Undercurrents and the unexpected signal riveting end to by-elections


Joceline Tan, The Star

THERE is a lot resting on Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s shoulders and he has been zipping back and forth from Sungai Besar to Kuala Kangsar as though his life depends on the twin by-elections.

In a way it does – his political life at least.

This is his first time leading a by-election as the Deputy Prime Minister and he cannot afford any wrong turns.

The signs point to a comfortable Barisan Nasional win in both places and the coalition may have extended its lead in Sungai Besar following the good news from across the Straits of Malacca.

On Tuesday night, news broke that two Chinese fishermen from Sekinchan, who were imprisoned in Indonesia since earlier this year, had been pardoned and were on their way home.

It was quite an electrifying moment for the Chinese enclave and preparations began as early as yesterday to welcome back the pair who were convicted for trespassing into Indonesian waters. Their plight is something many in the fishing industry here can identify with.

They have been shot at by the Indonesian coastguards and some of their boats were confiscated but the Sekinchan pair were the first to be convicted and thrown into jail.

“The fishing community is mainly Teochew. They are close-knit and parochial. Something happens to one of them, all of them feel it,” said local-born businessman Datuk Andy Lim.

No point beating about the bush. The timing of the men’s release had everything to do with the by-election. Barisan is pulling out all the stops.

The pardon was signed by Indonesia President Joko Widodo and that itself was possible because of the special ties between the leaders of the two countries.

It will be a dramatic final lap in this coastal seat where deep-sea fishing and rice cultivation dominate the local economy.

The extent to which it will sway the Chinese vote remains to be seen but local pundits are now predicting a winning margin of more than 5,000 votes for Barisan.

Should that happen, the Deputy Prime Minister will be smiling even in his sleep and so will his boss Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

At the local level, the homecoming of these two fishermen signals what Barisan can do for them and the lengths to which it is prepared to go for support in Sekinchan.

But the message also goes beyond the Chinese and Sekinchan. It is to tell voters in the area that certain problems affecting their livelihood can only be solved by the Federal Government and that is why they need to come along with Barisan.

Amanah will be badly hit if there is a substantial swing of Chinese votes. It was depending on the Chinese to knock PAS into third place but the orange party may now be the big loser.

Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Azmin Ali finally showed up for a buka puasa event in a kampung surrounded by padi fields to endorse Amanah’s Azhar Abdul Shukur.

He delivered a thundering speech on stage while an orange-clad Azhar stood beside him looking both gratified and relieved.

PAS candidate Dr Rani Osman, who is Meru assemblyman, had also turned up. The pint-sized medical doctor, whose posters show him with a stethoscope around his neck, said he practised mature politics and was there to “greet my MB”.

The talk is that Azmin had personally invited him and during his speech, the Mentri Besar referred to Dr Rani as “my friend and fellow member of the state assembly”.

He also acknowledged Dr Rani’s contributions to the state government and said he would pray for the PAS politician’s continued success.

By then, there were more than a few black faces among the Amanah politicians because, with that, Azmin had pretty much endorsed Dr Rani too.

It was also read as a message that he intends to keep PAS in his administration regardless of whether PAS or Amanah gets more votes on June 18.

Besides, everyone noticed Azmin was not in orange but wore a white Malay top and a green sarung. He might as well have come draped in a PAS flag. He left shortly after for terawih prayers in another village.

“How to pray here? Dr Rani on one side and Azhar on the other side and everyone staring at them,” said a PKR member.

All those rumours that Azmin feels more comfortable with PAS are starting to sound quite credible.

It is also quite clear by now that he is not going to do any campaigning in Sungai Besar. He will be back here to perform Friday prayers and that is about it.

It is the first by-election where the Mentri Besar is not campaigning.

The by-election in Sungai Besar was supposed to be one boring predictable affair but it has been filled with Machiavellian undercurrents and Byzantine politics.