FEBRUARY 28 — After the 2013 general elections, the one and only state that saw the transition of power from Pakatan Rakyat back to Barisan Nasional was Kedah, in which BN won with 452,498 votes (50.3%) or 21 state assembly seats vis-à-vis PR’s 434,641 votes (49.7%) and 15 state seats, at a majority of 17,857 popular votes.
However, due to unsuitable candidates fielded, internal sabotage, crippled election machinery and rejection by urban voters in particular the Chinese, BN lost in a number of seats, including Sungai Petani, Kuala Kedah, Padang Serai and Alor Setar. Meanwhile, Siamese were seen as loyal to the BN while Indian voters were split between the two camps.
A major contributor to the BN’s victory in the state is the weak and inexperienced PAS-led administration which could be due to internal conflicts within PAS itself. Mentri besar Azizan was suffering from poor health and had problem connecting with other state leaders such as Ismail Salleh and Phahrolrazi Zawawi.
The helm of state administration was taken over by the new MB Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir, who was later replaced by Datuk Seri Ahmad Bashah Md Hanipah in 2016. The incident, which could be attributed to the disagreement between prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and former PM Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, sparked an instant leadership crisis in the state. Mahathir then quit Umno and formed a new party PBBM that later set up a new opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan with PKR, DAP and Amanah following the collapse of PR after PAS left.
Umno and BN were somewhat concerned about frustration from some Kedah Umno leaders and members loyal to Mukhriz following his removal as MB. But this problem has since been resolved under the leadership of Ahmad Bashah.
From what I observed during the Umno divisional and state-level meetings in 2017, it was obvious that the party was striving to foster stronger bond in the state to ensure BN’s victory in the upcoming GE14.
Umno is getting stronger in Kedah today. The ceremony to launch the election machinery in the state in Sungai Petani last month saw an unusual turnout of party members. The state BN is all prepared to face the general election, triggering irresponsible quarters to distribute a false list of BN candidates aimed at disuniting the ruling coalition in the state. If BN stays united in Kedah, no other parties will be able to threaten the supremacy of BN in the state.
What about the Opposition in the state? PH is seen as banking on the influences of Mahathir to lure the voters to support the Opposition pact. We cannot deny that Mahathir remains influential in Kedah as many still remember what Mahathir had done in developing the country besides the fact that Mahathir himself is from Kedah and has previously done the country proud. Nevertheless, such personality factor will not be enough to bring down Umno.
Weaknesses within the Opposition front make it very hard for them to take over Kedah in the coming general election. There are several major challenges encountered by PH in the state. First and foremost, PBBM and Amanah are relatively new parties yet to establish themselves in some of the places in Kedah, in particular the rural areas. Most of their leaders were formerly from either Umno or PAS. However, the later the election is held, the better it will be for these two parties as they will have more time to expand their influences among the people of Kedah.
Secondly, there has been a lack of integration in the Opposition camp ever since PAS withdrew from PR, and the Islamic party is now widely perceived as maintaining a good relationship with Umno. So long as Opposition parties remain disunited and with PAS acting as a vote splitter, it will be very difficult for PH to win the state of Kedah.
PAS, for example, has a large following in many areas in the state, including Pendang, Pokok Sena, Jerai, Baling and Jerlun. It has the ability to win several state constituencies and can form a coalition government with Umno. In addition, Umno is obviously stronger in the parliamentary seats of Kubang Pasu, Padang Terap, Langkawi, Sik, Merbok and Kulim Bandar Baru, while PH is strong only in urban seats like Alor Setar, Sungai Petani and Kuala Kedah. In the event of three-cornered fights, PH may face an uphill task in all the seats they last won, including also the urban seats.
Thirdly, an obvious disadvantage of PH this time is the problem with their election machinery. During the last general election, PR had to rely on the powerful machinery of PAS in the state, and this advantage is no longer applicable today. The Opposition are also highly dependent on ceramahs which are met with increasingly weak reception, as well as information through social media which still finds itself hard to penetrate the rural areas. As a result, weak campaigning will make it very tough for PH to win over Kedah this time.
Their winning chances also depend on the protest votes from people sympathising with Tun Mahathir who was previously their idol and national statesman Kedahans took pride in. Unfortunately he is no longer in the mainstream now. If the protest votes are substantial this time, chances for PH to win a few more seats in GE14 will be bigger.
Fourthly, PH needs to rely on Mahathir’s influences to ensure its own electoral triumph. Indeed, Mahathir’s influences did play a role in GE12 and GE13, and there is no denying that such influences may still affect the final outcome of GE14. Whether he will run in Langkawi, Kubang Pasu or in Putrajaya depend very much on how confident he is to win the election. That said, voting trends in previous elections in Kedah showed strong domination by the political party factor and not so much by the candidates or specific personalities. As such, voters in Kedah will continue to vote for the party they think can run the state well.
