

The seat fell vacant following the death of PAS’ Datuk Mohd Hamdan Abdul Rahman, of a heart attack on July 31.

Hamdan had won by a big majority of 5,433 votes.

Permatang Pasir is important for PAS because it is the party’s only seat in the 40-seat state legislature.

It is left to be seen if PAS can match that majority or improve on it.

But if the majority is slim as in Manek Urai, it will only confirm that the party’s standing in the Malay heartland is eroding significantly.

If it happens, the people can expect drastic changes in PAS policies and possibly a revival in the party.

Pakatan leaders argue that it was money and other “gifts” that reduced PAS’ majority in Manek Urai but they are also quick to say that Permatang Pasir is safe because the voters are wiser and “less susceptible” to gifts.

Nevertheless, as Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has pointed out, no stronghold can last forever.

He said Umno had held the seat before it could win it back, given the right conditions.

Still, Umno’s battle is not just with PAS, but with the Pakatan, and Permatang Pasir is really a Pakatan stronghold.

Pakatan says a win is still a win, even if it is by just one vote, but it would be a major boost for Barisan if the coalition can significantly reduce the majority if PAS wins the seat.