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7.4.09 - Balik Mengundi!

By the time the three by-elections are settled on April 7, Malaysia may have answers to a host of burning questions over its political future. In what is a political analyst’s dream come true, the vacancies in the parliamentary constituency of Bukit Gantang and state seats of Bukit Selambau and Batang Ai are being seen as referenda on various issues. Coming some 13 months after the political tsunami of the 12th general elections on March 8, 2008, this is a quarter-term review of sorts on how both Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR) have fared in that time.

The showpiece event will, of course, be Bukit Gantang, where some even claim divine intervention in the passing of Pas MP Roslan Shaharum just four days after prime minister-in-waiting Datuk Seri Najib Razak had masterminded the takeover of the Perak state government. Perak DAP quickly challenged BN to a straight fight between ousted mentri besar Datuk Seri Nizar Jamaluddin and his successor Datuk Zambry Abd Kadir to see who is truly the people’s choice of government.

Pas have kept to their end of the bargain, betting all their chips on Perak. While Nizar is the best possible candidate for a win in Bukit Gantang, a defeat will silence any further claims to legitimacy by the Pas-led Perak government. Umno grassroots leaders in Bukit Gantang told The Malaysian Insider that PR’s support was not a problem. In Kampung Matang, branch leaders believe only 15-20 homes out of over 100 are loyal to the opposition. “The problem is not the opposition, but within our own ranks,” a local leader said, referring to the perennial problem of factionism within Umno. Another complained of Chinese components within BN – MCA and Gerakan – not doing enough across the constituency. Gerakan Wanita chief Datuk Tan Lian Hoe, who was MP here from 2004 -2008, was named as Gerakan’s election chief for the by-election here, but she has apparently spent most of her time in Kuala Sepetang. “She has not stepped foot in my area where three-quarters of voters are Chinese,” the Umno leader said.

The big picture, though, is whether Najib, now officially Umno president and by default BN chair, can rally his party and coalition together. Perak DAP has also recently called Bukit Gantang a referendum on Najib’s incoming premiership given his role in the toppling of the PR government in the state. This may be true, but more so for all three by-elections put together. A 3-0 sweep would be the perfect tonic for Najib who is likely to be the first Prime Minister to not enjoy a honeymoon period as he enters office. Standing in his way, other than the apparent unpopularity of his coup in Perak, is MIC’s flagging fortunes, seemingly deepened by Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu’s recently confirmed continued presidency of MIC.

With sentiment among Indians having worsened since the March 8 general elections, Bukit Selambau may very well confirm what many have known all this while – it’s the end for MIC. Yet it must not be forgotten that while 30 per cent of voters here are Indians, just over half are Malays. After yesterday’s show of solidarity by the new line-up and past presidents Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed, the Malays could swing behind Umno to “give it a chance.” Batang Ai will probably present the least problem to Najib’s BN, with even Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim having called it an “experiment” to gauge support among the Dayaks.

The results here will answer the question of what, if any, gains PR has made among East Malaysians, who are key to its plans to topple BN’s uninterrupted rule at Federal level. Significantly, if it pulls off an upset, then Anwar’s apparent strategy of grabbing the 30 required parliamentary seats from East Malaysia, whether via crossovers or in the next general elections, will gain immense traction. But undoubtedly, arching over the various issues is what Malaysia thinks of a Najib administration. And this is not lost on Najib, just five days short of being sworn in as Prime Minister.

Multiple speeches by his nemesis Anwar have been blocked of late, and opposition organs Harakah and Suara Keadilan have been banned. Question marks also hang over the multitude of independent candidates involved in the by-elections and also the unusually high number of correspondents sent in by BN-friendly media outlets. Najib cannot afford to lose Bukit Gantang or any two of the three contests so early in his reign. Similarly, the stakes are just as high for PR, and Anwar’s continued claims that all races are now united against BN will certainly be put to the test.


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