PETALING JAYA (Jan 18, 2009) : By Zainon Ahmad
The assertion that the mood that prevailed in Kedah, Penang, Perak, Selangor and Kelantan last March had finally caught up with the voters of Kuala Terengganu is probably true. It perhaps explains why they changed their March 8 decision.
Kuala Terengganu, which was narrowly won by the BN in the last general election, now belongs to PAS, a component of the loose Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition which includes PKR and DAP. The 2,631-vote majority was convincing enough.
With the win, PAS is now stronger in Terengganu with two parliamentary seats instead of only Marang, won by party president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang in the last general election. PAS is also stronger in PR which now has 83 seats. It now has 24 seats to PKR’s 31 and DAP’s 28.
There may be another parliamentary by-election this year and the question that is being asked is whether the momentum of March 8 and the mood for change can still be strong enough to affect the result.
Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak, who led the BN defence of Kuala Terengganu and who had
successfully led campaigning in all the by-elections after the 2004 general election, does not think so.
According to indications before nomination day, both BN or Umno and PAS, or at least their state leaders, recognised the mood in the people of Kuala Terengganu. Local Umno leaders heeded the mood but unfortunately for them they were overruled.
PAS local leaders heeded the mood which they assessed as not being too strong to carry them over completely but which they decided could be bolstered by a popular grassroots candidate.
They strategised and waited until after the BN named its candidate before springing their surprise. Meanwhile, they floated names of prominent PAS officials as possibilities – red herrings, some of them said.
Three days after BN named Deputy Home Minister Senator Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh, also Kuala Terengganu division leader, as candidate, PAS announced that it was fielding Wakaf Mempelam assemblyman Mohd Abdul Wahid Endut.
In the end, candidates mattered most in this constituency where PAS had won three of the four state wards in last year’s general election. The BN, through MCA, took Bandar where the Chinese formed 36% of the electorate, the biggest in the overwhelmingly Malay constituency.
The contest saw Wan Farid, an electoral novice, versus battled-scarred but personable and folksy five-term assemblyman Wahid. Wahid was defeated in Bandar, where the Chinese voters are, in his first bid for a seat in 1986.
While Wahid was almost always punctual for his meetings with the rakyat, excusing himself even if other PR big guns were around at any of them and cleverly blaming his handlers for his daily crowded schedules, Wan Farid was not always able to desert his prime minister, deputy prime minister, and the mentri besar.
One function that was particularly embarrassing to him and the BN was when he arrived late for the "bubur asyura" making function. The cooking was over and the picture of him stirring the bubur carried by most newspapers was posed. The people of Kuala Terengganu knew that.
BN thought it was stealing a march on PAS when it named Wan Farid early.
He was already on his rounds smiling and shaking hands but talk about him being snooty was also making the rounds and people began to scrutinise his every move.
But after nomination day, PAS, backed by its PR partners, went on the offensive and conducted a coordinated campaign to wrest the constituency from BN. PR leader and PKR supremo Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim led the charge.
With DAP leaders, especially Lim Kit Siang and Teresa Kok, concentrating their firepower in Bandar where most of the Chinese are and who were told that Umno must be punished so that it would institute reforms, the BN was quickly put on the defensive.
PR campaigners exploited every issue and threw everything – abuses, failures, allegations of corruption and wild accusations – at the BN which was forced to respond as convincingly as it could.
That Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh was disallowed to continue as mentri besar after March 8 was also played up and to it was added the punchline "do we want to allow those who backed him at the federal level to influence us?"
Even the late Datuk Razali Ismail, the Kuala Terengganu MP and deputy education minister who died in November, was championed by PAS and its partners.
His family’s grief and hurt were exploited to such an extent that the government had to honour him by naming a school and a training institute after him.
But the complaints and the allegations, even after they were responded to, did not stop.
Early indication on Saturday that the BN was losing was when it was reported that the voter turnout was about 3% lower than the 82.4 achieved on March 8. It has long been contended that a high voter turnout of around 90% benefits the BN.
Maybe the BN can blame the main stream media for this as from the word go they had been making upbeat reports of the coalition’s chances. They could have influenced some of the Malay BN supporters that it was no longer necessary for them to go to the polling stations.
In the end, fear of the BN parties that the Chinese voters were against them this time was baseless as more Chinese voted for the coalition than they did last year. But if they feel somewhat consoled by this, they should count themselves lucky as 30% of those Chinese working outside Kuala Terengganu stayed away.
They are generally young and therefore would have voted for Wahid.
If the election is to be seen as a referendum, it cannot be just on Najib, but also a referendum on Prime minister Datuk Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Mentri Besar Datuk Ahmad Said, the BN and Umno as well.
Rather than being a referendum, it is perhaps a signal to BN and Umno that they may be able to turn the tide if they undertake a proper post-mortem of March 8 and to embark on the necessary reforms.
The 2,631-vote majority that PAS obtained is big enough. The election could thus be an endorsement of PAS’s attempt to establish an Islamic administration in the state which was cut short by its defeat in 2004.