Slim majority rattles swing state

Politics in Terengganu is about to get more lively and competitive as the ruling Barisan Nasional prepares to take on the biggest number of opposition backbenchers ever.

Hard as it is to believe, he said the cost of living in Terengganu is quite high and eating out in a restaurant sometimes costs more than in Kuala Lumpur. He also believes that the civil service were not completely with Barisan because they did not have a high regard for the state administration.

Joceline Tan, The Star

MENTRI Besar Datuk Seri Ahmad Said was a worried man as he waited for the results of the last few state seats to come in.

Ahmad had started the day confident of victory but by 9pm, he felt like the ground was about to give way under him. His nerves were frayed and he could hardly sit still, moving about constantly as he took and made calls on his mobile phone.

One Umno official has since described it as a “harrowing night”. Terengganu has a reputation as a swing state and many thought that it was about to swing again on the night of May 5. Everything was hanging on the outcome of two seats – Kuala Berang and Bukit Besi.

It was only after 10pm that the official verdict came in. Barisan Nasional had pulled through in Terengganu by a slim majority of two seats. Barisan won 17 seats of the 32 state seats, PAS 14 seats and PKR one. The eight parliamentary seats were evenly split between the two sides.

It was a far cry from 2008 when Terengganu had given Barisan 24 state seats and seven parliamentary seats.

Hilmi: Taken over from his PAS ulama father in Manir. Hilmi: Taken over from his PAS ulama father in Manir.

Many are surprised that Ahmad survived the results and was sworn in as Mentri Besar for a second term.

It was one of those ironies of politics. Ahmad’s predecessor Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh had led Barisan to a clear-cut victory in 2008 but could not get the royal nod to be reinstated as Mentri Besar.

But as some have pointed out, there were “omens”, so to speak, that it would not be smooth sailing for Ahmad.

For instance, shortly before nominations, the Mentri Besar’s Lexus, which was following the entourage of Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, hit a cow and the headlights and bumper were damaged.

A few days later, Ahmad was driving alone and as he turned the corner to his house, a car crashed into the passenger side of his vehicle.

Then, several days before polling, Ahmad was trapped in a stalled lift for about 40 minutes after giving an interview to a radio station.

Three omens over two weeks is no laughing matter and on the eve of polling, Ahmad performed the solat hajat in seven mosques within his state seat, Kijal, to seek divine guidance. But there was, apparently, one more omen to come. Ahmad was on the way from Terengganu to Putrajaya to get the letter authorising his reappointment as Mentri Besar, when the car he was in broke down near Temerloh and he had to continue the journey in the accompanying car.

Generally, most people are quite thankful that there was none of the high drama that had occurred after the 2008 election between the Palace and Umno over the choice of Mentri Besar.

But the question being asked is to what extent is Ahmad to be blamed for the poor showing in the state. Many agree that he works hard, has no airs and is a genuine grassroots politician.

Wan Hakim: Appointed Barisan whip in State Assembly. Wan Hakim: Appointed Barisan whip in State Assembly.

But as one Umno politician put it, his style harks back to the 1970s and it simply does not work anymore.

Ahmad’s kampung style has been in stark contrast to the all-systems-go method of Idris who was Mentri Besar from 2004 to 2008. The technocratic Idris had given the state a new airport, modern seafront esplanade, the Crystal Mosque, a Civilisation Park and a stadium although the roof collapsed twice. As a result, the people of Terengganu gave Barisan a big majority in 2008.

Research consultant Dr Azmi Omar, who used to head a Terengganu-based think-tank, had actually predicted to anyone who would listen that Terengganu would fall.

“You could say I was almost right,” he said.

Dr Azmi had never been impressed by Ahmad’s administration. On nomination day, he could see that not many in the Barisan line-up could be considered as “winnable candidates” and he thought PAS had a more impressive slate.

“PAS had new blood, you could see the transition. But the new faces from Umno were actually recycled faces. One new face was 68 years old. You call that a new face? It’s like you went in to lose,” he said.

To compound matters, the “old new face” was fighting a medical doctor from PAS. No prizes for guessing who won.

