Pakatan the underdog

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on November 15, 2019.
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KUALA LUMPUR: We have all been told many times not to use the crowd turnout at ceramahs (talks) and rallies to gauge political support.

People who say this usually point to the ceramahs organised by opposition parties during Barisan Nasional’s (BN) rule. The crowds were huge but came elections, the opposition still ended up being vanquished.

But during the run-up to last year’s general election, the then opposition drew mammoth crowds. Despite knowing that a big turnout did not necessarily equate to support, many of us viewed it as a signal of a wave of protests against BN. We were right, as proven by the outcome of the election on May 9, 2018.

So, the crowd turnout sometimes indicates support and sometimes does not.

In the run-up to the Tanjung Piai by-election in Johor, Pakatan Harapan’s ceramahs did not draw droves of people. In fact, their audiences were small. The crowds instead went to ceramahs held by the opposition BN.

But when PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim came a few days ago to campaign, he drew in the numbers. And when Pakatan chairman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad turned up, the crowds got bigger.

Pakatan is hoping for such a grand finale to push voter support for Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia’s Karmaine Sardini. The Pakatan candidate seeks to defend the seat won by the late Datuk Dr Md Farid Md Rafik, also of Bersatu, in the 14th general election (GE14).

The big question is: Are the star attractions which brought in the crowds enough to pull the Pakatan man to victory? It is hard to say, according to some analysts, while others say that is not enough.

Pakatan is the underdog in this by-election. That is a bit odd, considering that it is the government at both the federal and state levels, but not really surprising considering the missteps the ruling coalition has made.

According to research outfit Ilham Centre, Pakatan got it right when it named Karmaine, a respected local, as the candidate. They named him early to show that the coalition had no issue of candidacy and was solidly backing the Bersatu man. In contrast, BN dilly-dallied before naming MCA’s Datuk Seri Dr Wee Jeck Seng as the candidate.

But Pakatan has found the going tough, despite having an election machinery much better structured than during the Cameron Highlands and Semenyih by-elections in which the coalition lost.

“The Pakatan campaign strategy wasn’t focused,” said Ilham Centre chief executive officer Mohd Azlan Zainal. “The development narrative of the government did not fire the imagination of the people of Tanjung Piai,” he said.

For Mohd Azlan, the actions and statements of some of Pakatan’s leaders were like the coalition was shooting itself in the foot. A glaring example is the remarks made by Perak Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Ahmad Faizal Azumu. He was caught on video bad-mouthing DAP and, needless to say, the video went viral. Damage control after that somehow has not done the job. The infighting in PKR is not helping Pakatan’s cause either.

That apart, Pakatan has made a number of missteps. These include the spotlight on khat in the school syllabus, the U-turn on ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the United Nations convention on racial discrimination, the continued stay of controversial preacher Dr Zakir Naik in the country, the Bersatu-linked Malay Dignity Congress attended by the prime minister and the unfulfilled GE14 pledges. All of these earned Pakatan the wrath of the masses, in particular the Chinese who make up some 42% of voters in Tanjung Piai.

And in the constituency, according to Mohd Azlan, issues concerning the high cost of living, the unstable economy, low oil palm prices as well as financial aid to fishermen have had an impact. A substantial number of people there depend on oil palms and fishing as sources of income.

The relentless onslaught by the opposition on DAP, a senior partner in the Pakatan coalition, has succeeded in creating fear of the party among Malay voters — although this is not the first time this message is being harped on. Some 57% of voters in the constituency are Malays.

Hence, said Mohd Azlan, the situation for Pakatan is that Malay support of BN has not budged since GE14, while those who voted for Pakatan last year are now having second thoughts — what more with PAS tying up with Umno in supporting the MCA candidate. Despite earlier apprehension, PAS supporters are also said to be now comfortable in voting for a non-Muslim after being told by PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang and other leaders that they are no longer forbidden to do so.

Despite BN, in particular Umno, being tainted by scandals and the many court cases against its leaders, these seem to have little impact on Malay voters.

As for the Chinese, it is believed that they could opt to not go to the polls. Some might even vote against Pakatan, although many do not take too kindly to PAS sitting in with Umno and MCA in the BN coalition.

That apart, the BN candidate is said to be likeable among the locals after having served in Tanjung Piai as its member of parliament for two terms. Last year, he lost by a mere 500 odd votes.

Observation by Ilham Centre shows the BN machinery moving nicely in every polling district.

BN looks set to win in Tanjung Piai this time, which will give it a big boost in motivation to face GE15, Mohd Azlan pointed out.

But another big question is: Has BN regained strength since GE14 or is this a case of Pakatan being weak? Some media reports highlighted interviews with voters, in particular from the Chinese community, who say they will vote for BN “not because we support BN but to teach Pakatan a lesson”.

Perhaps to them, this is a classic example of the need to be cruel in order to be kind.

Media consultant M Veera Pandiyan, writing for The Star, said: “The Chinese voters in Tanjung Piai are in an unfamiliar quandary. While they want to send a strong protest message to the Pakatan government, they also fear that a BN win would bolster the Umno–PAS pact and worsen the politics of race and religion.”

Tanjung Piai decides tomorrow.


Mohsin Abdullah is a contributing editor at The Edge. He has covered politics for more than four decades.