|Gains and losses in Manek Urai|
Kelantan has always been a state for surprises and the slim victory by PAS is an excellent example. Despite PAS claiming a whopping 2,000 majority one hour before the close of polls, when the results were counted, PAS squeaked through with an embarrassing 65 majority.
While some would say, a small victory is still a victory and point to PAS win in Manek Urai as the fifth loss for BN since March 2008, the reality is that this by-election is a serious loss for the opposition.
It shows that the opposition has lost ground in the Malay heartland, the traditional base of political power. It extends the gains Umno won among Malays in the Bukit Gantang election, and provides badly-needed momentum for Najib Abdul Razak’s government.
While the implications of this contest are important at the national level, the campaign itself was very much a local dynamic.
The fight on the ground was fiercely contested as each party attempted to win over the 12,293 voters, often visiting the estimated 1,200 undecided voters more than five times in a 10-day campaign. These voters, along with the estimated 1,700 living outside of the area were decisive in the outcome.
PAS had the advantage in this traditionally ‘safe seat’ and it showed on the ground as the presence of green flags dominated the terrain in this rural constituency. They embraced their local advantage and organised their campaign around Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the party’s spiritual leader and beloved menteri besar.
PAS miscalculates the ground
The sea of green, especially on polling day when supporters poured in, fostered a sense of overconfidence. In contrast, the Umno machinery worked quietly as it established its base in a makeshift tent that provided an air-conditioned oasis for reporters and outsider party workers.
Umno was on a mission to burnish its reputation and this translated into a zeal as it focused on campaigning strategically.
The Umno big guns stayed away in what was perceived to be a losing battle, leaving the diehards to work the ground.
Even on polling day, when leaders left the constituency early, Umno knew it faced an uphill battle and expected defeat despite their campaigning.
The closeness came as a surprise to all sides, especially PAS who severely miscalculated the ground.
The campaign itself lacked the level of intensity of other Umno-PAS contests. Most of the campaigning involved house-to-house networking. The large ceramah featuring Pakatan Rakyat leaders drew more outsiders than locals as the battle was fought through face-to-face interactions rather than oratory skills.
There were two parallel set of issues – those discussed openly and those behind closed doors.
The former included the long-standing (and somewhat) stale contrast between religion and development (manifested over the discussion of the Manek Urai Lama bridge), the Terengganu-transplanted discussion on the failure by the federal government to pay RM1 billion royalty to the state, and perceived corruption on the part of Umno and its credibility in governance.
Umno did not present itself as the secular alternative, but portrayed itself as Islamic, reflecting its increasing efforts to embrace religion as part of its own identity. Relying on regional identity, PAS consistently appealed to the uniqueness of the Kelantanese, stressing the need for the state to continue to be ruled by the Islamic party. None of these issues were new as the lines of support in Kelantan have been long established.
Money helps win the day
The new dimension was the intensity of the behind-the-scenes campaign.
Here Umno focused on promoting Malay rights. Pamphlets attacking Pakatan were quietly circulated – against Selangor exco Elizabeth Wong, the issue of the pig farm in Kedah, land allocation in Perak, and the alleged increase influence of non-Malays.
Umno continued the tactic used in Bukit Gantang of using racial fear to mobilise support. This practice appears to be a defining practice of the Najib-Muhyiddin team.
The contest was about the respective parties, not the candidates. Both parties slated strong candidates who were well-respected, despite the differences in their education levels. They have integrity and are viewed as trustworthy, and both were local successes. As such, the Umno attack on the background of PAS candidate Mohamad Fauzi Abdullah only consolidated existing support rather than alienated voters.
Another key dimension was the use of funds. Manek Urai was not spared the flow of goodies as money was almost thrown at the voters – from the payment of transport allowance to the usual “grant” to households which ranged on average from RM100 to RM500. Polling station results show that these did have an effect.
In 2008, PAS won every polling station but Manjor. This round it lost in five areas. In at least two of these – Temalir and Laloh – Umno concentrated its fund allocation efforts at the micro-level. Gains were also made in Manek Urai Lama where the bridge was promised.
But it is important to note that Umno made gains in every polling station area. The gains were also in among the poorest areas of the constituency.
