Najib’s Penanti dilemma

Malaysian Insider
KUALA LUMPUR, April 29 — Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is coming under considerable pressure from Umno to change his stand that Barisan Nasional should give the Penanti by-election a miss.

Some party officials, especially those aligned to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, have been parlaying straw polls and ground reports to push two messages: that the voters in the state constituency want Barisan Nasional to field a candidate and chances of victory are better than ever.
Others are stressing a more emotional point — that the ruling coalition has never backed down from an electoral fight before and to do so at a time when bragging rights is firmly with Pakatan Rakyat could be debilitating to the morale of party members.
A decision on whether BN will field a candidate in Penanti will be made tomorrow after Najib chairs Umno’s political bureau meeting.
The party president has all along said that he was not in favour of contesting the by-election, made necessary after PKR’s Fairus Khairuddin resigned following a clutch of allegations against him.
Najib’s rationale was that by-elections should only be held if the incumbent died or was incapable of carrying out his responsibilities for health reasons.
Contesting elections for flippant reasons, he argues, would be a waste of public funds.
He was also concerned that the Opposition would employ a strategy of forcing by-elections at regular intervals until the next general election to keep the political temperature throbbing.
Dr Mahathir, a regular commentator on party and national affairs since Najib became PM, wants Umno to contest the by-election, saying it would be bad for the morale of party workers if PKR were granted a free victory.
The former prime minister also has a personal stake in this battle.
He craves this opportunity to stuff it to critics who lampooned his effort in the Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau by-elections.
The Malaysian Insider has learned that several senior party officials, including Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, believe that Penanti can be wrested away from the Opposition.
Their optimism is based on reports and feedback which suggests that the political intensity is dropping and that internal squabbling in PKR Penang over Fairus’s resignation will make it difficult for the Opposition to operate an effective election campaign.
In addition, Umno officials are convinced that the four per cent swing of Malay voters to the party in Bukit Gantang will be replicated in a bigger way in Penanti because the community is ready to give the Najib administration a chance.
Just under 73 per cent of the voters in this constituency are Malays.
On March 8, 2008 Fairus defeated Umno/BN’s Datuk Abdul Jalil Abdul Majid by 2,219 votes.
Government sources told the Malaysian Insider that reports by security agencies show that the Opposition still has the upper hand in Penanti.
These reports sketch a different picture from the rosy scenario outlined by party officials, noting that Umno Permatang Pauh is split into three factions.
Tomorrow, Najib and the political bureau will have to reconcile all the surveys and ground reports. They will also have to decide which of these two options to take.
Option 1: Keep Umno members happy by spending millions to try and win an election in a difficult seat.
Option 2: Give PKR a free victory on May 31 but start softening the ground for the next general elections by dishing out funds meant for the election machinery directly to constituents.