Run-Up to GE14: Advantage Azmin in the battle for Selangor

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 5, 2018 - March 11, 2018.
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LAST year, the Selangor state government led by the Pakatan Harapan coalition banned free plastic bags and polystyrene food packs to protect the environment.

And what’s the Barisan Nasional’s response a year on? To bring back free plastic bags for groceries if the coalition wins Selangor in the 14th general election (GE14).

Hence free plastic bags will be in the BN manifesto come GE14.That undertaking comes from Selangor BN information chief Datuk Mohd Satim Diman.

That’s not the only election-flavoured promise, of course. Noticing the agitation among fans of the Red Giants, the well-loved state football team that cannot access the Shah Alam stadium following a tiff between the Football Association of Selangor and the state administration, BN has pledged that the Red Giants, which counts mostly young people among its supporters, can get back in the stadium if the coalition wins Selangor.

Trivial issues? Laughable even? In particular, the free plastic bag gesture that is causing more than a chuckle among Selangor folk. But that’s just to show how serious (or should it be how desperate?) BN is to wrest control of Selangor, the richest state in the country.

Hence the big question — can they do it? Or will the current administration continue to govern, frustrating BN yet again?


The BN poser

So can BN win? Well, it all depends on who you ask.

You don’t have to be a political scientist to know that it will take more than promises of free plastic bags and usage of the Shah Alam stadium to topple the state government.

Surely the BN knows that. Hence they are ready with a manifesto which will have lots to offer, mainly development and goodies.

Still, the first thing BN, and particularly Umno, needs to do is put its house in order.

Take the issue of party factions. This is an issue despite assurances by deputy Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi that there are no more “warlords” in the party. According to Ahmad Zahid, “Now we don’t have camps. Only Umno.”

But observers say otherwise. The so-called warlords are still there and still calling the shots. Apparently, they still have the trust of the national leadership, despite being unpopular then and unpopular now as well.

When BN lost the state in the 2008 general election, the coalition and, especially, Umno, pinned the blame on then menteri besar Dr Khir Toyo, much to the chagrin of his loyalists. When one is MB, one will have a substantial number of loyalists. Still, the dentist-turned-politician accepted the blame.

However, the blame game has not stopped. Umno leaders in Selangor are still pointing accusing fingers at the former menteri besar. Khir is not amused. He has hit back, saying that BN’s performance in GE13 in 2013 “was worse than during my time in 2008”.

His band of supporters (yes, they are still around although Khir is ineligible for public office following his jail sentence for corruption) are now saying that their boss has been blamed “just to find a scapegoat and hide the current leaders’ own weaknesses” in not being able to win back Selangor in 2013.

Observers who spoke to The Edge opined that the continuous blaming of Khir “is not a wise thing to do” as this means that talk of a united Umno will just remain “talk”. This is not to say that Khir is still a force to be reckoned with, but “a politician who has been at the top should not be brushed aside, whether he is politically active or not”. There can be repercussions, they said. Just how serious the fallout will be, the observers, who chose not to be identified, are not willing to say.

Khir apart, the observers are also asking the same question they have been asking for years. Just who will be menteri besar should BN win, ask Umno insiders.

The current leaders hogging the limelight in Selangor are finding it hard to be accepted even among Umno members, what more the populace. They include Selangor Umno chief Tan Sri Noh Omar and Datuk Zein Isma, a senior leader in the state.

One name being bandied around is Budiman Mohd Zohdi, the state assemblyman for Sungai Panjang and MP for Sungai Besar. Yet, to say that Budiman is the overwhelming favourite is stretching it a bit too far.

In a nutshell, as it is, BN has yet to find the right candidate to be its poster boy for the MB’s post — one who is popular, accepted by the rakyat and winnable. And that is a problem.

Still, some Umno insiders tell The Edge that this can be sorted out when “we win the election”, claiming they are confident of getting Malay support.

Needless to say, in this election, getting a slice of Malay voters, and a major one at that, will be of utmost importance in ensuring victory.

The Umno insiders talk without elaboration about securing Malay support not only in the rural but semi-urban or even urban areas, using Shah Alam as an example.

Shah Alam, the capital of Selangor, is predominantly Malay. Quite a number of its residents come from Kelantan. Some of them go back to their home state to vote. Some are registered voters in Selangor. At the last outing in 2013, a majority of them voted for Khalid Samad, who was then a prominent PAS leader. Khalid is now in Amanah, a party that was formed by a splinter group from PAS.

Now that PAS is no more in the Pakatan fold, could this be the reason for Umno to feel confident of doing well even in Shah Alam? The insiders are not saying.

