Penanti or Penalty?

Josh Hong (Malaysiakini)
Weird, that Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak should have criticised the resignation of Mohamad Fairus Khairuddin, Penang’s former deputy chief minister I, as state assemblyperson as being irresponsible.

It was even weirder of the Umno president to hint that his party might not contest in the subsequent by-election – should it be called – citing that his priority now was to focus on restructuring the ailing economy, not on petty and detracting issues like by-elections.
Things used not to be like that. When both PKR and PAS boycotted the Batu Talam state by-election in Pahang in January 2007 claiming unfair and illiberal practices, Najib, then deputy prime minister, taunted the opposition alliance as being opportunists who would only contest from a position of strength but dodge elections when the going was tough. MCA, like a jester to Umno, referred to the opposition parties as a bunch of unprincipled politicians.
Having witnessed Pakatan Rakyat bagging four by-elections with increased majorities since August last year, Barisan Nasional now looks increasingly like cowards.
Despite the abundant resources and powerful state machinery, the ruling coalition has failed to make significant inroads in the drastically transformed political landscape in the Peninsula. Little wonder that Najib now considers democratic contest an expensive and unprofitable business. Is it not hilarious to see BN getting a dose of its own medicine?
On the surface, odds are staked against Umno in Penanti. Located under Permatang Pauh, Anwar Ibrahim’s home turf and PKR’s stronghold, it is one of the three state assembly seats where the opposition has not fared too badly in the past. Despite BN’s landslide victory in the 2004 general election, Umno only won Penanti with a slim majority of 667 votes. In the neighbouring Permatang Pasir, PAS lost to Umno by merely 679 votes, indicating a substantial number of opposition sympathisers in these two state seats.
All this was reversed in the political tsunami of March last year, as PKR and PAS snatched Penanti and Permatang Pasir with majorities of 2,219 and 5,433 respectively. Even in Sebarang Jaya, Umno’s only fortress under Permatang Pauh, Arif Shah Omar Shah only scraped through with a sharply reduced majority of 533, down from 4,464 in 2004. Given the racial sentiments fanned by Umno, Arif’s impeccable Mandarin and Hokkien apparently failed to impress the Chinese voters.
Between a rock and a hard place
Najib and his BN partners are no doubt acutely aware of the unfavourable conditions in Penanti. When Khairy Jamaluddin, in an attempt to shore up Malay support, alleged that the Malays in Penang were marginalised, he won rounds of applause within Umno but it failed to translate into votes in the subsequent general election. Worse, Penang has no royal household with which Umno can play up the issue of derhaka (treachery), as it has done in Perak.
And BN has not been helped by the developments in its own rank. In Penang, there was no love lost between Gerakan and Umno after Ahmad Ismail made his controversial remark calling the non-Malays ‘squatters’, and it went from bad to worse when grassroots Umno leaders tore up a portrait of Dr Koh Tsu Koon, who barely lifted a finger to protest.
Penanti indeed presents Gerakan with a dilemma. If Umno decided to field a candidate, would Gerakan state leaders in Penang campaign in full force? If not, the party would be perceived as ‘ungrateful’ now that Najib has appointed Koh as a cabinet minister. To employ Muhyddin Yassin’s words, “Sepatutnya mereka membalas budi” (They should return the favour).
If Gerakan did endorse Umno and mobilise its dwindling machinery in the name of ‘the BN spirit’, it would likely enrage the non-Malays further. Koh now must find himself between a rock and a hard place.
As for MCA, Ong Tee Kiat’s failure to rebuke Muhyddin’s sarcastic and arrogant remarks that Mandarin-speaking journalists should go back to school to re-learn Malay – because they had misunderstood him – only serves to undermine the claim that BN stands for equal partnership and power-sharing.
Mindful of the challenges within and without, and knowing that no amount of money can now ensure a comfortable win, it was only natural for Najib to contemplate quitting.
Dr M makes it harder
And the prime minister has been pre-empted by the man who once vowed to lend him full support. By urging BN to contest, Dr Mahathir Mohamad has effectively put Najib in a very difficult position.
If the prime minister decides to skip, he will be seen as a quitter not a fighter, especially when this is coming on the heel of a series of by-election defeats. Should he choose to contest, he too will be perceived to be caving to Mahathir’s demand.
Even if Umno pulled of a surprise and grabbed Penanti from PKR, Mahathir would have to share in the glory, taking the remaining gloss off Najib’s leadership. Either way, the former prime minister has everything to gain but nothing to lose.
But it does not mean that PKR will have a walkover.
Mohamad Fairus’ forced resignation has opened a can of worms as it displays a lot of bad blood between the various factions in the party, while DAP and PAS state leaders are equally displeased with the way Anwar handled the issue.
Pakatan must also prove to the public that it has not been carried away by its past achievements, to the extent that the voters are compelled to issue them a wake-up call by voting its opponent – if any.