Friday, July 23, 2010

Pas, PKR out to win Felda settlers' votes

These are common scenes these days in many Felda schemes nationwide, where the Malay vote bank resides. Umno has been busy countering its political enemies who, in their quest to gain Malay ground, have declared Felda land schemes political war zones.

The Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) was formed on July 1, 1956, when the Land Development Act came into force. It is administered by a board, which since April 2004 has been under the Prime Minister's Department, overseen by Datuk Seri Najib Razak himself.

Felda's first settlement, comprising 16.2sq km, and focused on rubber, was opened in Ayer Lanas, Kelantan, in 1957. Five similar schemes were opened two years later. In 1961, Felda's first oil palm settlement was opened on 3.75sq km.

Today, there are over 400 Felda land schemes with more than 113,000 settlers nationwide, mostly in Pahang, Johor and Negri Sembilan, making Felda settlers an important political force. They are traditionally Umno supporters and only about 10 per cent of them, says Umno information chief Datuk Ahmad Maslan, support Pas.

Pas supporters in the federal land schemes generally comprise families of Pas members who were granted participation in the schemes when Pas was a component of Barisan Nasional and former Pas president Datuk Mohamad Asri Muda was land and regional development minister.

This also explains why most opposition supporters are in land schemes opened in the 1970s and 1980s.

"(Pas and PKR) are working on the ground but we are not mere bystanders," says Ahmad, who is also a deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Department. "Our programmes and activities are ongoing, supported by non-governmental organisations friendly to us."

However, Ahmad's figures are disputed by both Pas secretary-general Datuk Mustafa Ali and central committee member Mazlan Aliman. Mustafa thinks 10 per cent is too low, as Pas has secured more votes in Felda areas than before. Mazlan, the man behind Pas-linked Persatuan Anak-Anak Felda, or "Anak", and the son of a settler in Felda Bukit Ramon in Pulai, Johor, contended that Pas has as much as 25 to 30 per cent support in some Felda schemes.

Felda settlers backed BN in the last general election, resulting in Pakatan Rakyat's defeat in the rural, Malay-majority constituencies where most Felda settlements are located.

Since then, Pas and PKR have intensified efforts to win Felda votes with their ceramah and recruitment drives, trying to make inroads if not wrest control of the 54 parliamentary and 92 state constituencies that cover Felda land schemes.

"We have two million people who are involved in Felda, either as settlers or workers, and about 1.2 million are voters," said Ahmad. "It's a big number."

Mustafa admits that Pakatan Rakyat still has a long way to go. "There are still areas we cannot penetrate. Felda is Umno's last bastion. The party will fight hard to retain control."

He is, however, confident of Pas gaining ground before the next national polls because of its aggressive campaigning.

Pas' analysis of past elections suggest that the main factor for its defeat in many Felda areas was its inability to get its message across, either for lack of effort on its part or because Umno was too strong in these areas.

If Pas has Anak to help champion its cause, Umno has several non-governmental organisations, such as Gabungan Wawasan Generasi Felda (GWGF) and Majlis Belia Felda Malaysia (MBFM), on its side.

MBFM has been very active in all 54 parliamentary constituencies covering Felda settlements since the last general election. It boasts of about 100,000 members and organises mostly social and sports programmes.

PKR, through a special bureau on Felda, has been organising meetings with settlers and forming party branches to attract more Malays to the multiracial party.

A Pas official says the party will work hard to gain more ground in Felda schemes, since it has announced plans to gain ground in Umno strongholds by contesting 40 parliamentary seats in rural areas in the next general election -- especially those covering federal land schemes in Pahang, Johor, Perak and Terengganu.

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