KUALA LUMPUR, March 30 — The by-election for the Rantau state seat, which kicks off today, has been billed as the “mother of all elections” and that could very well be the case with the country’s two major political coalitions jostling to make a statement.
It will be an important performance yardstick for both Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Harapan (PH) to gauge voters acceptance of them in their current role as the Opposition and the ruling coalition respectively.
Voter sentiment has swung between PH and BN in the 10 months since the former took over the government.
Though PH enjoyed an arguably smooth ride in the first few by-elections immediately after it assumed the mantle in Putrajaya, the euphoria of its May 9 victory has been dampened by grouses centred around living cost, retrenchments and the Sales and Service Tax (SST).
All these, while the new government struggles to right the wrongs of the past BN government and fulfil its election promises.
PH had triumphed in the Sungai Kandis, Seri Setia, Balakong and Port Dickson by-elections, and later losing by a significant margin in Cameron Highlands, a traditional BN vote bank.
A subsequent defeat in Semenyih was seen as a ‘warning’ from voters as PH, via its component Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), had previously won the seat.
The Rantau by-election will see one of the country’s political heavyweights, Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan, who is currently Umno acting president, pitted against a relative newcomer, Dr S. Streram, who is from PKR.
The Election Court had declared Mohamad’s uncontested win in the polls last year null and void after finding that Dr Streram was unlawfully barred from entering the nomination centre. Mohammad’s Federal Court appeal against the decision was dismissed.
BN strategises while PH grapples
This by-election in Negri Sembilan would ultimately be a litmus test not just for BN and Umno, but also for Mohamad, as the outcome will also spell the future of his leadership in the Malay nationalist party.
Since Mohamad took over Umno’s leadership from Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the party appears to have strengthened its grassroots support.
The former Negri Sembilan mentri besar has also distanced himself and his party from the legal battles surrounding Zahid, who is facing 47 graft charges, and his predecessor Datuk Seri Najib Razak, focusing instead on rebuilding BN and Umno.
While PH busies itself trying to contain the brewing dissatisfaction and internal squabbles in the coalition, Mohamad sought to strengthen his party’s position by becoming bedfellows with PAS, a strategy which eventually proved to be a masterstroke in Cameron Highlands and Semenyih.
Both PAS and Umno have also made repeated calls to Malay-Muslims to unite under its flag, while continuing to warn of the threat posed by the alleged ‘anti-Islam DAP’.
This strategy, though very much frowned upon and even accused of being a fear-mongering tactic, may just give BN an edge in Rantau as 10,939 of its 20,472 registered voters are Malays, far outnumbering the ethnic Chinese (3,851) and ethnic Indians (5,529).
Mohamad, who is fondly known as Tok Mat, is feeling bullish about his prospects, given his tenure as the elected representative for the constituency since 2004.
“I will work hard. I have already done a lot of work in Rantau There are no outstanding problems. Land issues, temple issues, I have settled it all already,” Mohamad told Malay Mail when contacted.
He would also have probably earned some political points after rapping his successor, Datuk Seri Aminuddin Harun, for demanding a ban on alcohol at the Seremban International Golf Club (SIGC).
Mohamad, despite his affiliation with PAS, had yesterday openly criticised Aminuddin’s adamance in calling for the beer ban, advising the latter to not impose his personal values on others.
Can Dr Streram defy the odds?
PH contender Dr Streram despite starting out strong in the 14th general election, now finds himself in a difficult position as some of his own party members had opposed his selection.
Bernama reported that PH’s Rantau by-election machinery task force has rejected Dr Streram as its candidate since he is not a Rembau native.
Task force chairman Zuljimmykifli Sahari reportedly expressed fear that Dr Streram, would be rejected by the electorate and had called on the coalition’s leadership to field Sapian Musa, a local, as its candidate instead.
And as if he doesn’t already have enough obstacles in the way, Dr Streram, who is also Rembau PKR’s deputy chairman, came under fire from electoral watchdog Bersih 2.0.
The group accused his party comrade, Miri MP Dr Michael Teo, of “treating” when he gave away free food coupons for underprivileged students in several Rantau schools.
Despite the odds against him, coupled with dissatisfactions towards the PH government’s slow progress on its election pledges, the anaesthesiologist is still optimistic about his chances.
“I think we will perform very well because we have worked on the ground and people know and have recognised me. I have gone house to house, knocked on every door.
“People know my face. I think whatever remarks, I think we will be able to perform well. No doubt we are underdogs.
“I’m not an outsider. I’m part of this big family of Rantau, because I was elected as deputy chairman by the Rantau people, not outside people,” Dr Streram told Malay Mail, adding that the Malay voters have also “been good to me”.
He added that being a medical doctor had also allowed him to get closer to the Rantau voters.
Dr Streram, however, refused to weigh in on the food coupon controversy despite initially telling news portal Malaysiakini, that it was Teo’s personal choice and unrelated to the by-election.
Spoilers in the race
Party insiders from both sides of the political divide told Malay Mail that there might be two independent candidates who will join the fray today, indicating that they could be disgruntled PH members.
A senior party leader in PKR told Malay Mail that the dissatisfaction rose as the state divisions were not consulted prior to Dr Streram’s selection.
“You can ask any division leaders there in Negri. They will say the same. It is pretty ironic and disappointing that when we speak about justice for the people and reform, we don’t do it in our own house,” the leader who requested anonymity said.
“I am not surprised with people venting their frustrations by going against the party and becoming independents. It’s a last ditch effort to send a clear message, not so much winning the seat,” the former division leader added.
Two days ago, a PKR member, businessman Hazan Khalid, voiced his intention of contesting as an independent candidate, Sinar Harian reported.
He reportedly expressed dissatisfaction at PKR, for fielding Dr Streram, who he deemed as an outsider.
Also vying for the spot is reportedly Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) member from Rasah, Tandiko Dalusin.
He had announced his candidacy on his Facebook page, and surprisingly, acknowledged that he is ‘sure to lose’.
So why contest at all? According to Tandiko’s reply to the same question by another Facebook user, ‘to self-introduce’ and to ‘break PH votes’.
He had yesterday also appealed for donations to fulfil his wish.
Bernama has reported the Election Commission (EC) saying yesterday that it has sold eight sets of nomination forms for the Rantau state by-election.
EC deputy chairman Dr Azmi Sharom reportedly said that the PH and BN bought one set each, whereas six individuals bought the other six sets.
The nomination centre at Dewan Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Cina (SJKC) Sri Sendayan will open for an hour from 9am today.
Rantau goes to the polls on April 13.
* A previous version of this story contained an error which has since been corrected.