A burning question has emerged on both sides of the political divide, revolving around Kuala Terengganu.
Will the unrealised dream of Pakatan Rakyat (PR) to take over the Federal Government last Sept 16 cause the party to lose support and credibility and will Barisan Nasional (BN) begin to make a comeback to win the hearts and minds of voters this time around in Kuala Terengganu?
This question has come to the fore as both sides are set to square off again on Jan 17 — this time in the Kuala Terengganu parliamentary by-election, now come to be popularly known as “The Battle of KT”. Nomination is on Jan 6.
Many political observers and analysts view this by-election as crucial in determining the current and future support for the BN and PR.
Forget about the thumping win at the Aug 26 Permatang Pauh by-election by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) as that constituency has always been the Opposition Leader’s stronghold.
The Kuala Terengganu seat fell vacant when incumbent Datuk Razali Ismail died of a heart attack on Nov 28. In 2004, he had defeated PAS executive council member Syed Azman Syed Ahmad by 1,933 votes.
In the general election on March 8 this year, Razali, who was deputy education minister before his untimely death, won by a slim 628 majority when he knocked out PAS strongman Mohammad Sabu and 89-year-old Maimun Yusuf in a three-way fight.
One must remember that Kuala Terengganu is not a safe seat for either the BN or the opposition as it has changed hands many times. The BN won in 1986, 1990, 2004 and 2008 but Parti Semangat 46 won in 1995 and PAS won in 1999.
In the general election this year, PKR and PAS collectively obtained 33,729 votes in the four state seats within the Kuala Terengganu parliamentary constituency, or 1,795 votes more than the votes garnered by Mohamad Sabu of PAS in the parliamentary constituency.
This means that the BN obtained 50 per cent of the parliamentary vote and 48.3 per cent of the vote in the state seats.
Although the PR only won 49 per cent of the federal vote in the Kuala Terengganu parliamentary constituency, it did better in the contest for state seats in the same area, winning 51.7 per cent.
The Kuala Terengganu parliamentary seat has always been a traditional battleground for BN (Umno) and PAS, with both always treating this seat with caution.
In the coming by-election, it will be interesting to see how both sides will woo the voters, barely eight months after the general election, to prove their popularity.
According to PKR information chief Tian Chua, the opposition front would adopt “a sophisticated way of campaigning” which would be based on a multiracial platform. PKR is a component party of the PR alliance, the others being PAS and DAP.
“As a mixed (or multiracial) party, we would have a slightly different campaign strategy as the needs of the urban voters are different (from the rural voters).
“It is the socio-economic background that will determine their decisions on who will be the winner, not their ethnicity,” he said, adding that the opposition front is optimistic about its chances but does not want to underestimate other contestants at the same time.
Tian Chua felt that the “internal tussle within Terengganu Umno” could dent BN’s prospects.
Umno’s internal conflict was out in open on the selection of election candidates even before March 8 and this sparked another controversy after the election, on the selection of the Terengganu Menteri Besar.
“This is a Malay belt. If BN loses Kuala Terengganu, Umno’s argument of still having support (from the Malays) will be a question mark,” said Tian Chua.
However, some Terengganu Umno members deny the notion that internal bickering will put a spanner in the works as the so-called internal problems within Terengganu Umno have reduced significantly after the general election.
“The Kuala Terengganu Umno Division is united and this was seen in the recent divisional elections, which were conducted without much fierce contest,” a Kuala Terengganu Umno Division committee member, who did not wish to be identified, told Bernama.
For now, the name of Senator Datuk Wan Farid Wan Salleh, who is also the deputy home affairs minister, is being bandied about as the front-runner to represent BN.
For some political observers, internal bickering is a normal phenomenon in any political party as PAS itself also experienced similar problems in the past — between the moderates and conservatives.
For example, in the coming Kuala Terengganu by-election, each faction is said to be pushing for its respective candidate. The moderates are said to be favouring either Mat Sabu or Datuk Mustapha Ali to contest while the conservatives prefer locals such as Wan Mutalib Embong, the Terengganu PAS deputy commissioner.
PAS secretary-general Datuk Kamaruddin Jaafar said, “I would be lying if I said there is no struggle between the moderates and conservatives. But what is more important is that when the candidate has been decided, all factions will abide by that decision and the party machinery will come out in full force.”
Tian Chua agreed to this and pointed out that the PAS election machinery is rather disciplined and there is less sabotage or resistance once a decision has been made.
This time around, PAS has already sent clear signals that it is targeting the Bandar state seat, the only state seat under the Kuala Terengganu parliamentary constituency that was won by the BN in the general election.
Kamaruddin said PAS would increase its focus on Bandar, which comprised mainly non-Malay voters, while maintaining its edge in the Batu Burok, Wakaf Mempelam and Ladang state constituencies, which it won in March.
PAS wants to win over more non-Malay voters this time and feels that the voting trend in Terengganu does not follow the national pattern.
“We hope that they can give us a chance,” said Kamaruddin.
Terengganu MCA Chairman Toh Chin Yaw is unperturbed over PAS’s ambitions as he is quietly optimistic that support from the non-Malays, particularly the 11 per cent Chinese voters, would remain in BN’s hands.
But he said that “BN has to work very hard, not only for the Chinese votes but also the other votes”.
Toh is the only Chinese executive council member in the Terengganu state government and he defended his Bandar seat in the general election while the other three seats fell to PAS.
“I think the balance of support will tilt to BN. When the general election was held, BN was at its lowest point for support but we managed to pull through (in Bandar). With the changing scenario now, I think we can even perform better,” Toh said, adding that the many voters had expressed their regret that the BN lost many seats in March.
“If this sentiment and latest developments are taken into consideration, the odds are against the PR since its credibility has been dented following the failure of its Sept 16 (takeover-of-the-government) campaign,” he said.