Battle in Penang’s Malay heartland

(The Sun) – NESTLED amid a vast agricultural tract of mainland Penang are several Malay-majority constituencies that are seeing intriguing political skirmishes ahead of the next general election.

Two of these – the neighbouring parliamentary areas of Kepala Batas and Tasek Gelugor – have been known as “super-safe” seats for Umno. This may no longer be the case.

Most constituencies in Pakatan Rakyat-controlled Penang are widely deemed to have overwhelming Chinese support for the DAP and its coalition partners, and would be difficult for Barisan Nasional (BN) to win. So the focus is likely to be on the Malay heartland where Umno has traditionally ruled supreme.

Like rural Balik Pulau on the island, which Umno dramatically lost to PKR in the 2008 election, there are now doubts about whether Umno can hang on to Kepala Batas and Tasek Gelugor.

In particular, PAS’s grassroots activities have significantly intensified in these areas.

With a Malay-majority population of more than 90%, Kepala Batas has been a stronghold of local boy Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the former prime minister, for two decades.

Tasek Gelugor, which has a similar Malay ratio, has as its MP Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yackop, who is a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.

A third constituency, Permatang Pauh, is the stronghold of PKR supremo Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and is almost impossible for his opponents to win.

Yet another, the mixed-race Nibong Tebal constituency, which Umno lost to PKR in 2008 (its MP Tan Tee Beng is now an independent), will see a renewed challenge from Umno’s state chief Datuk Zainal Abidin Osman.

But it is Kepala Batas and Tasek Gelugor that Umno must defend tooth and nail to retain its self-respect and morale in Penang.

Abdullah is not likely to contest in Kepala Batas as he retires from politics. Unless Umno can find a giant local personality to take over, it faces the risk of PAS mounting a powerful challenge with its expanding rural support.

As it is, there has been talk of PAS’s charismatic deputy president Mohamad Sabu, better known as Mat Sabu, coming here to give the local Umno machinery a run for its money. Another person who may contest and win the seat is PKR president Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.

Umno may place its youth information head Datuk Seri Reezal Merican Naina Merican, who worked as an aide to Abdullah in the Prime Minister’s Office, to contest here. But it is uncertain he would be able to garner enough votes.

The only person who can confidently win for Umno is state opposition leader Datuk Azhar Ibrahim, who has been Penaga assemblyman for six terms, but he is retiring from politics due to ill health.

Umno’s uncertainty is even more pronounced in Tasek Gelugor. Local strongman Datuk Seri Shariff Omar held the MP’s seat before 2008 but had to give way for Nor Mohamed to contest in the last election. (The Umno leadership had assigned Nor Mohamed, whose senate term was coming to an end, the safe Tasek Gelugor seat so he could become MP and remain a minister.)

Things have become exciting as Shariff recently issued a warning. He is disappointed at the way he was compelled to give up the seat for Nor Mohamed in 2008.

Shariff has made it clear that he has felt slighted since stepping aside in 2008. The former deputy chief minister said he is prepared to contest Tasek Gelugor for Umno again if called by the party.

What made his statement interesting was that he refused to deny speculation he may contest under a PAS ticket. Should PAS recruit Shariff, who is immensely influential here, it would almost surely win the seat from under the nose of Umno.

“If let’s say I contest with a different party, what is there to be scared?” he said, declining to comment if there were unfulfilled “promises” made to him, including being made Penang’s next governor, if he stepped aside for Nor Mohamed.

Shariff has even admitted to be close to opposition head Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim (“we began our political careers together”) and other Pakatan Rakyat leaders, naming DAP’s Lim Kit Siang and Lim Guan Eng, and Mat Sabu as his friends.

The scenario offers a dramatic new dilemma within Umno in this traditionally safe seat; one that PAS and its Pakatan partners must relish in taking advantage of in the next election.