Monday, October 1, 2007

Challenge for Barisan

Joceline Tan

Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi will have no problem winning a new mandate but there are a number of “headache states” that he will have to face in the process.

MUSIC was already blaring from the stage by the time Sungai Puyu assemblyman Phee Boon Poh arrived for the Hungry Ghosts festival dinner in Butterworth on Thursday evening.

But the sexy female performers who have become a staple of the Chinese seventh lunar or Hungry Ghosts month had yet to make their appearance.

The Hungry Ghosts festival, or “por tor” as it is known in Penang, is a big thing among the majority Hokkien population.

It is also a big thing for Chinese politicians in the state and arguably the most important month in their calendar.

That evening, DAP's Phee was at the same VIP table with Bagan Jermal assemblyman Ooi Chuan Aik and Deputy Home Minister Datuk Tan Chai Ho, both from the MCA. Tan had travelled up from Kuala Lumpur because the chairman of the organising group is his close friend.

This was a major gathering: there were 120 tables and every local politician and community leader in the area was there.

Tough job: It may be difficult for the Prime Minister to repeat his golden record of 2004 because even his home state Penang will be keenly fought for by the opposition.
“It is better than a ceramah because in Penang these days, you'd be lucky to get more than 300 people at a ceramah,” said Phee, often dubbed “Lone Ranger” because he is the sole DAP assemblyman in the state.

Almost every area or street in Penang has a por tor committee organising the hungry ghosts festival. Penang Island alone has 256 such committees and popular and wealthier politicians often find themselves attending up to five dinners a night.

Apart from dinners, stage shows and offerings of food and prayers to the roaming spirits, these events are to raise funds for a cause decided by the umbrella body, the Teong Guan Association. This year, they aim to raise RM1mil for a Chinese school.

Phee's colleague on the island, Tanjung MP Chow Kon Yeow, will be even busier because his downtown constituency alone has some 60 por tor groups.

“It's tiring but a great way to touch base with constituents and influential community leaders night after night,” said Chow.

These events can be very political and issues of concern to the Chinese are often on the agenda. Last year, some speakers even talked about the controversy sparked off by the intellectual Dr Lim Teck Ghee's report on the NEP and Malay equity.

The political tone at this year's dinners is bound to go up a few notches with the general election expected early next year and with Penang being the frontline state for the opposition DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).

Politicians like Phee even joke that the campaign for the Chinese hearts and minds in Penang has begun.

Much has been made of the Chinese discontent in the build-up to the general election.

Azmin: ‘We aim to give the Barisan a headache in every parliamentary seat’
DAP politicians are tight-lipped about plans for their frontline state but they have been telling supporters on the ground they are going to “capture Penang.”

Penang will be among a number of “headache states” for the Prime Minister when he seeks a fresh mandate.

The state has 40 state seats of which 20 are Chinese-majority seats which are now held by MCA and Gerakan. Another 15 seats are Malay-majority while the remaining five are mixed seats with more or less even numbers of Malays and non-Malays.

The opposition is eyeing the Chinese-majority and mixed seats. The DAP is hoping that the charisma of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim will provide that extra burst of power to bring in the Malay vote.

At this point in time, it seems inconceivable that the opposition can go from one state seat to the 20-plus seats they need to form the government. Besides, the Northern Corridor Economic Region project is bound to provide some feel-good factor among the Penang people.

“It's definitely going to be a challenge for us but people are excited about the NCER, especially the bridge,” said Deputy Information Minister and Bukit Bendera assemblyman Datuk Chia Kwang Chye.

The DAP is said to be working on a scenario that will fire the imagination of Penang voters, like when Lim Kit Siang came to Penang in 1986, took on and defeated Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon.

In 1990, he challenged the maestro himself, Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu. The contest created great interest and it was a dilemma for Penangites to choose between the two Lims – one who built Penang from a backwater to a thriving industrialised state and the other who is seen as a champion of the underdog.

Will Lim Guan Eng, the chief architect of the DAP campaign, be able to come up with something as exciting?

But the biggest headache for Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi continues to be Kelantan.

It has managed to hold on to the state government by a one-seat majority. That alone is testimony to the incorruptibility of its sitting assemblymen.

An opposition wind

The 2004 polls was the golden year for the Barisan Nasional and it is unlikely that Umno can better its performance in Kelantan.

Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat's prestige plunged after PAS came near to losing the state but the Mentri Besar has made a remarkable recovery and seems as invincible as ever.

His blue-eyed boy, state exco member Datuk Husam Musa, has turned the state's finances around. He not only understands how a government is run but he is liked by the Palace, a key factor in the political stability of the state.

Husam is also looking for oomph-factors to get people excited about PAS. He has told friends that he would like to contest in Kepala Batas against Abdullah or in Putrajaya.

Nik Aziz has shot down the Kepala Batas idea but he has been neutral about Husam's interest in Putrajaya.

PAS will hold on to Kelantan barring any unforeseen circumstances.

Sabah and Sarawak will present headaches of a lesser scale for Abdullah.

PKR has identified Sabah as one of its key states. The party is banking on the Sabahans' history of going for change, the “Sabah sentiments” among the Kadazandusuns as well as the internal bickering in the ruling coalition over contracts and posts.

“There is an opposition wind and they can capitalise on protest votes but there is no big wind of change,” said a Sabah professional.

Sarawak will see only a parliamentary election because state polls were held last year.

Chief Minister Tan Sri Taib Mahmud has said that he is still healthy and intends to lead the parliamentary election. Although the DAP has made a song and dance about its chances in Sarawak, there are only about seven Chinese-majority seats that it is looking at and it would be lucky to win three.

Chia: ‘We will do very well but we will lose a few Parliament seats to them’
There was a Chinese backlash during the state polls which cost the Barisan seven state seats. The Chinese were upset about the leasehold expiration on their property, the fuel price increase and they feel that the Sarawak United People's Party (SUPP) has failed to push for Chinese interests.

“As long as the land lease issue is left hanging, it will cost the SUPP. Basically, the Chinese want a party that speaks up for them. They are not really bothered about who will succeed Taib although they are unhappy about his family's businesses,” said a Sarawak academic.

The conventional wisdom is that Abdullah cannot repeat the record performance of the 2004 election.

According to PKR vice-president Azmin Ali, the rallying cry for the opposition, especially in urban seats, will be issues like corruption, good governance and, most of all, economic issues.

Anwar, he said, had just completed the Malay version of the Malaysian Economic Agenda, which will be part of his manifesto for the general election.

“We aim to give the Barisan a headache everywhere,” he claimed.

Well, maybe not everywhere because Johor will remain the Umno bastion while the Barisan in the other states look set to hold their own against the opposition.

“We will do very well in the general election but we will lose a few Parliament seats to them,” said Chia.

Some have suggested that the opposition do what its counterpart did in Singapore, that is, declare victory to the incumbent ruling party on nomination day, then go on to contest the remaining seats.

This would put to rest the fear among voters of a change in national government while enabling the opposition to concentrate limited resources to seats where they have a fighting chance.

But the idea does not appeal to parties like PKR and PAS because they think that Malays are drawn only to parties with big plans and dreams of winning.

Still, even though the opposition parties intend to contest all of the 219 parliamentary seats, they definitely do not have the tsunami-like force of 1999. (The Star, 19/8/2007)


Blogger Templates by 2008