Feb 11, 2009
By Wong Choon Mei
The political stalemate in Perak is set to deepen as arch rivals Pakatan Rakyat and Barisan Nasional begin preparations for the Bukit Gantang parliamentary by-election.
Sharply in focus and under the microscope will be the roles played by the Perak Sultan and Deputy Premier Najib Abdul Razak - both of whom many Perakians blame for stage-managing the ouster of popular Pakatan Menteri Besar Nizar Jamaluddin and his team.
Against this background of increasing public animosity, the BN Menteri Besar Zambry Kadir proposed by Najib and confirmed by the Sultan, may find it tough to govern the state, especially with Bukit Gantang looming large in the conscience of Perakians.
“It was a modern-day coup,” said Pakatan leader Tian Chua. “The Perak people were robbed of their democratic rights to elect the leadership they wanted. The BN line-up is also completely unrepresentative of the state’s demographic make-up.
As both coalitions raise the rhetoric in the run-up to the by-election due to be held within the next 60 days, all eyes will also be on how Nizar and his team fare in the coming weeks. So far, there has been only one major incidence of violence breaking out during a street protest.
But there is increasing concern that a desperate Najib might order even more aggressive police action to evict the immensely popular Nizar from his official chief minister’s residence, where thousands of supporters have gathered for mammoth rallies and ceramahs.
“Nizar has no choice. He is duty-bound to keep fighting for the rights of the Perak people and keep insisting on the snap election that he was entitled to, but was mysteriously denied by the Sultan,” said Tian.
A public judgement on Najib, Perak Sultan
The Bukit Gantang by-election is seen as an acid test for both BN and Pakatan.
It will also be a sharp reflection of how Perakians and by extension, the rest of the nation, feel about Najib’s suitability as a leader for the country. Sadly and additionally, it will be seen as a public judgement on the Sultan’s conduct in the entire episode.
Both have been denounced by civil society groups, critics, and the public to the extent that high-profile functions earlier scheduled and featuring either had to be skipped or postponed.
Said law professor Abdul Aziz Bari: “What was done by the BN in Perak was some kind of blitzkrieg, to use Hitler’s strategy during World War II.
But there was no need to do that as there was still a government (Nizar and team) and they had just filed an application in court to determine the status of the three lawmakers (who defected from Pakatan to support Najib).
“Here lies the role of the Sultan; namely to weigh the options properly and avoid being seen as taking side. As of now, one cannot see how the palace can say it is neutral and impartial.
“It is time for BN to stop using the palace. It must now learn how to survive on its own as required by both the Ccnstitution and democracy.”
Playing the racial card, hiding behind the Palace
A small coastal town near the northern tip of Peninsular Malaysia, it has a voter base of about 55,471 - of which 64 percent are Malays, 27 percent Chinese and nine percent Indian. The seat fell vacant following the sudden death of its PAS MP Roslan Shahrum on Monday.
Opinion has been mixed about whether the Malay or non-Malay vote will decide the winner come polling day, due to be set by the Election Commission on Friday.
But more fore-telling of the future will be the way the Malays vote here, a core Umno heartland until the March 2008 general election.
The late Roslan wrested the seat from Umno treasurer and corporate bigwig Azim Zabidi with a majority of 1,566 votes, but Umno-BN can be relied on to play on racial sentiments to gain the upperhand.
Already, Umno has been loudly championing and defending Perak Sultan’s controversial decision in its favour, hoping this can galvanise the community - which traditionally revers the monarchy - against the more progressive philosophies of the Pakatan..
Said political analyst Ong Kian Ming: “Some may argue that the Malay vote in Bukit Gantang is fully capable of swinging at least a few percentage points in favour of the BN.
“The BN would campaign on the basis that the Perak government is now firmly back in the hands of the ‘Malays’, making the not so subtle point that DAP was dominating the previous state government.”
Mini-budget to fund election goodies?
Who will be fielded to battle it out in Bukit Gantang is also the topic of hot debate throughout the state and country.
There have been calls for Nizar to take on Zambry for the parliamentary seat. Currently, both only hold state seats, and therefore are eligible to contest.
If their parties do decide to field them, then chances favour Nizar although it is still too early to tell, given that Najib and Umno-BN control the vast federal machinery and can use it to their advantage.
“To me, it is not right for the Perak MB to contest as he is already an elected representative,” said PAS spiritual adviser Nik Aziz Nik Mat, downplaying talk that Nizar would get the slot.
Meanwhile, Najib, who is also finance minister, can be expected to announce a string of election goodies, worth hundreds of millions of ringgit to entice the Chinese and Indian voters in Bukit Gantang, just as he did in last month’s Kuala Terengganu by-election.
Already, there are reports in the BN media of a soon-to-be unveiled mini-budget that could top the RM10 billion mark, and push the national fiscal deficit way above the record high of 5.5 percent.
“Najib was not shy to use funds from the previous RM7 billion economic stimulus package to allocate project funds to Umno assemblymen in Perak to ensure their allegiance,” said a political analyst.
“Now with so much more on the line in Bukit Gantang, and another by-election in Bukit Selambau in Kedah due around the same time, do you wonder why a second economic stimulus package is not enough but a full-fledged mini-budget has to be undertaken?”