Livelihoods in this rural constituency have been badly affected by an almost 40 percent drop in rubber prices. The average income level in this area is less than RM1,000 a month.
The funds from the campaign were sorely needed, and many pragmatic voters responded to the offers. They understood that this election would not affect the balance of state or national power, and since it was considered a safe PAS seat, even traditional PAS supporters opted for the added income.
As was shown in Pendang in 2002, by-election patronage can be potent in low-income rural constituencies, even in those with strong PAS machinery on the ground.
First real test for Muhyiddin
One forgets however that the by-election advantage is not just about money, it is also about focus.
The relatively small size of Manek Urai allowed both parties to concentrate their efforts in certain areas. Working through the usual network of local leaders, religious networks, teachers and the local business community, each party honed these connections in order to influence voters. Umno particularly relied on these links and this gave the party a boost.
Manek Urai was comparatively more important for Umno, especially the deputy prime minister. This was the first major test of Muhyiddin Yassin as the campaign coordinator for Umno and he passed favourably. He was thrown to the wolves in Bukit Gantang, and was searching for redemption in Manek Urai.
Muhyiddin was not as hands-on as Najib, but he set the issues in place and pushed the campaign along. Arriving by helicopter regularly, Muhyiddin campaigned hard, changing the tactics systematically as the campaign evolved.
This was one of PAS’s major mistakes. They did not substantively evolve with the campaign. Instead it relied on a few messages from the onset and did not change effectively as the ground shifted. Perhaps blinded by overconfidence or too much faith in their own messages, they lost track of the pulse of the campaign as it changed.
Umno set the campaign momentum, not PAS. This disconnect ultimately contributed to the loss of support for PAS.
Unity talks undermine PAS support
One reason for this disconnect lay with divisions within PAS. It would be a mistake to say that this was a major factor for voters. Kelantanese voters – like most voters in Malaysia – carefully and clearly distinguish between Umno and PAS even if some of their leaders do not. Manek Urai voters did not comprehend the unity talks at all, describing them as illogical and unfeasible.
Nevertheless, the push for Malay unity has severely undermine support for PAS among its traditional supporters. The divisions within PAS provided a distraction and weakened cooperation. Noticeably there was less congeniality among leaders, with some staying away altogether. The PAS Kelantan-Terengganu (non-unity versus unity talks) tensions were real and persist despite claims to the contrary.
There was one interesting dynamic on the ground where these tensions spilled over.
Manek Urai voters made a clear distinction between Tok Guru Nik Aziz and PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, opting often to openly leave the latter’s speeches early.
The cool reception toward Hadi Awang reflected symbolically a response to the internal conflict, but also represented the substantive differences in outlook between the leadership of PAS in both states.
Described as “sombong”, extremist and always lecturing, Hadi Awang did not get the same level of adoration of the Kelantanese spiritual leader. This by-election showed that PAS cannot escape the need to resolve the differences within the party and will have to find a balance that reaches the most voters.
With claims that the distraction undermined Pakatan cooperation and knocked PAS off its game, the resolution of internal differences is now more pressing than ever, not just for PAS but for the Pakatan opposition as a whole.
Opposition’s message getting stale
Manek Urai has been described as a turning point for Umno and a wake-up call for the opposition. It is more the latter than the former.
For Umno, the turning point occurred in Perak where the party has started to realise the need for a new way of campaigning on the ground. It has opted for a dangerous racially-loaded path, but simultaneously improved its use of technology, posters and organisational coordination. Manek Urai has indeed given Umno a new shine.
The contest showed that the opposition has relied too long on the messages of March 2008.
Its messaging is getting stale and there is growing ambivalence toward the opposition as a whole as shown by the recent Merdeka Centre poll and confirmed on the ground in Manek Urai.
The reliance of PAS on campaigning around one man, Tok Guru, adds to the party’s vulnerability electorally.
When the votes were counted, Umno won this ‘pearl’ symbolically. Whether Manek Urai will be the first jewel for Umno or a solitary treasure remains to be seen, but, most certainly, it showed PAS and Pakatan that nothing should be taken for granted.
BRIDGET WELSH is Associate Professor of Political Science at Singapore Management University. She was recently in the Manek Urai by-election and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.