Battleground states

PAS, after six elections, seen losing grip in Kelantan

Malaysia is gearing up for its next general election, amid speculation that it could be held within months. The nationwide polls must be called by August next year. In the second in a series of reports on battleground states that are expected to see fierce contests, The Straits Times looks at the east coast state of Kelantan.

International Trade and Industry Minister Mustapa Mohamed (seated, second from left), of the ruling Umno, mingling with villagers as part of his visit to Kampung Kelaboran in Tumpat, Kelantan, yesterday. Although the opposition PAS currently controls
International Trade and Industry Minister Mustapa Mohamed (seated, second from left), of the ruling Umno, mingling with villagers as part of his visit to Kampung Kelaboran in Tumpat, Kelantan, yesterday. Although the opposition PAS currently controls 31 of the 45 seats in the state assembly, more than half of the 45 seats were won in narrow majorities during the last general election.PHOTO: FOTOBERNAMA

Malaysian state has declined economically under Muslim party and voters are rethinking their political convictions.

During the 1980s, a popular joke in Malaysia's north-eastern Kelantan state went something like this: Even a blind man in a car would know when he crossed the border into neighbouring Pahang or Terengganu because of the bumpier ride on the uneven and pot-marked roads.

These days, people in this fiercely parochial state admit that the joke is on them.

"It used to be different here and we looked down on the other (states)," noted chicken supplier Mohd Sakri Husain, who lives in Renok Baru, a small town located about 180km from the Kelantan capital of Kota Baru, as he took a drag on a rolled cigarette. "Now our economy is weak and young people have to leave Kelantan to look for work."

Malaysia's main Muslim opposition party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), won Kelantan in 1990 from Umno.

Now, 27 years and six general elections later, Kelantanese such as 37- year-old Mr Mohd Sakri are beginning to question their political convictions, which have long leaned towards religious sentiments at the expense of economic development.

Under PAS, Kelantan has become one of Malaysia's most economically shabby states, and the party's failure to deliver on the promise of melding Islamic ideals with sound economic management is looming large in the minds of voters here, ahead of polls that could be called some time in the next six months.

While business activity is brisk in the state capital of Kota Baru, signs of neglect abound in much of rural Kelantan, where agriculture is the mainstay.

Abandoned wooden houses on stilts are commonplace along the state's main trunk road, while newly completed shop lots stay vacant because of the sluggish economy and poor purchasing power. Much of the rural local economy is kept afloat with remittances from Kelantanese working in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, residents here said.

Polling houses have estimated that at least 15 per cent of Kelantan voters are workers based outside the state. Scars from the state's worst flooding in history in late 2014 are also plain to see. The railway station in the small town of Manik Urai which was washed away by rampaging water surges three years ago is still in the early stages of reconstruction.

Many residents around the area - such as restaurant helper Rozilawati Ibrahim - who lost homes in the flood and have yet to receive any assistance from the state government are also frustrated.


"I do not care very much about politics because I have to put food on the table. But I know which party I would not vote for," said Ms Rozilawati, who has a son and whose husband is bedridden after a recent heart attack.

Leaders from PAS and a recently formed breakaway faction called Parti Amanah Negara were coy about commenting on their respective election prospects.

But Datuk Kamarudin Jaafar, the MP for the Kelantan constituency of Tumpat and senior leader of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), acknowledged the grim outlook for the opposition.

He noted that Kelantan's economic despair, the general fatigue over the prolonged politicking in Malaysia and the split in the opposition alliance are likely to work against the opposition not just in Kelantan, but also in the rest of Malaysia. "Unless the opposition can come to some agreement on seat-sharing and avoid three-cornered fights, PAS will likely lose Kelantan and the opposition could face trouble in the rest of the country," he said in a phone interview.

That is because the prospect of three-cornered fights in the upcoming polls, particularly across much of the all-important rural Malay heartland, would benefit the ruling Umno and the Barisan Nasional coalition which it leads.

While ties between PAS and Umno have warmed in the past two years, no give and take on Kelantan should be expected.

