Rain-lashed Pakatan’s uphill ride in Cameron Highlands gets rougher

Candidates for the Cameron Highlands by-election (from left) Sallehudin Ab Talib, Wong Seng Yee,  Ramli Mohd Noor and M. Manogaran pose for a group picture at the nomination center at SMK Sultan Ahmad Shah January 12, 2019. — Picture by Farhan Najib
Candidates for the Cameron Highlands by-election (from left) Sallehudin Ab Talib, Wong Seng Yee, Ramli Mohd Noor and M. Manogaran pose for a group picture at the nomination center at SMK Sultan Ahmad Shah January 12, 2019. — Picture by Farhan Najib

COMMENTARY, Jan 18 — The political battle for the hilltop tourist spot Cameron Highlands gets more critical a week into campaigning, with ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) finding the constituency a tough nut to crack.

Already at the midway point before polling on January 24, PH does not seem to have made much headway in winning the hearts and minds of hardcore supporters of Barisan Nasional (BN) in rural Jelai, or Orang Asli voters.

Since hitting the campaign trail in Jelai a few days ago and into the deep interiors of Orang Asli villages, PH leaders have been well-received yet voters remain non-committal with their support.

In comparison, BN seems to have only now learnt its lessons after losing four by-elections and is playing it smart — wary of being arrogant, staying cool when confronted by irate voters, and just unashamedly begging for votes whenever the situation calls for it.

The Opposition now under the stewardship of acting Umno president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan seems resolute with its strategy to merely strengthen its present support from the last general election. Any additional support it can canvas will be considered a bonus.

Therefore, Umno’s focus has been on Malay- and Orang Asli-majority areas, while its ethnic Chinese and Indian partners MCA and MIC campaign in less rural areas such as Kampung Raja, Brinchang, Tanah Rata and Ringlet.

Stumping in Cameron Highlands is no easy task. While half of the voters are concentrated in towns, the rest reside in sparsely populated areas in the vast green valley.

Faced with that situation, PH has been forced to conduct “touch and go” meets in Malay- and Orang Asli-majority areas where its ceramahs could only muster a crowd of around 300 — a far cry from the at least 500-strong crowds in urban areas, lending an atmosphere of panic.

For example, night ceramahs by bigwigs, such as PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim yesterday and DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng’s the night before, could only draw between 200 and 300 people.

The hilly Cameron Highlands also poses accessibility headaches, exacerbated by intermittent rain.

The absence of a public transport system like buses or taxis at night has left PH leaders’ hands tied, while their rivals in BN are free to meet voters by “pitching their tents” among the constituents.

With such a dismal reception, PH may now have to resort to 11th hour appearances by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad... but the prime minister is tied up with international obligations in Senegal and United Kingdom.