Generally, many in the state are still sceptical of PH’s ability to form a state government and so far the Opposition pact has yet to provide a clearer picture to the people of Kedah while election pledges have yet to be made. Judging from the voting trends in previous elections, it is apparent that Umno-PAS tie-up is still the preferred choice for the voters of Kedah.
Fifthly, racial and religious issues remain important in the state while the status of Malays and Islam remain dominant issues among the people. More than 80% of the state’s two million population are Muslim Malays and the religious agenda is of tremendous importance for the people there. Islamisation policy by the BN state and federal governments is generally well received by the Malays in Kedah, whereas PH has yet to state its stand clearly on its Islamisation policy, making it hard to win the confidence of people in the state that they will protect and fight for Islam in Kedah. There were 884,525 Malay voters in the state as of September 2017.
As explained earlier, BN commands an advantage to continue to rule Kedah on the back of several weaknesses on the part of the opposition. That having said, BN should not feel excessively comfortable with their position as it is hard to predict the actual responses of Kedah’s voters because they have had the experience of changing the state government as in GE12. So, they may not have problem changing the government again if they have lost their confidence in BN.
As the incumbent government, BN obviously has the upper hand to convince the 1.2 million voters in Kedah to vote for it with the development policy it has implemented. According to the MB’s political secretary cum state Umno Youth chief Datuk Shaiful Hazizy Zainol Abidin, the 2018 state budget provides a lot of goodies to the people of Kedah as follows:
1. Sungai Petani cancer treatment centre
2. Upgrading Langkawi international airport
3. Special three-month incentives for over 60,000 paddy growers in the state
4. Upgrading religious schools. and Special Border Economic Zone in Bukit Kayu Hitam
5. Cardiology and cardio-thoracic services at Sultanah Bahiyyah Hospital
Such people-friendly agenda has been the brainchild of MB Ahmad Bashah to try to win the support of people in the state. Somehow the state government has shown that it cares for the needs of Kedahans.
Nevertheless, BN’s superiority can be threatened if the ruling coalition fails to address the following three matters.
Firstly, BN will be in danger in the event of massive protests among the voters and Umno members themselves towards the state and federal-level leadership, resulting in internal sabotage as seen in GE12. If the same thing were to happen again this time, there is this possibility that BN’s position will be jeopardised. If it is internal sabotage that defeats Umno this time, it will be a defeat that it has created for itself and not because of strong competition from the Opposition. Consequently, the 329,443 Umno members from all the 2,222 branches in the state must go down and support the BN candidates in the election.
Secondly, so long as PAS continues to cooperate with BN, BN’s position in the state will remain invincible. We cannot rule out the possibility of a BN-PAS coalition government in Kedah this time round. Nevertheless, PAS must also ensure that there is no leg-pulling among its members and supporters towards the party leadership. If large numbers of PAS members quit the party to join Amanah or PBBM, it will invariably threaten PAS’ position in the upcoming election.
There has been talk that PAS grassroots do not want a cooperation with Umno, and this needs to be addressed by the party leadership if a tie-up with BN-Umno is still desired.
Thirdly, the issue of young and new voters needs to be handled properly. As of September 2017, there were a total of 500,120 young voters between 21 and 40 years of age, who are seen as fence-sitters who are likely to vote for any party they feel will meet their needs.
According to Shaiful Hazizy, the state government is expanding the reach of the young generation to the economy, providing almost RM1 million for suitable food truck sites in Jitra, Sungai Petani, Kulim and Alor Setar, while the Barakah tuition programme is being implemented in all state constituencies, along with undergraduate internship programme (IMAN), Muafakat Kedah volunteer brigade and IPTA admission incentives for Kedah residents, among others.
In addition, BN also provides opportunities and expanded spaces for young leaders to be fielded as candidates in GE14 considering the emergence of young voters in the state. Fielding high-calibre young candidates is one of the strategies that Umno will adopt in order to win the election in Kedah.
Generally speaking, BN has an edge over PH in winning GE14. Multi-cornered fights will benefit BN. However, if BN fails, it is because of its own deficiency in strengthening solidarity within itself as well as the absence of workable strategies to win the hearts and minds of the voters.
The Opposition camp is still vulnerable and to a large extent depends on the personal popularity of Tun Mahathir in order to win Kedah. It cannot be denied that Kedah will remain in the national limelight in the clash between BN and PH come GE14.
This article was first published here.
* Prof Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani is professor at the School of International Studies, Universiti Utara Malaysia.
**This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.