PAS currently controls 31 of the 45 seats in the state assembly, Umno controls 11, and PKR and Amanah hold one each. One seat is vacant after an assemblyman was declared bankrupt.

But while the PAS dominance in the state assembly may appear unassailable, the reality is that more than half of the 45 state assembly seats were won in narrow majorities in the 2013 General Election, which saw straight fights between the opposition and Umno.

A loss in Kelantan would severely cripple PAS and marginalise it to the fringes of national politics.

Conversations with ordinary Kelantanese in dusty villages and towns amid rice paddies and rolling hills in the rural state suggest that the battle in the coming election is very much an Umno-PAS affair. This is despite the two-year-old Amanah hoping to make a big splash in Kelantan, with former top PAS leaders now leading the new party.

But analysts say Amanah could end up splitting the opposition vote, as happened in the 2016 Sungai Besar by-election in Selangor. In Sungai Besar, PAS won 22 per cent of the vote, Amanah 24 per cent, and Umno emerged the victor with 53 per cent.

Still, many in Kelantan are unsure about how they will decide in the coming election. Mr Kamarulzaman Bakar, a 59-year-old cobbler who works out of a small temporary shed on a road corner in the PAS stronghold town of Manik Urai, said he is indifferent as to whether power goes to Umno or PAS. "This land is for Muslims and whoever rules must be Muslim," he said, as he stitched a new rubber sole on a worn-out pair of sandals.

In its victory quest, Umno is also banking on International Trade and Industry Minister Mustapa Mohamed, who has for years been working the ground in his home state and is well liked.

Additionally, backed by strong funding from Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's federal government, Umno has moved to provide development assistance in the form of cash handouts, school fees and repaving damaged roads in villages and towns where support for Umno is growing.

"The next election will not be decided on which party you want to vote (for), but rather what we can get. Umno's assistance is something we can taste and that will be a big factor," said Mr Azmi Sabaruddin, a 34-year-old businessman who runs a small roadside stall in the town of Machang.

Key players in Kelantan politics

Here are the main political players in Malaysia's east coast state of Kelantan, often dubbed Serambi Mekah, or Mecca's Verandah, by ethnic Muslim Malays drawn to its conservative Islamic way of life.

Menteri Besar Ahmad Yakob, 67

He was appointed chief minister after the 2013 election, to replace the popular Nik Aziz Nik Mat, who died in 2015.

Datuk Ahmad is also the deputy spiritual leader of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).

He is widely seen as being an aloof leader who lacks the charisma of the late Nik Aziz, who led Kelantan for 23 years.

Deputy Menteri Besar Mohd Amar Abdullah, 58

The former Islamic teacher is one of the three vice-presidents of PAS.

Deeply conservative in outlook, Datuk Mohd Amar is seen as an ambitious player at both the national and state levels.

Mustapa Mohamed, 66

He is Malaysia's International Trade and Industry Minister and Umno's Kelantan chief.

The mild-mannered politician is widely considered one of Umno's most powerful in the east coast state and is well liked by the public.

Several Umno warlords in Kelantan are pushing for Datuk Seri Mustapa to be named as the party's pick for chief minister should it retake the state, a move that analysts say would boost Umno's chances.

Husam Musa, 57

A former finance minister of Kelantan, Datuk Husam fell out of favour with the state leadership following the death of his mentor Nik Aziz Nik Mat.

And the Kelantan palace does not currently favour him either.

Mr Husam now heads the PAS breakaway faction known as Parti Amanah Negara.

Nik Abduh Nik Aziz, 47

The up-and-coming PAS politician is also a son of the late Nik Aziz Nik Mat.

The federal Member of Parliament and former PAS Youth chief commands the support of the party's clerics because of his hardline political style. He does not have a seat in the Kelantan legislature.

He was trounced in an internal party election in March for a divisional position, which reflects a lack of popular support in the state.

Leslie Lopez

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2017, with the headline 'PAS, after six elections, seen losing grip in Kelantan'. Print Edition | Subscribe