New faces

Dr Azmi said Barisan’s place in power was saved by the young, new faces put in the four state seats in Setiu, all of whom won.

“They were fresh faces, degree holders, had no baggage and voters were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Otherwise, I would have been right about Terengganu falling,” he said.

One Barisan assemblyman put it this way: “We were missing the X-Factor.”

Earlier on, there was criticism in PAS that there were too many ulama in the line-up. Party critics said the ulama class is good at saving souls but know little about the economy. A total of 15 ulama were put up to contest and only half of them won. But this is a new breed of ulama who have one foot in the old world and the other in the new world.

All the PAS candidates had university or college degrees. For instance, the new Manir assemblyman Hilmi Harun has a background in Islamic studies but is now reading for a PhD in political science in Australia. His father is PAS Dewan Ulama head Datuk Harun Taib. The new Tepuh assemblyman Hishamuddin Abdul Karim is a handsome Al Azhar graduate and was a religious officer in a GLC.

PAS in Terengganu put up the most number of new and well-educated faces and many credit secretary-general Datuk Mustafa Ali who is from Terengganu for that.

“A number of the Umno candidates were not suitable for the new political landscape. That’s why we lost the young and first-time votes,” said corporate figure Raja Ghazali Raja Abdul Rahman.

Raja Ghazali said several factors dragged Barisan down in the eyes of voters. Chief among them is the lack of development which had led to a shortage of jobs and business opportunities.

Hard as it is to believe, he said the cost of living in Terengganu is quite high and eating out in a restaurant sometimes costs more than in Kuala Lumpur. He also believes that the civil service were not completely with Barisan because they did not have a high regard for the state administration.

Like many others, Raja Ghazali thought the Barisan line-up included too many poorly-educated people or what the locals call calon cap ayam (ayam brand of candidates).

For instance, everyone is talking about the assemblyman who only studied till Form Three but is now a state exco member.

Yet, it is not as though Barisan does not have quality people. For instance, engineer and Air Putih assemblyman Wan Hakim Wan Mokhtar is educated, smart and sincere. His father is Tan Sri Wan Mokhtar Wan Ahmad who was the Mentri Besar when Terengganu fell to PAS in 1999.

Everyone agrees that Wan Hakim is more than worthy of a state exco post. But the palace has old issues with his father and the son has been unable to move up. However, Ahmad recently made Wan Hakim the Barisan whip in the state assembly.

There has also been much mention of Ustaz Azhar Idrus, a charismatic preacher from Kuala Terengganu as a factor for PAS’ near win. Ustaz Azhar does not have any fancy religious degrees but he has three beautiful wives and is a witty and interesting speaker. He is also known as Ustaz YouTube, loves photography and has 1.2mil Facebook friends. He was not a candidate but he was on the PAS campaign circuit.

Religion and Malay politics go hand-in-glove, and PAS in Terengganu still commands the moral voice.

The close race had also caused quite a bit of excitement among state PAS leaders, including party president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang who had gathered at the party headquarters in Kuala Terengganu to wait for the results.

But Hadi also had a heart-stopping moment when a TV station wrongly announced that he had lost in Marang. On the contrary, Hadi came almost within touching distance of the Mentri Besar post.

Not everyone relishes the idea of having Hadi up there again, given his unremarkable track record but he would definitely have had a more qualified team to work with had he won.

Reporters had gone to Hadi’s house in Rusila near midnight on May 5, hoping to get a reaction statement. The lights were still on in the house but they were told that Hadi was exhausted and had gone to bed.

There has been all sorts of speculation that Ahmad had threatened to jump if he was not reinstated as Mentri Besar but those close to him dismissed it as “stupid lies”. They said he is not like that and that “he is with Umno, heart and soul”.

Ahmad has since come across as rather defensive about the election results. On election night, he was clearly annoyed, even angry, when reporters quizzed him about the narrow win.

The jury is still out there as to what exactly went wrong, but many have concluded that unless some radical changes take place, Barisan will have trouble holding on to Terengganu in the next general election.