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Tanjung Piai: a dilemma for PH?

  • Many believe that the handover of power to Anwar Ibrahim will be expedited if PPBM's dominance is shattered following the defeat of its candidate in Tanjung Piai.

By Awang Azman Awang Pawi

The Tanjung Piai by-election war was officially started with the nomination on last Saturday November 2. With the polling day set on Nov 16, it means that the campaign period is as long as two weeks.

There will be six contestants for the parliamentary seat -- one each from Pakatan Harapan, Barisan Nasional, Gerakan Rakyat, Berjasa and two independent candidates.

PH's candidate is PPBM's Tanjung Piai division chairman Karmaine Sardini, while BN is represented by MCA's Wee Jeck Seng who was two-term MP for the constituency.

Gerakan, meanwhile, has fielded the party's secretary-general Wendy Subramaniam.

Also joining the race are Berjasa president Dr Badrulhisham Abdul Aziz and two independent candidates Ang Chuan Lock and Faridah Aryani Ab Ghaffar.

Despite the six-cornered fight, the actual duel is between PH and BN by virtue of the two parties' powerful election machineries and their massive support bases. With more established mechanisms, experiences and huge support bases, sure enough these two major political camps will be able to contest more efficiently than the rest of the pack.

With the entire PH and BN converging into Tanjung Piai, it is now hard to even get accommodation there, with many supporters or members of these two camps having to put up in Johor Bahru instead.

Both PH and BN candidates have their own credentials. They both have university qualifications and indeed BN's Wee Jeck Seng holds a PhD doctorate. Both candidates do not suffer from any political burden or scandal that would have otherwise compromised their reputation or popularity. Originally from Umno, PH's candidate is a cleric from a local mosque.

As for the other candidates, their influences are very limited and they are poorly supported by more established party mechanisms.

Gerakan Rakyat, for instance, is just there to provide an alternative to BN and PH, mainly for the local Chinese voters. Consequently, it is anticipated that the Chinese voters in Tanjung Piai will be divided into three different blocs.

Berjasa is fielding a professional with respected credibility and academic qualification. If the party is able to make the best of the short campaign period, it will drain away some of the votes from BN as well as PH.

As for the independents, they are there to provide an alternative to the protest votes in the form of spoilt votes that numbered around 900 in GE14. Their influences are nevertheless minimal owing to financial restrictions and lack of powerful election machineries and support bases.

Taking cue from the 2018 general election results, it is quite obvious that BN will have an upper hand this time mainly as a result of the newly formed Umno-PAS alliance. In GE14, PH's candidate won with 21,255 votes, defeating BN's 20,731 by a very slim majority of only 524 votes. In that three-cornered fight, PAS' candidate managed to bag 2,962 votes.

From the perspective of political logic, if political sentiment remains much the same this time, BN's votes are expected to increase. That said, given the dynamic and unpredictable political reality, with PH now helming both the state and federal governments, it will be able to more effectively mobilise its election machinery to garner more support votes.

However, PH is also shouldering a burden of its unfulfilled election promises, not to mention deteriorating economic climate, fast rising cost of living, lack of job opportunities and disunity among the Malays.

Among the local issues in Tanjung Piai are poor road infrastructure, as well as social issues and crime. Meanwhile, national issues such as escalating cost of living and economy will also impact the voters in Tanjung Piai.

Whatever manifesto that PH is going to introduce, it is anticipated that Tanjung Piai voters will remain pessimistic given the fact many of the old election promises have yet to be delivered.

In the meantime, the presence of six-cornered fight means that votes will invariably be diluted. Even a few hundred votes that shift from one camp to another could completely upend the election outcome given the razor-thin majority in the last election. The higher the voter turnout, the larger is BN's chance of winning because the local as well as national sentiment doesn't seem to be on PH's side. However, if the turnout is poor, PH still has good prospect of retaining the seat.

The philosophy in the formation of Barisan Nasional back in 1973 is still very much relevant today. The BN spirit emphasises cooperation among its component parties, and this has culminated in MCA's candidate being fielded again in Tanjung Piai.

The perception that BN has deviated from its erstwhile objectives and spirit since the coalition's formation decades ago is now dismissed in the context of its selection of candidate. It has been widely believed that BN could win the seat if an Umno candidate is fielded instead because of strong grassroots support for an Umno candidate. Prior to this, some 75% of Umno members guarding BN's district voting centres (PDM) have boycotted BN's candidate announcing ceremony.

Nevertheless, Umno is willing to give MCA the opportunity to win back the favour of Chinese voters even though this sounds like a tall order for the party. This will be the last chance for MCA to convince the voters that the party is still relevant in national politics although MCA's victory will have to depend a lot on Malay votes.

The simple and toned down candidate announcement is meant to placate the grassroots sentiment that demands the fielding of an Umno candidate in Tanjung Piai. Of course, BN's election machinery needs to work a lot harder and not to overlook the fact that their biggest rival is the current government both at state and federal levels.

This explains why Umno and PAS have come to a consensus that they need to take care of all ethnic communities in this country, although their narrative in the form of national consensus has often been exploited by their rivals to fight them.

Tanjung Piai will be a good indicator to gauge the popularity of PPBM and the leadership of Tun Mahathir. If PH wins in Tanjung Piai, it shows that the ruling coalition is still popular among the voters. And if loses, it shows that the voters are very unhappy with the current economic as well as social and political situations of this country. If this is the case, sure enough there will be stronger calls for Tun Mahathir to step down and expedite the power transition process.

If BN wins, it will mean a revival for BN with its National Consensus of not sidelining any ethnic community of this country. MCA will be seen as recovering while Umno's president will be momentarily safe from being urged to step down. If BN is defeated, then MCA will be completely rendered irrelevant as it is no longer able to make waves in a traditional BN stronghold, and will eventually get jostled out by Umno.

Meanwhile, a number of issues continue to haunt the local Chinese voters, including the alleged involvement of two DAP assemblymen in LTTE activities, the ban of an allegedly pro-communist comic book, as well as the Seni Khat issue. To make things worse, the relationship between PPBM and DAP has tensed up.

Most Chinese feel that the by-election outcome will not significantly impact the position of the state government or the central government in Putrajaya. As such, many Chinese voters may stay away from the polling stations.

DAP's veteran leader Lim Kit Siang has reminded the PH leadership of not trying to become “more Malay than Umno and more Islamic than PAS”. Many Chinese Malaysians believe that DAP has not done enough to voice up for the community and has lost its direction especially when it comes to dealing with prime minister Tun Mahathir. There has been this powerful perception that PPBM as a minority component has become excessively powerful in the PH administration.

Many believe that the handover of power to Anwar Ibrahim will be expedited if PPBM's dominance is shattered following the defeat of its candidate in Tanjung Piai.

Sure enough PKR and DAP are well aware of this, which will pose a big dilemma for the supporters of these two parties in the upcoming by-election.

With some 57.6% of Malay votes, the actual kingmakers of this by-election could be the 41.4% of Chinese voters. A higher voter turnout is essential for democracy to thrive, and for either PH or BN, this by-election is destined to become a game changer that will determine how soon Mahathir will transfer his power to Anwar.

(Associate Professor Dr Awang Azman Awang Pawi is Senior Lecturer at Department of Socioculture, Academy of Malay Studies, Universiti Malaya.)


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