Up­hill bat­tle for op­po­si­tion in Ma­hathir’s home state

Pakatan Hara­pan al­ready turn­ing out in force to win over ru­ral Malay vote in Barisan strong­hold of Kedah

The Straits Times - - ASIA - Arlina Arshad In Sik (Kedah)

The gen­eral elec­tion might be months away, but Team Ma­hathir and the op­po­si­tion al­liance are al­ready pulling out all the stops to win the hearts of ru­ral Malay vot­ers in their do-or-die state of Kedah.

For­mer pre­mier Ma­hathir Mo­hamad played to the crowd in Ji­tra town in May when he lashed out against Prime Min­is­ter Na­jib Razak in Kedah-ac­cented Malay, draw­ing laugh­ter and claps.

“Na­jib has de­stroyed ev­ery­thing, de­stroyed his Cab­i­net, his party, the gov­ern­ment and our coun­try. Now we are known as the coun­try of rob­bers,” said the chair­man of Parti Pribumi Ber­satu Malaysia (PPBM). His new Malay party is part of four-party op­po­si­tion coali­tion Pakatan Hara­pan (PH).

Tun Dr Ma­hathir still com­mands a per­sonal fol­low­ing af­ter his decades in rul­ing party Umno, but ques­tions re­main as to whether this will be enough to sweep the op­po­si­tion into power, es­pe­cially given the three-cor­nered bat­tles ex­pected ahead with the rul­ing Barisan Na­sional (BN) al­liance and its Mus­lim-based ally Parti Is­lam SeMalaysia (PAS). In the 2013 elec­tion, most Kedah vot­ers chose BN or PAS.

Negeri Je­la­pang Padi or the Rice Gra­nary State is known for its rolling rice fields and con­ser­va­tive Is­lam. Its ru­ral Malay com­mu­ni­ties are more party-loyal and care more about di­rect ben­e­fits, which gives the up­per hand to par­ties with a well-oiled elec­tion machin­ery and strong grass­roots in­flu­ence such as BN and PAS.

Rice farmer Ma­h­e­sah Omar, 54, who resides in Ayer Hi­tam – the state seat of Dr Ma­hathir’s son Mukhriz – said he would vote for Umno, the main party in BN, as he had done in pre­vi­ous elec­tions.

“I have re­ceived fer­tiliser, pes­ti­cide, a padi mower from them. They fixed my leaky roof too,” he said. “My fam­ily has been vot­ing Umno for gen­er­a­tions, so we are more fa­mil­iar with them.”

In a neigh­bour­ing vil­lage, fer­vent PAS sup­port­ers see the elec­tion as a test of their Is­lamic faith.

“Af­ter I die, God will ask if I chose in­fi­dels or true Mus­lims as my lead­ers on earth. So PAS is my top choice,” said 45-year-old house builder Fauzi Ramli.

PAS assem­bly­man Md Zuki Yu­sof noted its for­mi­da­ble pres­ence among Malays in Kedah. He said: “We stand on Is­lamic prin­ci­ples. PAS won in Kedah be­fore, and peo­ple were im­pressed.”

But the op­po­si­tion al­liance of for­mer po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies – PPBM, Chi­nese-based Demo­cratic Ac­tion Party (DAP), An­war Ibrahim’s Parti Kead­i­lan Rakyat (PKR) and PAS splin­ter party Amanah – are count­ing on more than Dr Ma­hathir to tip the bal­ance in their favour.

The sup­port of non-Malays and ur­ban dwellers, as well as the groundswell of anger against Umno over na­tional is­sues, such as high liv­ing costs, the weak econ­omy, cor­rup­tion and scan­dal-hit 1Malaysia De­vel­op­ment Ber­had, will give them a fair fight­ing chance.

“It is this com­bi­na­tion that forces Umno to not rest on their lau­rels,” In­sti­tute for Democ­racy and Eco­nomic Af­fairs chief Wan Sai­ful Wan Jan told The Straits Times.