Unfortunately, to win Malay votes, Umno could very well exploit the card of race and religion, no matter that it may be divisive politics.

No comments from the Umno camp.

However, to win Malay votes, some observers say Umno will form a pact with PAS.

That is still not clear at this juncture. Just as an Umno-PAS tie-up appeared to be taking shape, we got an “explosive” barrage putting the parties at loggerheads and pulling them apart.

“It’s just a lot of talk and wayang kulit now,” according to an old friend who follows politics keenly.

Whatever it is, that brings us to the next element in the equation.


The PAS factor

At some point along the way, PAS had positioned itself as a kingmaker, meaning that it was much-needed by any party with the ambition of ruling Selangor. Even Malaysia, for that matter.

Then, it went on to act as if it wanted to rule the country, Selangor included, and on its own. Never mind that the numbers do not add up as far as the number of seats it has won is concerned.

Earlier on, there was also even talk of PAS assemblymen crossing over to Pakatan Harapan. It must be said this has never been verified independently and has remained “speculation”.

And despite my old friend’s assertion that shadowy stuff is at play, it is best not to conclude anything now with regards to a cooperation of sorts between PAS and Umno at the state level.

As it is, the possibility that PAS may be involved in three-cornered fights, that is, against BN and Pakatan Harapan (in particular Amanah), looks real.

For now, a piece written by veteran journalist Zainal Epi for The Malay Mail Online recently comes to mind.

According to Zainal, now that Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Azmin Ali has finally rejected any cooperation with PAS, the BN has “sharpened its knives sensing the opening that has presented itself”.

As he sees it, Azmin’s move will have “major repercussions for the MB and Pakatan Harapan’s hope of retaining Selangor”, going on to say that “without PAS and its formidable election machinery — or any chance of avoiding multi-cornered fights — Azmin’s hold on the state is now shaky”.

Prime Minister and Umno president Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s former political secretary Dr Oh Ei Sun has this to add: “If PAS comes out as third party candidates, this will benefit BN as PAS will mainly split Pakatan’s votes”. Oh is now a political analyst.

But the Selangor menteri besar’s strategic communications director Yin Shao Loong takes a different view. PAS’ electoral position in Selangor, he says, is “precarious since many of the seats they won in 2013 were in ethnically mixed constituencies that were won with the moral endorsement of the rest of the then Pakatan Rakyat coalition”.

To Yin, “the usual assumption that PAS wins seats solely on Malay support doesn’t apply. This also explains the more moderate stance taken by Selangor PAS compared to its national leadership. Their state leaders are well aware that they are serving mixed constituents.”

Yin notes that “mid-last year, PAS state leaders from the west coast states wanted autonomy to negotiate state-level pacts with their former coalition partners in the new Pakatan”.

They knew, said Yin, that “their political survival depended on it”.

True. Come to think of it, whatever happened to their “requests”? But I suppose all that is now water under the bridge.

Over time, they too, like their national leaders, had “hurt the feelings” of many non-Malay/Muslim voters, a majority of whom are urban dwellers, with their, well, should I say antics?

Oh admits that non-Malays are “still with Pakatan except some millennials who may want to punish Pakatan for not being gung ho enough against the BN”. Thus, according to Oh, they may be “handing BN victory by not voting”.


The Azmin Ali factor

To Azmin’s detractors, he is a man in a hurry, too ambitious and shrewd. He is a political animal. But both friend and foe concede that “he is a good MB”.

Hence, the BN strategy to launch a blistering assault, painting him as “not a good leader”. Perhaps this has been “aided” by the likes of Datuk Seri Jamal Yunus, the leader of the Red Shirts Malay rights group, and Azwan Ali, the MB’s own brother. Thus far, attacks by the duo somehow have not gained traction.

As for Azmin’s policies, quite a number are well accepted by the people of Selangor. BN is doubly fast to “point out” that Azmin is merely “copying BN’s policies”.

Nevertheless, the Peduli Rakyat Initiative is a winner that can put BN in a difficult position when it comes with its bag of goodies for the rakyat this election.

Based on past results, the state government has a grip on urban as well as rural areas, at least in most constituencies. Furthermore, Azmin has tightened that grip since replacing Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim as MB.

Still, it must be said that he had his share of problems within his own party, PKR, and within Pakatan Harapan, in particular, with the way he dealt with PAS before deciding to cut off ties with the party.

In the words of a Pakatan insider: “Yes, it’s sad and bad but that’s the reality we must face. We must persevere and Azmin will have to put all that behind and move on”.

In an election, incumbency brings added advantages. In this case, the Azmin Ali administration is the incumbent.


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


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