|A PAS loss may be good for Pakatan|
It is highly unlikely that PAS will lose the upcoming Manek Urai by-election. After all, this is a seat which PAS has won five out of six times since 1986.
It lost this seat in the 2004 general election as a result of the Abdullah Ahmad Badawi ‘tsunami’ effect which swept through the national electorate and nearly resulted in Barisan Nasional winning back control of the Kelantan state legislature.
A repeat of that performance is unlikely. The electorate, having been ‘fooled’ by the promises of Pak Lah, is not likely to give the same benefit of the doubt to Najib Abdul Razak.
There are no signs that the Malay vote has shifted considerably one way or the other since the 2008 general elections or that Najib’s recent spike in his approval ratings – according to a recent poll by the Merdeka Centre – will provide the 8 percent to 10 percent swing which BN needs to recapture this seat.
Much more likely is the scenario where PAS wins this by-election with a reduced majority of less than 1,000 votes (compared to a majority of 1,352 in 2008).
The Bukit Gantang by-election, which was won by ousted Perak menteri besar Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin with an increased majority, also indicated that there was a small but discernible shift among Malay voters to BN.
It is likely that Najib’s policy activism in his first 100 days will swing some Malay voters in Manek Urai back to BN. The recent decision to scrap the teaching of math and science in English will no doubt add to this swing as will the populist measures announced by Najib in his 100-day speech at the KL Convention Centre.
Should PAS lose the by-election
But in the unlikely event that the BN manages to pull off a stunning upset and defeat PAS in Manek Urai, the short-term blow to PAS and to Pakatan Rakyat would be demoralising but may actually end up benefitting the opposition coalition in the larger scheme of things.
There will no doubt be a lot of finger-pointing within PAS in the immediate aftermath of an improbably BN victory. Some may question Nik Aziz Nik Mat’s leadership in Kelantan and his attempts at being the moderate voice within PAS and Pakatan.
Those in Nik Aziz’s camp will lay the blame on those within PAS who were advocating for unity talks with Umno thereby making Umno seem more credible in the eyes of some swing voters. An increase in the level of recrimination and animosity within PAS in the short term probably cannot be avoided.
But a loss in Manek Urai would be a stark reminder to PAS leaders and members that there is no escaping the reality that Umno is their main political adversary. It would most definitely squash any further discussions of unity talks between Umno and PAS.
A victory in Manek Urai may lead some within PAS to adopt the strategy of ‘having one’s cake and eating it too’, mistakenly thinking that they can continue to have talks with Umno without jeopardising their support base, which includes a great deal more non-Malays after March 2008 and the Perak government takeover fiasco.
A PAS defeat would put the party’s focus firmly back on where it should be – to find ways of eroding Umno’s support among the Malay voters, rather than to add to it by suggesting unity talks.
Some would argue that a by-election loss in Nik Aziz’s backyard would be bad for him and those within PAS who are against unity talks with Umno. No doubt that some of the repercussions of a PAS loss in Manek Urai would fall directly on Nik Aziz but a skilled politician of his stature should be able to use the result to gain an upper hand on his political adversaries within PAS.
Najib builds political momentum
More importantly, a PAS loss in Manek Urai would be a big wake-up call and reminder for all the Pakatan parties that Najib is and will be a formidable opponent leading up to the next general election, due in 2013.
Najib has slowly but surely built up political momentum through a series of bold political and economic initiatives in his first 100 days in office.
The fact that he knew he would not have the same honeymoon period enjoyed by Pak Lah after he took over as PM from Dr Mahathir Mohamad has made Najib more focused and increased his sense of urgency to take action on the policy front.
More than a year after taking control of the state legislatures in Penang, Kedah and Selangor, Pakatan has been floundering in these states.
In-fighting among the Pakatan parties in each state have grabbed headlines, from the DAP pullout in Kedah over the imposition of a 50 percent bumiputera quota on new housing developments and the shutting down of a pig abattoir, to the sacking of a PKR leader in Penang over insubordination against the DAP chief minister, to accusations of non-performing executive councillors in the Selangor state government.
A PAS loss in Manek Urai may just be the wake-up call which Pakatan needs in these three states. It would serve as a reminder that these internal disagreements are actually for naught if the result is the failure to retain control of these states in the next general election.
Whether Najib can sustain his focus and pace of economic reform to regain back most or all of the support which Pak Lah lost in 2008 is still debatable. After all, Pak Lah built up a great deal of political momentum in his first 100 days in office which lead to BN’s unparalleled performance in the 2004 general elections.
But Najib’s performance in his first 100 days has convinced me that he is no Pak Lah and that he will not make the same mistakes as Pak Lah. He is fully aware of the consequences of over-promising and then grossly under-delivering.
Even if PAS wins Manek Urai, Najib’s use of populist measures to win back the key constituents – the non-Malay voters, the urban voters, the young voters – which voted in larger numbers against the BN in 2008 is likely to continue.
The issues debated in Manek Urai may have largely been local bread-and-butter issues that are Kelantan specific. But its national significance is anything but. A decreased majority for PAS should serve as a timely warning to Pakatan. A PAS loss would be an even better alarm bell.
ONG KIAN MING is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Duke University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.