But he noted that the fear of los­ing Malay po­lit­i­cal power to eth­nic Chi­nese and Umno’s firm hold over ru­ral fe­male vot­ers “make it very dif­fi­cult for PH to make a con­fi­dent claim on Kedah at this stage”.

BN has an­other big plus in af­fa­ble Kedah Men­teri Be­sar Ah­mad Bashah Md Ha­ni­pah, who re­placed Datuk Seri Mukhriz Ma­hathir in Fe­bru­ary last year.

Even so, Kedah PKR chief Az­man Is­mail is con­fi­dent that PH can se­cure a sim­ple ma­jor­ity of 22 state assem­bly seats and eight par­lia­men­tary seats in Kedah, if it con­tin­ues to en­gage vot­ers over bread-and-but­ter is­sues. That would be a big jump from the eight state assem­bly seats and four par­lia­men­tary seats cur­rently held by the al­liance.

“Our Achilles’ heel will be if we play to the gallery on is­sues of race and re­li­gion,” said Dr Az­man.

In the mean­time, PH lead­ers are work­ing the ground early, de­scend­ing on their ri­vals’ strong­hold con­stituen­cies such as Sik to of­fer free health screen­ings and dis­trib­ute news­let­ters at a wet mar­ket.

Kedah Amanah chief Is­mail Salleh said he had re­ceived taunts from PAS sup­port­ers call­ing him a traitor, a de­fec­tor and an apos­tate, but met no hos­til­ity this time around. DAP assem­bly­man Tan Kok Yew cheer­fully urged passers-by to “re­mem­ber our party lo­gos” un­til he lost his voice.

Their fiery po­lit­i­cal speeches, made at gath­er­ings called ce­ramah, were de­liv­ered at a nearly empty field; only a few dozen party sup­port­ers were there. A sprin­kling of vil­lagers chose to hide in the shad­ows among the trees and bushes, keen to lis­ten but fear­ful of be­ing seen. “I don’t want my neigh­bours to know I am lis­ten­ing – they won’t like it,” a young Malay man on a mo­tor­cy­cle mum­bled be­fore rid­ing away. He re­fused to give his name.

In Kulim town, Dr Ma­hathir found un­likely sup­port in his old foe, DAP vet­eran Lim Kit Siang, who stirred up a cof­fee-shop crowd by say­ing: “Chi­nese tsunami is not enough, In­dian tsunami is not enough, ur­ban tsunami is not enough, we want a Malay tsunami from ru­ral ar­eas!”

In the 2013 elec­tion, a Chi­nese tsunami, re­fer­ring to a Chi­nese voter swing to the op­po­si­tion, was blamed for the gov­ern­ment los­ing the pop­u­lar vote.

Mr Lim told The Straits Times that a Malay tsunami would be “a great chal­lenge, but it’s nonethe­less some­thing that is prob­a­ble and tan­gi­ble”.

BN is not idly stand­ing by. Even though it stands a bet­ter chance of win­ning in three-cor­nered fights, it is also sharp­en­ing its knives for di­rect du­els be­cause “we won’t take any risks”, Kedah Umno Youth chief Shai­ful Haz­izy Zainol Abidin told The Straits Times.

“There’s a lot of change made by the cur­rent lead­er­ship, the morale of the machin­ery is out­stand­ing, and def­i­nitely Kedah will re­main in the hands of Barisan Na­sional,” said Datuk Shai­ful.

Nev­er­the­less, PH is hop­ing that vot­ers will stand be­hind an old star. Take Kedah resident and de­liv­ery-


Dr Ma­hathir Mo­hamad and his son Mukhriz want to win over their home state for the op­po­si­tion al­liance, but face a daunt­ing task from pos­si­ble three-cor­nered fights in­volv­ing BN and its ally PAS. man Abit­ul­lah Daulat, 39, who be­lieves Dr Ma­hathir will help turn his life around. His monthly wages of RM1,800 (S$580) barely cover the bills, so he had to pawn his wife’s jew­ellery for food, util­i­ties and their baby’s milk.

He said: “I want Tun Ma­hathir back as prime min­is­ter. He will bring change. He must not let Kedah peo­ple and Malaysians down.”

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