Malaysia’s ruling coalition goes on offensive against Kedah leader in battle to win state

Hazlin Hassan, The Straits Times

Malaysia’s ruling coalition has painted a large bull’s eye on the back of Kedah’s caretaker chief minister Sanusi Md Nor, as it ramps up efforts to win back the northern state in the Aug 12 state polls.

Sanusi, from the federal opposition alliance Perikatan Nasional (PN), was last week charged in court with sedition for insulting the Selangor ruler, and is due for questioning over alleged corruption involving mining activities in the state.

He alleged that his popular TikTok account, with some 540,000 followers, was mysteriously blocked for three days in mid-July and then unblocked again, with the Home Minister and Minister of Communications and Digital saying they had no hand in it.

These developments come just ahead of the Aug 12 polls involving six states. Sanusi, 48, is the election director for PN, which is led by two major Malay-Muslim parties.

Despite these distractions, PN and Sanusi are set to put up a tough fight to defend Kedah.

Sanusi became the state’s Menteri Besar (chief minister) after the Pakatan Harapan (PH) state government was toppled in 2020 following a major shift of alliances among state politicians.

To boost its support among Malay voters in Malaysia, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s ruling coalition led by PH badly needs to wrest Kedah back.

But PH and its key ally Barisan Nasional (BN) may face an uphill battle. Many Kedahans whom The Straits Times spoke to sang praises of the blunt-speaking Sanusi.

At political rallies, his shoot-from-the-hip style and thick Kedah accent resonate with heartlanders in the state, which is known as Malaysia’s “rice bowl state” as it has the highest rice output in the country.

Stock trader Abdul Rahim, 35, who works part-time as a private-hire driver, said Sanusi is “the best Menteri Besar”.

“He builds new roads and he goes down to the ground when there are floods. He may be brash, but we don’t mind it,” he told ST.

Of the six states headed for the polls in August, PN controls the state governments of Kedah, Terengganu and Kelantan. Mr Anwar’s PH-BN alliance controls the other three state assemblies – Penang, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan.

An influential figure, Sanusi has accused Mr Anwar’s federal administration of launching investigations against him to curtail his speeches.

“In Malaysia, it looks like we cannot say anything. We have a government that is afraid and using the police to stop our speech,” he told reporters after his court appearance on Tuesday.

In June, Malaysian police launched a probe into his claim that Penang belonged to Kedah.

On July 11, he landed in hot water after comparing the sultans of Selangor and Kedah in a speech at a political rally, which the Selangor Royal Office deemed an insult to the Selangor ruler. This led to the sedition charge in court.

In the meantime, leaders from PH and Umno-led BN have been going all out to woo voters, making numerous trips to Kedah.

Mr Anwar and other leaders toured the state in mid-July, visiting padi field-dominated Alor Setar in the north and the Kulim industrial zone in the south. The Prime Minister announced a slew of goodies, including RM3 billion (S$875 million) to boost padi production, farmers’ incomes and food security.

At the launch of the PH-BN election machinery in a field in the town of Guar Chempedak on July 15, some 10,000 supporters turned up to listen to speeches by Mr Anwar and his allies, who mostly spent the night attacking Sanusi.

Rubber tapper Asmah Mustafa, 61, who attended the event, expressed unhappiness over Sanusi’s failure to tackle issues such as recurrent water shortages in Kedah. She said she will vote for Umno, which is contesting in 15 state seats.

“I am not convinced about his leadership because he always says things, but doesn’t take action. He didn’t settle our water supply issues, sometimes we have no water,” she told ST.

PN component parties Parti Islam SeMalaysia and Bersatu controlled Kedah with 20 seats in the 36-seat assembly that was recently dissolved.

The PH and Umno-led BN coalition now form the opposition with 12 seats. Pejuang party, led by Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of former premier Mahathir Mohamad, has two seats.

Said Kedah BN election director and former Kedah Menteri Besar Mahdzir Khalid: “People here are not too extreme. I am confident that PH and BN can win this election.”

He told ST that “the wave was very heavy” in the November general election, with many Malay voters swinging to PN. “I don’t think the tsunami will repeat itself,” he said. PN won 14 of the 15 parliamentary seats in Kedah at the November polls.

Kedah, since 2008, when it was under BN, has swung from being controlled by one faction to another. The state was helmed by Parti Islam SeMalaysia (now a key member of PN) after the March 2008 polls, then BN in 2013, PH in 2018 and PN in 2020.

Will the political pendulum swing back this time around?

Dr Mazlan Ali, senior lecturer at the Razak Faculty of Technology and Informatics, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, said: “Sanusi’s aura is strong in Kedah. Even though sometimes the projects that he announces are not completed, people are still loyal to his party.”

Mr Anwar will be banking on his strong Islamic credentials to win over the Malay-Muslim majority voters, said Dr Mazlan, adding however that it would be tough to retake the state.

“Anwar has met youth and plans to review civil servants’ salaries. This may sway voters, and the stability brought about by the unity government may also be a positive factor,” added Dr Mazlan.

Mr Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which will contest 10 state seats in the August election, is counting on winning in areas that are mostly urban and have a mixed demographic of Malay and non-Malay voters, said its Kedah election director Phahrolrazi Mohd Zawawi.

“Our target is to win all 10 seats. I think things are on an uptrend (for PH) especially after Menteri Besar Sanusi made the statement (about the royals). It’s a very big mistake,” Datuk Phahrolrazi told ST.