Kedah and Johor high-stakes states in Malaysian elections

The future of former PM Mahathir's party and Chinese Barisan parties hangs in the balance. Selangor, too, may have a hung state assembly.

Looking in from the outside, Kedah looks like a coconut tree that is about to snap in the wind.

And if you are the sort glued to an armchair and addicted to Twitter and Facebook, it is likely that you have decided by now that Kedah will fall in the general election.

What more with the larger-than-life personality of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad looming in the foreground and his son Mukhriz Mahathir poised to reclaim the Menteri Besar post.

Gigantic banners of Dr Mahathir, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail gaze down from Pakatan Harapan's campaign centre on the fringe of Alor Setar.

Then, you start going around, watching the way the Barisan Nasional and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) machinery, especially their women's wings, have been combing the ground, and you begin to have second thoughts.

The Muslimat wings of PAS and Wanita Umno lend credence to the saying that women hold up half the sky. No other party on the other side of the political divide has a comparable election machinery or the women power of these two parties.

Add to that the Umno war chest and it may explain why Menteri Besar Ahmad Bashah Md Hanipah seems upbeat about the ruling coalition's prospects in the polls, to the extent of predicting that Barisan will hold on to Langkawi.

A market in the Johor state capital, Johor Baru. The DAP has launched a strategic and aggressive campaign to capture more seats and bring down the MCA's top echelon in Johor, says the writer.
A market in the Johor state capital, Johor Baru. The DAP has launched a strategic and aggressive campaign to capture more seats and bring down the MCA's top echelon in Johor, says the writer. PHOTO: REUTERS

All these factors make the narrative on the Kedah ground more complex than a story of a coconut tree swaying in the wind.

GRUDGE FIGHT

Analysts have described the upcoming general election as a fight for the Malay vote, but in Johor it will be a ruthless fight for Chinese supremacy. For Johor to fall, the Malay seats have to fall. It is apparent by now that Pribumi and Amanah can do some damage to Umno but will be unable to knock down the Umno fortress.

Nevertheless, everyone will be watching Kedah in the general election because where and how the wind blows may determine the political future of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia and two of its biggest names.

The thinking in Pribumi is that winning Kedah would vindicate the way Datuk Seri Mukhriz was removed as Menteri Besar and it will be sweet revenge even if Pakatan cannot get Putrajaya. The father-and-son pair have much to gain if they capture Kedah. At the same time, it will be game over for their party if they do not win any seats.

The coconut tree looks slender and vulnerable but only a hurricane can uproot it and, to date, there is no sign of a hurricane or Malay tsunami. In fact, most of the mass gatherings so far have been on the PAS side. It seems to be able to bring out the numbers, even in Selangor where its recent gathering in a Shah Alam stadium filled the entire field. It has held such gatherings in every state to show it is not to be taken lightly.

The other thing is that Dr Mahathir's age keeps getting in the way. Pakatan's prime minister nominee is still trying to convince Malaysians that he is up to the top job. One of his acolytes posted a picture of Dr Mahathir driving in the blinding rain as proof that he still has what it takes.

But the thing is that being 92 leaves you little room to manoeuvre no matter how many rainy-day drives you make or how many horses you can ride or how long you can stand to make a speech.

Dr Mahathir should just stop reacting to his age and focus on convincing the Malays to come along because that was why he was recruited into Pakatan - to woo the Malay votes.

CHINESE SUPREMACY BATTLES

So much attention has been showered on Johor, Pakatan's front-line state. The Democratic Action Party (DAP) has launched a strategic and aggressive campaign to capture more seats and bring down the top echelon of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) in Johor. Its chief target is MCA deputy president Wee Ka Siong in Ayer Hitam.

The Chinese vernacular media has gone to town on it - not just because it is about Chinese politics but also because of its implications for the community. If DAP succeeds, it would spell the end of MCA, leaving only a single party representing the Chinese. It is an exciting idea for those who support DAP but it worries those who believe in check and balance in politics.

The president of Gerakan, Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong, is also facing a daunting contest in Teluk Intan against Perak DAP superstar Nga Kor Ming.

