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SABAK BERNAM, June 19 — Trumpeted to be the real indicator of how Malaysians would vote in the 14th general elections due in two years, the by-election for the Sungai Besar parliamentary seat generated a fair buzz as soon as it was announced, compared to the May 7 Sarawak state election.
Also, compared to its twin in Kuala Kangsar where the Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate campaigned via proxies, more eyes were on this coastal corner of Selangor and expectations were high for an exciting three-way fight involving the BN, PAS and its offshoot Parti Amanah Negara.
There were moments such as when DAP put up racially provocative billboards without its partner Amanah’s knowledge in its bid to win the Chinese votes in Sekinchan, but there was little vigour during the two-week long campaigning despite the big guns like former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
Perhaps it was the Ramadan fasting month, or that Selangor Mentri Besar and PKR deputy president Datuk Azmin Ali was absent for most of the campaigning; it could be that nine-month old Amanah is still relatively unknown to voters or that PAS was stuck in an endless repetition on what its Shariah Bill was all about or maybe it was the opposition parties’ endless bickering, but from very early on, the prediction of BN as the victor was practically written on the wall.
Despite the predictable conclusion, there were still three things we learnt from the Sungai Besar by-election:
1. The opposition cannot get keys to Putrajaya if they are not unified
It was clear that having PAS and Amanah in the fight for the by-election would split votes and result in an easy win for BN. But that didn’t stop either party from giving in.
Despite Azmin’s attempts to negotiate with PAS to allow Amanah to take on BN in a straight fight, the conservative party did not give in. And when talks to negotiate the seat failed, Azmin, who runs the state together with PAS executive council members, dropped out of sight from nomination day after pledging support for Amanah candidate Azhar Shukur.
When Azmin surfaced later during a breaking fast event in Sungai Panjang with Azhar and PAS candidate Dr Abdul Rani Osman, he caused confusion among the Pakatan Harapan rank-and-file as to who he was really backing.
DAP didn’t help matters with their billboard smear campaign against Umno which they erected without Amanah’s knowledge, leading to red faces all around when the party finally admitted to the deed.
This indecisiveness and lack of cohesiveness showed that the Pakatan Harapan pact has far to go if it hopes to take on the BN juggernaut directly at the next general elections.
BN might be entangled in several issues but the ruling coalition’s leaders proved they are united and in fighting shape despite the 1Malaysia Development Berhad and political donation missiles fired by the opposition and the Save Malaysia gang led by former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
The opposition could probably pick up a thing or two from the BN if it was serious about changing the government.
2. BN’s placement of unconventional candidate
BN could have picked the party’s Sungai Besar chief Datuk Jamal Yunos as the candidate but it did not. It could have chosen controversial former Red Shirts movement leader Ali Tinju but it did not. It was Sungai Panjang assemblyman Budiman Mohd Zohdi that the party selected.
Budiman is an easygoing person and he could speak to almost anyone during his walkabouts, even with his PAS rival and appear endearing. Both Budiman and Dr Rani Osman were caught clowning around when they bumped into each other during their walkabouts, which showed how the BN can work with anyone they want to.
Budiman probably had the edge over Dr Rani because he is younger, but it is to be noted that Shakespeare’s words that some achieve greatness is true of those from the grassroots. He could be anyone in the battalion, but with the right attitude, he can lead the troops to war.
3. BN realises the need of Chinese votes ahead of GE14
There is no doubt that the ethnic Chinese voters were the deciding factor for the Sungai Besar by-election.
All three parties focused on the ethnic Chinese areas to win their hearts so votes would come their way, but only BN and Amanah seemed to make headway in this regard.
PAS was left behind struggling to explain that Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang’s controversial Bill to strengthen the Shariah courts’ punitive powers would not encroach on minority rights.
Meanwhile, Amanah’s Azhar appeared little more than a figurehead with the DAP leaders speaking on his behalf while on the stump in Sekinchan and other areas with a larger Chinese population. This probably did not augur well for the Amanah hopeful among the Chinese community because all they saw was Lim Kit Siang and local leader Ng Suee Lim making their rounds.
BN, meanwhile, also focused on the Chinese community which made up one third of voters in the area. Budiman was seen every day strolling the streets in Bagan, Sungai Besar and Sekinchan. He was kind and told the Chinese voters nicely when he was offered to eat breakfast or lunch with them during the fasting month.
Budiman’s campaign strategy was also unlike others. During the first week, it was mostly meeting the people to explain who he is and what BN could do for the people. He obviously did not take the Chinese votes for granted despite Umno securing a major chunk of the Malay votes.
This indicates that the BN has somewhat learnt its painful lesson from ignoring the ethnic minority during the 2013 general election and will be paying due attention to win Chinese hearts in the next round.