KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 30 - Get ready for a monster of a by-election in Kuala Terengganu.
The death of Deputy Education Minister and Barisan Nasional MP Datuk Razali Ismail has set the stage for an electoral contest which will not alter the overall position of power in Malaysia but is pregnant with meaning for all the major players of politics here.
# Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak:
By convention, the deputy prime minister heads the BN machinery during by-elections. But this will be no ordinary jaunt for Najib. The Opposition will turn the contest into a referendum for the country’s prime minister-in-waiting and there will be no place for him to hide from the insults and gloomy analyses if Pakatan Rakyat snares the parliamentary constituency seat.
Kuala Terengganu will be different from the last contest in Permatang Pauh for a sprinkling of reasons.
Reason 1: Unlike Permatang Pauh, this is a seat which has been held by BN for the last two elections, albeit tenuously. In 1999, at the peak of the fallout over the sacking of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim from government, Pas candidate Dr Syed Azman Syed Nawawi thrashed BN’s Datuk Abu Bakar Daud by a yawning margin of 14.448 votes.
Four years later, the popular Razali was fielded as a candidate there and he regained the seat for the ruling coalition by 1,933 votes. He retained the Kuala Terengganu seat by 628 votes on March 8.
In short, except for 1999-2004, this seat has been owned by the BN. In contrast, Permatang Pauh has been Anwar’s stronghold and remained in the hands of his proxy when he was in jail or ineligible to contest.
Reason 2: When BN contested the by-election in Permatang Pauh in August, there was still uncertainty over Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi’s future as prime minister. Blame for Anwar’s stunning victory was laid at his feet with pundits and Umno politicians saying that the PM’s unpopularity on the ground and lack of leadership were reasons for the limp performance of the Umno machinery.
Well, Abdullah is on his way out and a defeat for BN in Kuala Terengganu, or even a victory by a smaller margin than 628 votes, will have to be borne by Najib alone.
This by-election will not be about Abdullah’s track record (that story is done and dusted). This contest will be a bellwether of Najib’s ability to galvanise the troops on the ground and convince the voters that he is the future of the country. If BN does not deliver in Kuala Terengganu, he will not be able to seek refuge behind Abdullah’s weaknesses. Not this time.
# Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim:
Despite the brave talk at the Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s congress and festival of rhetoric about taking over control of the Federal Government, the Opposition leader knows that there have been more question marks over his ability to keep Pakatan Rakyat together in the last month than at any time after March 8.
It is not just BN politicians or the mainstream media that have raised red flags over his statements. Even the foreign press - longtime supporters of his more open and inclusive agenda - are settling down to the belief that Anwar will have to play the role of Opposition leader till the next general election.
Anwar needs a strong showing in Kuala Terengganu to inject fresh belief and enthusiasm into a coalition that has yet to agree on a common platform and is in danger of self-destructing over ideological differences.
Still, the consummate political player knows that one victory could lift the mood in Pakatan Rakyat, reduce BN’s comfort zone in Parliament by another seat, and put BN and Najib on the defensive.
More importantly, a strong showing by the Pakatan Rakyat in Kuala Terengganu will convince Malaysians that reverses suffered by BN/Umno in March were not solely due to Indians and Chinese voting with their feet, but also the result of more discerning Malay voters, even in rural Malaysia.
Kuala Terengganu is a 90 per cent Malay constituency. On a more personal level, this by-election is a battle of Anwar versus Najib. The battle between the man who believes that he is destined to become the prime minister against the man who has the top job in his clutches.
# Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas):
Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, Datuk Mustafa Ali and the powerful Terengganu faction of Pas have had a difficult time living down the loss of state to BN in 2004.
After just one term in office, they were booted out. And despite all the brave talk of wresting control of the state on March 8, spurred no doubt by infighting among Umno politicians in Terengganu, Hadi and his team still failed.
In the months following Election 2008, the Terengganu faction has had some difficulty exerting their influence on the party. They have had some serious reservations over Anwar’s tactics and have favoured a rapprochement with Umno. But they have had to yield to those in Pas who believe that it better to work with Anwar and the Democratic Action Party than with the “cruel and greedy’’ people of Umno.
Another defeat for Pas in Kuala Terengganu could end Datuk Mustafa Ali’s tenure as the election strategist of the party and blunt any offensive the Terengganu faction is planning to launch before next year’s party assembly.