Given that Barisan is widely expected to hold on to federal power, it could also mean that there would be no Chinese representation in the government.

"People feel like they are watching a movie, assassins sent in to finish off the enemy," said a Chinese lawyer.

Analysts have described the upcoming general election as a fight for the Malay vote, but in Johor it will be a ruthless fight for Chinese supremacy. For Johor to fall, the Malay seats have to fall. It is apparent by now that Pribumi and Amanah can do some damage to Umno but will be unable to knock down the Umno fortress.

Kelantan is far more shaky. The contest in Kelantan and Terengganu will be between the green (PAS) and blue (Barisan) parties.

Dr Mahathir has failed to create any ripples in these two Malay states, which carry a total of 22 parliamentary seats, but Amanah has some presence in Kelantan and could cause some trouble for PAS in its bid to hold on for a sixth term.

 
 

Moreover, this will be PAS' first general election without Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, and his successor, Datuk Ahmad Yaakob, reportedly wants to retire.

Perak, where Barisan has a three-seat majority, cannot afford to be too complacent given that Dr Mahathir has been drawing huge Malay crowds at his events. Barisan leaders have tried to brush it off, saying crowds do not necessarily translate into votes. But there are bound to be those who come to listen and go home converted.

Barisan in Johor has begun its own show of numbers and it must have been quite intimidating for its opponents. The women launched their election machinery last weekend with Barisan Wanita chief Shahrizat Abdul Jalil announcing that Menteri Besar Khaled Nordin had indicated that 30 per cent of the candidates would be women.

That sent the women into a boisterous and rather unladylike round of cheering and shouting.

This weekend was the turn of the state Barisan and it was even bigger. The reality of Pakatan taking on Barisan in Johor should have sunk in by now.

A Pakatan insider said the DAP strategy in Johor may have failed to take into account the Malay psyche and cultural thinking in the state. The Bangsa Johor sentiment is going strong and DAP's strategy to bring in its big guns from outside may not sit well with the political landscape.

DAP, said the Pakatan insider, is so caught up in its onslaught on Johor that it is not giving enough attention to defending Selangor.

SELANGOR TROUBLES

"Selangor is the jewel state, it is in greater danger than Johor," said the insider.

This is the state Barisan is hungriest to recapture. The state is in the hands of the four-member Pakatan alliance, comprising Pribumi, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), DAP and Parti Amanah Negara.

Pakatan's Chinese support is still solid but in order for it to hold on to Selangor, it needs to win the Malay seats that were won by PAS in 2013.

However, Pribumi and Amanah do not seem to have been able to fill the hole left behind by PAS.

Pribumi has been unable to establish a presence in Selangor; it does not have big and credible names in the state. Pribumi has also been allocated Malay seats in Umno strongholds that it has little chance of winning.

Selangor has 56 state seats and either side needs a minimum of 29 seats to form a simple majority government. Pakatan is assured of 27 seats while Barisan is said to be confident of 22 state seats.

If the wind fails to pick up for Pakatan, Selangor may be staring at the prospect of a hung assembly, with PAS in the role of kingmaker. Pakatan's strength lies in the urban seats while Barisan and PAS hold sway in the semi-urban seats.

Barisan has a slight advantage this time around. There is quite little infighting in Barisan compared to Pakatan, where there is a cold war between Selangor DAP chief Tony Pua and the state Menteri Besar Azmin Ali and a deep split within two factions in PKR.

DAP's attempt to contest an additional two seats in mixed ethnic areas is widely seen as a bid to put up Malay faces whom it can later present as candidates for the Menteri Besar post.

However, the Menteri Besar is a political animal. He is manoeuvring to secure more winnable seats for his own party so that PKR will have the numbers to lead Pakatan to form a simple majority government and the jackpot that comes with it - the Menteri Besar post.

But the wind had better pick up for Pakatan or else it will be high political drama at the palace gates in Selangor on election night.

THE STAR /ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2018, with the headline 'Kedah and Johor high-stakes states in Malaysian elections'. Print Edition | Subscribe