COMMENT | The 14th General Election can be argued to be a battle for the Malay soul, with Pakatan Harapan calling for a ‘Malay tsunami’, BN rallying Malay nationalism on the ground while promising more ‘goodies’, and PAS pushing its ‘choose Islam’ agenda.
Nowhere is this battle more apparent than in the beautiful states of Terengganu and Kelantan. Making up only eight and 14 parliamentary seats respectively, or a total of 10 percent of the seats nationally, the number belie how critical they are for the political landscape.
In part, this is due to the intense level of political competition, with large numbers of competitive seats and both having had repeated changes in governments. More important, however, is the fact that these areas will determine the role that PAS will play on the national stage as either the victor or vanquished.
Pundits and pollsters have already repeatedly called Kelantan for BN, and applied this similar outlook to Terengganu, predicting BN will win the majority of parliamentary seats. On the ground, voting trends are harder to call, especially at the state level.
The sentiments do not have to do with the same political struggles in the Malay community elsewhere, namely battling a sense of disloyalty to UMNO and anger with the perceived excesses of the Najib administration in a climate of broad perceived economic hardship.
Rather, in these east coast states, the question of loyalty is one of long-standing family ties to either PAS or UMNO, and the sense of failures at the state leadership levels. Hardship and daily struggle are sadly an integral part of life in these areas, as development, social problems and poverty remain concerns for large shares of the populations.
While both those from Terengganu and Kelantan are well connected to developments outside, they have strong inward political orientations as local factors predominate. There is less attention to what is happening nationally, and as such, Harapan candidates and parties have limited traction, although the issues raised in rallies and on social media have permeated local discussions.
Messages and memories
The contests are largely between PAS and Umno, as these two parties have framed the competition for decades. Harapan’s campaign is only resonating significantly in urban areas, notably Kota Bharu where is has a chance of winning. BN chief Najib Abdul Razak’s picture is noticeably absent on the east coast, especially in Kelantan.
Ordinary citizens in these two states repeatedly speak of a common set issues in the campaign – Islam, GST, development, corruption and state leaders – Terengganu’s Abdul Hadi Awang and Ahmad Razif Abdul Rahman, and Kelantan’s Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah and Mustapa Mohamed.
These tap into the different messages.
PAS has adopted a campaign focused on religion, openly calling for electing an ulama leadership who comprise the majority of their fielded candidates in both states and framing a vote for their party as a religious duty.
Unlike the ‘defend Islam’ message elsewhere in multi-ethnic areas, here PAS pushes more of an empowerment and community mission. Their campaign has been low-key, focused on fence sitters, tied to sermons and conducted in smaller ceramah.
After the split with Amanah, the party has aimed to reconsolidate its political machinery, severely weakened after key leaders left and later joined the Harapan coalition. Quietly, PAS has sent out the message that this election is also about the future of the party, as predictions of BN winning Kelantan have provoked defensive ‘survivalist’ mobilisation from the party faithful. In Terengganu, there is a direct appeal to assure ‘Hadi’s legacy’.
BN in contrast has pushed hard its commitment to ‘development,’ focusing on the economy. Fielding the popular UMNO technocrat Mustapa Mohamed (photo), or Tok Pa as he is affectionately known, as a possible BN Menteri Besar has won support.
Posters across the state showcase promises of projects and spending to come with a potential BN Kelantan win. Mustapa’s hard work in Jeli is testimony to how a politician can positively transform a district, as it is arguably one of the most vibrant industrial and education centres in Kelantan despite its remote location.
BN is capitalising on the apparent weakness of PAS’ state leadership, whose governance since the passing of Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, or Tok Guru, in 2015 have shown little in the way of development or direction for the state. PAS has governed Kelantan for 28 years and it is more vulnerable to losing the state than ever before.
In Terengganu, the BN ‘development’ call has less appeal, as UMNO has held the state government since 2004. Many of its projects have been ridiculed for overspending and accused of corruption. GST and high costs of living work in PAS’ favour. The promises for greater rewards appear hollow, although harder working BN MPs in the north and south continue to have support.
The centre of the state has the most heated contests. A recent example of a heavily criticised project is the RM3.3 million amphibious bus (Amphicoach) that was accidentally broken when the Terengganu MB drove it in March. This analogy is being touted as illustrative of UMNO’s sinking fortunes at the state level.
Amidst these contrasting messages are even more sentimental and powerful memories of the past. In Kelantan, Tok Guru is very much featured. Harapan has undercut PAS’ connection to Tok Guru by fielding Nik Omar Nik Aziz, the spitting image of his father in his younger years.
Nik Omar’s (photo) appeal is stronger outside of Kelantan than inside, and he appeared very late in the campaign, but it speaks to how powerful the memory of Tok Guru remains.
While Dr Mahathir Mohamad has made multiple visits – including visiting Kelantan today – the memories of his tenure are not as positive as elsewhere in Malaysia. Here there is a sense that the east coast was left out of the development of the Mahathir era.
