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KUALA LUMPUR, April 15 — Umno acting president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan’s win at the recently-concluded Rantau polls earned him moral and political legitimacy.
After all, Tok Mat’s (as he is also known) victory was based on popular support that cut across racial and generational lines, analysts said.
His convincing victory in the by-election should cast aside any doubt about the former Negri Sembilan mentri besar’s ability to lead a multi-racial coalition like Barisan Nasional (BN) which has struggled to find a moderate leader who can assuage minority distrust, two political analysts said.
And in Tok Mat, who conquered virtually all of Rantau’s voting districts to give him a 4,510 majority over Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) Dr S. Streram, BN has a promising prospect.
“In Malaysian politics and power relations among competing multi-ethnic parties and interests, being moderate is a vital principle,” Kartini Aboo Talib, political scientist with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, said.
“BN has to give him that opportunity. If his voters in his constituency believe that he has done an excellent job to deserve a second term, I am pretty sure he has the potential.”
Touted as a genuine moderate by party leaders, Tok Mat is seen as a grounded politician with a keen sense of diplomacy.
His sharp understanding of ground sentiment makes him especially endearing to the lower income group, a quality he fostered during his three-term rule as mentri besar.
“My team was on the ground observing Rantau and the minority voters really like him a lot,” Kartini noted.
“He has helped them in so many ways, especially small and medium enterprises.”
In Saturday’s by-election, Tok Mat won all the multi-racial districts bar one, a testament to the politician’s popularity in Rantau, a semi-urban state constituency with predominantly low-income voters.
BN swept 13 of the polling districts including Pekan Sagga (63.7 per cent Indians) and Linsum (48.3 per cent Indians) home to the highest and second highest proportion of Indian voters in Rantau.
Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Sivamurugan Pandian said the results cemented Mohamad’s stature as a highly popular leader with all races.
“As acting president with a big majority, he wins moral and political legitimacy in a mixed constituency,” he told Malay Mail.
“He could be the leader BN is looking for given the current political scenario.”
But still, the ‘Tok Mat factor’ failed to give BN the much-needed impetus to break PH’s sway over most of Rantau’s Chinese voters.
Bandar Ekar, which has the highest count of Chinese voters and third highest for Indian voters, remained firmly behind the ruling coalition.
Tok Mat’s inability to persuade the Chinese in Rantau provides a peek into the tough challenges awaiting his chairmanship and the BN coalition should it wish to stay on the moderate path, rebuild minority trust and be seen as a genuinely multi-racial front.
More immediately, the acting Umno president must first mollify Chinese suspicions of PAS and convince the community that their alliance will not result in more religious dogmatism or ethnic strife.
But with Umno deemed to have veered too far to the right in recent years, and its refusal to banish scandal-ridden leaders like former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, that could be difficult for Tok Mat to pull off despite his popularity.
“BN’s moderate image is difficult to be bandied about as far as non-Malays are concerned,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
“As long as Najib still looms large on the front stage, and when Umno is embracing PAS tightly.”
And critics will also watch closely how the acting Umno president deals with the party’s ultra-Malay elements, which have grown more influential since its defeat last year.
As analysts see the party growing more beholden to staunch conservatives, detractors will ask if he will have the political courage to keep Umno in the centre amid the pressure.
Malay support for Tok Mat surged to 2013 levels in Saturday’s polls, as BN recovered most, if not all of the ground lost in the 14th general election, noted Ibrahim Suffian, director of pollster Merdeka Center.
Votes were likely cast along racial lines, Ibrahim added, suggesting non-partisan Malays had backed Tok Mat only because of his ethnicity.
“Ethnic voting probably played some role here, aside from Mohamad Hasan’s outsized following among voters there, the results showed PH probably captured only 10 per cent of the Malay voters there,” he said.