JAN 17 — Following the political tsunami in March, which propelled a disparate opposition alliance to power in five of 13 states, voters in the capital of oil-rich Terengganu will determine today if an “east coast monsoon” will drive the alliance closer to national power.
This key parliamentary by-election in itself will not change anything as the ruling coalition holds a 137-82 majority over the opposition Pakatan Rakyat in Parliament.
But it is hugely symbolic since Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who is leading the ruling Barisan Nasional’s campaign, is seeking to use the by-election to hammer home his credentials as prime minister-in-waiting.
Implicated in the murder of a Mongolian woman — an allegation he vehemently denies — he is due to take over as premier from Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in March. The leadership change is part of a power transition plan hatched by the leadership of the dominant Umno, a year after the ruling coalition’s general election setback.
The by-election is also being seen as a symbolic barometer as to whether Malaysians are willing to shed ideological differences in a longer-term bid to break the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition’s stranglehold on power.
Hoping to benefit from a morale-boosting win is the Pakatan Rakyat, which is made up of three parties: Pas, which rules neighbouring Kelantan, the multi-ethnic but Chinese-based DAP, and the PKR, led by its advisor, former deputy premier Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who has been actively campaigning here.
In the general election last March, the BN candidate won with a slim 628-vote majority in Kuala Terengganu, as the ruling coalition held on to control the state assembly.
Today’s by-election pits a former deputy minister from the BN, Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh, against a Terengganu state assembly member from Pas, Abdul Wahid Endut. A third candidate, an independent, is not expected to make any headway.
Ethnic Malays make up 87 per cent of the voters and they are said to be evenly split. That puts the 9,000 ethnic Chinese in the constituency, who make up 11 per cent of the electorate, in a position to play a decisive role.
The main ethnic Chinese party in the ruling coalition, the MCA, has criticised the DAP for working with Pas, which wants to create an Islamic state and implement strict Islamic shariah laws.
But DAP leaders have deflected the charge, arguing that the election is not a referendum on Islamic laws but a poll that would indicate whether Malaysians want the “political tsunami”, which saw four west coast states falling to opposition hands, to be extended to the east coast.
A win in Kuala Terengganu, the capital of this oil-rich state, could also spur the opposition to wrest control of the BN-stronghold of Sarawak, a similar resource-rich state in north Borneo, where elections to the state assembly are due to be held soon.
One of the big issues in Terengganu are the oil royalties amounting to about RM1 billion a year earned from offshore exploration and drilling. The federal government blocked the payment of oil royalties to the state government when Pas ruled for a term from 1999 to 2004 and instead administered the funds directly from Kuala Lumpur.
However, the royalties were returned to the state government after the BN wrested back the state in 2004. Critics charge that there was little accountability over how the royalties were spent and allege that a substantial amount was wasted on projects that did not really benefit the people.
Despite the oil royalties and a steady reduction in poverty rates, Terengganu still has one of the highest poverty rates in the federation. It owes the federal government close to RM1 billion while the state’s accounts show a deficit of RM284 million in 2007, down from a surplus of RM184 million in the previous year.
Some progressive opposition activists are divided over the by-election. They say an opposition win for Wahid would strengthen the hand of Pas’s conservative president, Datuk Abdul Hadi Awang and send the wrong message to the Pas leadership that voters do not have any problems with Islamic laws.
”I find it difficult to get excited about this by-election,” says one opposition Member of Parliament. ”We want political reforms but the Pas leadership might misinterpret this result as an endorsement of their world-view. A defeat for their candidate would force them to re-assess their position and may be better for progressive forces in the longer-term.”
But veteran opposition parliamentarian, Lim Kit Siang of the DAP, has urged voters to look at the larger picture. “This by-election is not about hudud and Islamic state — our position is clear on this,” he told IPS.
”This election is about sending a clear message to Putrajaya (the federal administrative centre) that the people of Kuala Terengganu want political reforms, that the message of change of the March 8 political tsunami has received the resounding endorsement of the voters of Kuala Terengganu, regardless of race, religion or region,” Lim said.
A favourable outcome, he argues, would inject greater momentum into the movement for political change and transformation leading all the way to Putrajaya in the next general election.
Already opposition politicians have criticised the government funds and grants being splurged for the by-election campaign. Top leaders from the BN have been going all out to canvas votes for the ruling coalition. Ruling coalition politicians argue that much of the allocations had already been decided before the campaign.
For Lim, the biggest casualty in this by-election campaign has been the legislative reform to set up a Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, modelled along the anti-graft commission in Hong Kong. ”If the reforms were really effective, then we would have seen its anti-corruption officers coming to Kuala Terengganu and taking action against money politics here.”
For now, the outcome is difficult to predict with any certainty but whichever way it goes, it could have consequences for the country’s political direction over the short to medium term. — Inter Press News Service
By-election will test political drift — Anil Netto