PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A high-stakes battle in the 14th General Election will be fought in the Malay heartland for 52 parliamentary seats, which have Felda settlements.
The focus will be on 20 seats in Peninsular Malaysia, where an intense fight will be waged. These mainly rural seats form a crucial Malay vote bank that could decide who wins power in the polls.
While the Opposition believes recent developments surrounding Felda have given it an opening, analysts say Barisan Nasional has done enough with its GE14 manifesto to blunt the enemy charge.
Those 20 seats are among 52 "Felda seats" Barisan is defending from a Pakatan Harapan onslaught.
Of the 52 seats, Pakatan holds three: Pagoh, Raub and Kulai. PAS also has three (Kuala Nerus, Dungun and Temerloh) and PSM has one (Sungai Siput).
Amanah supreme council member Mazlan Aliman, when contacted, said Pakatan aimed to win 20 Felda seats this time around.
Mr Mazlan, the National Felda Settlers' Children's Association president, said the Felda seats Pakatan is eyeing in Johor are Tebrau, Simpang Renggam, Labis, Segamat, Sekijang, Tenggara, Pagoh and Kulai.
In Pahang, the Felda hot seats are Bentong, Bera, Cameron Highlands and Raub.
Others include Sungai Siput and Tanjung Malim (Perak); Kubang Pasu and Padang Terap (Kedah); Alor Gajah (Melaka); Jempol and Kuala Pilah (Negri Sembilan); and Dungun (Terengganu).
In the 222-seat Parliament, 114 are regarded as Malay-majority and rural. Barisan now holds 130 seats and Pakatan has 72, followed by PAS (13), Parti Warisan Sabah (two), PSM (one) and independents (two).
Two seats, Jelebu and Paya Besar, are vacant following the deaths of their respective MPs.
The stakes are high because a big victory in Felda seats for Pakatan and a corresponding loss by Barisan could tip the balance of power in the general election.
Pakatan chairman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, PKR president Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and Amanah president Mohamad Sabu would personally campaign in the Felda settlements, said a Pakatan source.
The Opposition grouping's top leaders would be speaking at ceramahs in Negri Sembilan, Terengganu, Johor and Pahang from next week, the source added.
Amanah deputy president Salahuddin Ayub said most Felda settlers used to be hardcore Barisan supporters who would not even allow the Opposition to hold ceramahs in their settlements.
"But for the past six months, we have been surprised by the numbers that turn up at our ceramahs," said Mr Salahuddin.
Felda has 317 settlements with nearly half, or 115, located in Pahang.
There are an estimated 1.2 million Felda voters comprising about 119,000 settlers, their wives, children and grandchildren, as well as employees of Felda and its various companies.
The five parliamentary seats with the most Felda voters are Jempol in Negri Sembilan, Kuala Krau and Rompin (Pahang), as well as Kota Tinggi and Pengerang (Johor).
In Pengerang, for example, 24,300 or 60 per cent of the 40,070 voters are Felda voters.
In Bera, 23,300 (41 per cent) of the 56,600 voters are Felda voters while in Raub, there are 57,000 voters, with 7,300 of them in Felda settlements.
Pakatan claims that recent issues, including the price of Felda Global Ventures (FGV) Holdings shares, the high debt among some settlers and Felda management problems have given them an opening to make inroads into Felda seats.
On the Barisan manifesto which contains many pledges to help Felda settlers, Mr Salahuddin said it would only help prevent hardcore Barisan supporters from switching sides.
"For many others, especially those who are undecided, I believe the manifesto will not be enough and that they will support us," he said.
However, political analyst Associate Professor Datuk Dr Ismail Sualman from Universiti Teknologi Mara believes otherwise.
He said the Barisan manifesto would blunt much of the unhappiness among Felda settlers.
Two particular pledges appealed to the settlers, he added.
They are the RM300 million (S$101 million) special fund to write off extraordinary or extreme debts and the writing off of settlers' debts for the purchase of FGV shares.
"Some, especially among the second generation of settlers, will remain sceptical, but these pledges are attractive to most," said Prof Ismail, adding that those in debt owed Felda up to RM170,000 in some cases.
He said Pakatan would also not have an easy time in Felda seats because settlers who back the Opposition are mainly PAS supporters.
"Many are also uncomfortable with what they see as the dominance of DAP in the Opposition pact despite Dr Mahathir leading Pakatan," Prof Ismail added.