In Terengganu, the most potent memory is of 1999 when PAS took over power of the state for the second time. Then there was a deeply unpopular Menteri Besar, Wan Mokhtar Ahmad, who was caricatured as paralleling the rule of Mahathir at that time. Caretake Menteri Besar Ahmad Razif Abdul Rahman is also being quietly labelled as Najib’s political stooge, and sentiment against Najib is being directed at him.
Little Napoleans and power plays
This dynamic is being fueled by continued speculation of a deal between PAS and UMNO over Terengganu, tied to the perceived close personal and political relationship between Hadi and Najib. Talk is that seats are to go to BN at the parliament level while the state government is to be ‘given’ to PAS. This is seen as a parliamentary safety net for Najib if the overall election is close.
Both sides adamantly deny any deal. Questions remain, however, given the weak candidates being fielded in some BN seats, especially in Hadi Awang’s own parliamentary seat of Marang. The Terengganu PAS campaign is also flush with cash, with a record number of flags and slick posters – quite different than those in number and scope in Kelantan or earlier Terengganu campaigns – and alleged reports of handouts on the ground.
To complicate the Terengganu situation is the continued infighting over the menteri besar position in the state within UMNO. Razif (photo) has yet to consolidate his position and support, as others continue to believe they deserve the position.
Ahmad Said, the former incumbent in BN, remains a powerful figure and could very well hold state power in the balance. People speak of the ‘Little Napoleon’ problem, in which many people believe they deserve positions. There is a similar infighting in Kelantan within PAS which remains factionalised.
Within Terengganu (and across the country), there are accusations that Hadi is packing the party with his own men. Fielding his current political secretary Dr Ahmad Samsuri as a potential PAS Terengganu menteri besar in his own constituency has led to calls that ‘New Turks’ are rising in the party hierarchy.
Hadi has fielded his son-in-law, ustaz Mohd Akmal Kamarudin, in Selama, Perak (where he lost narrowly in 2013), although other his son-in-law in Selangor, Zaharuddin Muhammad, was dropped after fierce internal party opposition. Charges of nepotism percolate quietly as many hard-working members on the ground have been overlooked with the Najib-like loyalist candidate selections on the part of the Hadi-led campaign.
The power plays occurring within the Islamist party go beyond individual states, as the Terengganu leadership under Hadi appears to be aiming to finally move the party’s leadership to their state. Long left out (especially in 2008), Terengganu PAS has been subservient to Kelantan. This time round a loss of Kelantan would work to their advantage. As such, complaints rumble in Kelantan that their state is being ignored in the GE14 campaign, financially and otherwise.
As with Najib’s post-election contest in UMNO, PAS’ leadership will face a reckoning for their campaign decisions within the party.
Most see this as Hadi’s (photo) last general election as PAS President.
He is facing criticism for his relationship with Najib, charges of using UMNO money and accusations of a sell-out of principles of good governance – all denied by the leadership. At the same time, he is lauded as a hero within the party faithful for the focus on a ‘pure’ religious agenda and his staunch defence of the faith. A delivery of Terengganu into PAS’ hands would entrench his legacy, especially if the losses in Kelantan are minimised.
The current PAS leadership cares little for victories on the west coast. They do not see these losses as a potential vanquishment. It is quite the opposite – they would have potentially sacrificed these seats for the greater good. Despite even if they lose half of the seats the party current holds, PAS will continue to be an important player on the national stage – and if they win more than 10 seats in GE14, it will be a key player in the post-election scenarios.
Terengganu and Kelantan contests will come down to primarily party loyalties, followed by personal candidate assessments. The outside voters returning home (estimated at 10 percent and 30 percent of the states’ overall voters respectively) will be reduced considerably due to the Wednesday polling day and registration of party members as voters in Selangor and other states.
Terengganu leans at the state level to PAS, and Kelantan to UMNO, but frankly given the closeness of the contests and the number of highly competitive seats at the state level, it is too close to call. Young voters are the crucial group and contribute to the leans above, as they favour change in both states.
The parliament seats to watch are Kuala Terengganu, Kuala Nerus, Dungun (in Terengganu), Kota Bharu, Machang, Tumpat, and Pasir Mas (in Kelantan). Look out for considerable split voting, a pattern long evident in Kelantan and likely to occur in Terengganu as well this election. Expect a few surprises, as this is the norm.
Irrespective of the outcomes, Terengganu and Kelantan’s elections embody the different ambitions of Malaysia’s political actors. Najib and Hadi are very much relying on these outcomes for political leverage. The ambitions of citizens in these states are however what will determine the outcomes. Neither side can control the sentiments on the ground, and these are strongly held and will come out on Wednesday.
BRIDGET WELSH is an Associate Professor of Political Science at John Cabot University in Rome. She also continues to be a Senior Associate Research Fellow at National Taiwan University’s Center for East Asia Democratic Studies and The Habibie Center, as well as a University Fellow of Charles Darwin University. Her latest book (with co-author Greg Lopez) is entitled Regime Resilience in Malaysia and Singapore. She is following the Malaysian GE14 2018 campaign on the ground and providing her analyses exclusively to Malaysiakini readers. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.
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